In early 2012, Chen Guangcheng, a self-taught lawyer who had been blind since infancy, lived with his wife and two children in the village of Dongshigu, where he’d been raised, on the eastern edge of the North China plain. They were not there by choice. For a little over a decade, Chen had waged a public campaign against corruption, pollution, forced abortion, and other abuses of power. Officials had responded with escalating punishments. After he completed a four-year jail sentence on a charge of “obstructing traffic,” Chen and his family were confined to his ancestral home in a form of undeclared and indefinite house arrest. The local government covered the windows with metal sheeting and stationed guards around the building. Phones, computers, and televisions were forbidden. When one of Chen’s brothers died, Chen was permitted to send only his seven-year-old daughter to mourn him. To send back a message, another brother resorted to whispering to the daughter while they knelt beside the grave.
In early 2011 Chen and his wife, Yuan Weijing, made a video pleading for help that was smuggled out of China; afterward, guards beat Yuan, breaking her ribs. A year later, when guards roughed up his mother, who was seventy-seven, Chen reached a decision—“my anger congealed into a kind of desperate resolve,” he writes in The Barefoot Lawyer, a fierce memoir of rural life and dissent. “I would escape, or try to escape, and I would do it soon.” The architect of his jailbreak would be his wife. For weeks, she visited their roof, pretending to be drying corn or hanging laundry; she was mapping out each footstep that he would take to climb into an adjoining yard. She cleared the leaves that would crackle underfoot, she counted the walls that he would scale, and she monitored the habits of the guards. Finally, she studied the lunar calendar for a chengri—an auspicious day: April 20.
At night the village was too quiet for an escape; Chen could hear the beeping of the guards’ cell phones as they played games. So he departed in daylight: over the roof, creeping from backyard to backyard, hiding for hours in a goat pen while his wife and daughter carried on a charade of normalcy. For nearly four decades, Chen had navigated his way in the village without sight, using, as he puts it, “the patterns of sounds, the mix of smells, the organization of space.” He could estimate the time by noting which village roosters cried at which hour of the day. He had a system for avoiding obstacles without use of a cane:
By making just the slightest shhhh sound, no louder than a light wind in a pine tree, I could determine from the returning sound waves what was in front of me, whether large object or wall, forest or field.
Chen’s book includes occasional italicized passages written from his wife’s perspective, and the portrait emerges of a full and formidable partner in Chen’s life. Of her husband’s escape, she writes:
I usually don’t believe in luck or God or any higher power, but on that day I believed in anything that might help us. As the afternoon went on, I returned to the kitchen several times to pray to the image of the Kitchen God on the wall.
By the following evening, Chen was out of his village and en route to Beijing, where he sought refuge in the US embassy, setting off one of the most unusual crises in diplomatic history. He and his family later settled in America.
I lived in China from 2005 to 2013 and watched Chen emerge as an activist. We spoke occasionally by phone and I wrote about his activities. For all of his audacity, and the sheer physical improbability of his story, I always regarded his experience as that of an outlier, with limited lessons for understanding China’s future. But The Barefoot Lawyer compels us to consider an alternative reading. The details of how, exactly, a man who might never have left the village of his birth came to see the need to confront the Chinese state says much about him but no less about his country. Chen may turn out to be less of an aberration in the political forces shaping modern China than an embodiment of them.
When Chen was born in November 1971, his family was very poor, which is to say, no more or less poor than their neighbors in rural Shandong province. His father’s family had survived the famine following the Great Leap Forward, partly by eating bark and grass. Chen, the youngest of five sons, was known as Little Five. (As a teenager, he chose the given name Cheng, meaning “sincere.”) When he was five months old he developed a fever but the family lacked the two yuan needed to visit a hospital. The Cultural Revolution was raging and China’s economy was a wreck. After the infant cried non-stop for two days, his mother found blue masses on his eyes. “Sometimes I like to say that I was blinded by communism—or, more specifically, a wave of unrealistic, empty propaganda that swept the country continually for decades,” Chen writes. For years, the family searched for a diagnosis or a treatment—one doctor said it was keratitis, another said glaucoma—but they never found an answer.
The Barefoot Lawyer opens with a brisk account of Chen’s escape and then goes back in time to describe his path to activism. For many reasons, it was not an easy book to produce. In conversation, Chen, who speaks little English, makes esoteric references to Chinese literature and philosophy. For this project he had the help of collaborators, including his wife, their translator, their editor, and two unnamed writers, and the result is a highly readable and disciplined narrative of a life unto itself. He goes a long way toward answering the questions that have puzzled many who have followed the story of Chen’s life: Why did he take the risk? How did he come to believe that he should, and could, be a legal activist? What, in the end, was he seeking?
In Chen’s telling, his politics emerged from a combustible mix of deprivation and opportunity. Chen’s parents, like many in their generation in China, wanted nothing to do with questioning the policies of the Communist Party. They had barely survived Mao’s campaigns, and they were desperate to live quietly, with as much prosperity as fate would allow. Chen grew up under different circumstances. In the late 1970s, after the Cultural Revolution, China turned its focus to economic development, and Chen’s generation grew up largely spared the cycles of mass mania that had traumatized his parents. His brothers didn’t seem to mind that he couldn’t see, and they enlisted him in village mischief: trapping animals, climbing trees, building dangerous toys and tools. When he was fourteen, he made a pistol out of bicycle parts and gunpowder, and accidentally shot himself in the leg.
If adventure gave Chen confidence that his body was not destiny, another theme—cruelty—stirred in him a sense of righteous anger. When other children entertained themselves by hitting him and running away, he writes about one of them, “I waited for the kid to strike again; when I heard him coming, I would grab him and throttle him back.” He did not blame the children; he blamed the adults who did not intervene. As he puts it, “these people seemed unconcerned with how I might feel and saw no problem with the way I was treated.” When the village acquired its first television, he squeezed into the crowd to experience it, and others said that his seat should go to a person who could see. “But this was blatant prejudice,” he writes, “and at the time I had no way of entering into a dialogue with people about it. The only thing I knew to do was to remain silent.”
Several of the most revealing sections of The Barefoot Lawyer are offhand observations about life with a disability in a rural village. At one point during his escape, Chen made sure to avoid being spotted by a neighbor’s mentally ill son who lived behind bars in a nearby yard. “He had been locked up that way for as long as I could remember, and he bayed from morning until night for his mother,” Chen writes, with a bluntness that suggests not a lack of sympathy, but a sense that life is cruel.
As he became older, his blindness not only limited his prospects but also became the source of an alternative understanding of the world. He was not allowed to attend the local school, so his father read to him from China’s classics—full of heroic bandits, noble sages, and unjust rulers. “Though I lacked the conventional education of my peers, I also avoided the propaganda,” Chen writes. For centuries, China had relied on rituals, models, and institutions to control wayward ideas, a process that the philosopher Xunzi, in the third century BC, compared to steam and pressure straightening a warped slab of wood. But Chen was excluded from many activities, so instead of the Party-approved curriculum, “my father’s tales became my foundational texts in everything from morality to history and literature.” Later, he received a radio, which exposed him to a vast range of programming—including uncensored reports from Hong Kong and Taiwan—that his peers rarely encountered.
When he was eighteen, Chen was finally allowed to go to school; he learned braille and emerged as an inveterate reformer. In his first year, he became a student representative and pushed administrators to provide more water to the dormitories for showers; he went on to demand the right to leave campus independently, and more funding for the music program. Outside of school, he developed an interest in the law and forced bus companies to observe rules allowing the disabled to ride for free. His activism sprang not from an abstract political agenda but from his certainty that life should be better. When a factory polluted the river near his village, Chen organized the installation of a safe water supply. The mayor urged Chen to speak, and he offered a single sentence: “I hope we can all achieve a better standard of living!”
In the next decade, however, Chen’s activism carried him beyond an amicable relationship with his government. He launched a much-publicized campaign to stop local officials from conducting forced abortions and sterilizations under the one-child policy. His motivation was partly personal: “Both my brother and his wife were forcibly sterilized,” he writes, and Chen and his wife were expecting a second child. The fear that they, too, might be assaulted radicalized him. Chinese law allowed self-taught “barefoot lawyers” to bring cases before the courts, and Chen filed class-action lawsuits that attracted growing concern from the Communist Party, which is acutely wary of organized political action. He writes, “I had no degree or law license to take away and, thus, had less to fear—or so I thought.”
One of the most distinctive features of Chen’s life as a dissident is poverty. Many of China’s most prominent political critics came from comfortable or elite backgrounds: the artist Ai Weiwei is the son of Ai Qing, one of the Communist Party’s most celebrated poets, and the artist also credited his unorthodox thinking, in part, to a decade that he spent going to galleries in Manhattan; the blogger Han Han grew up on the outskirts of Shanghai, with middle-class motivations—the pursuit of girls, sports cars, and fame—which helps explain his success, because others could see themselves in him.
Chen, by contrast, was not raised to see himself as a man of history. He reached that conclusion on his own, a fact that suggests an answer to one of the puzzles about Chen’s ordeal: Why did the Communist Party, the world’s most expansive and powerful political organization, sacrifice so much of its international image in order to silence one cantankerous and blind lawyer in a village? Or, for that matter, why bother to jail the writer Liu Xiaobo, who won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, sentencing him to serve eleven years for “incitement to subvert state power”? Outsiders often presume that such actions are about foreign relations—that the Party, in effect, calculates that the embarrassment it will suffer abroad, by allowing these figures to publish and protest at will, is greater than any further harm done to its reputation by adding another name or two to the list of political prisoners around the world.
But it’s becoming clear that the Party sees Chen, and others like him, as a more fundamental threat. Though Chinese leaders talk about pursuing “soft power” and have invested in public relations efforts, including funding Confucius Institutes and ads on billboards in Times Square, the Party’s broader actions indicate that it now worries less about its image abroad than about its survival at home. During the last fifteen years, Chinese leaders have denounced the “color revolutions” that swept through Eastern Europe and the tides of unrest in Tibet in 2008, in Xinjiang in 2009, and in Hong Kong in 2014. They are especially wary of the combination of dramatic personal stories and new technology. In Egypt, online videos about a twenty-eight-year-old man who was beaten to death by police alerted Egyptians to human rights organizations’ campaigns against police abuse, setting off demonstrations that eventually undermined the government.
One of the most common mistakes that outside observers make about China is assuming that ordinary Chinese people remain so focused on earning a living, so relieved to be free of Mao’s campaigns, that they have no desire to involve themselves in political questions. This was true enough a decade ago. But in today’s countryside, away from new skylines and new infrastructure, conversations almost inevitably turn to the frustration over corruption, petty tyranny, and the unfair distribution of opportunity. To presume that the Chinese people are as mesmerized by their nation’s economic transformation as foreigners are is to misjudge the mood as thoroughly as people misjudged Chen Guangcheng’s conception of an adequate life. A local official once visited him under house arrest, and Chen explained the violations of his rights, to which the official responded: “But you can’t see anyway…. As long as people give you enough to eat, what do you want with going out and doing things?”
The disconnect between Chen’s expectations of life and what others imagined for him is at the core of the final, and most surprising, dispute in his story. After he escaped to Beijing, the US embassy agreed to shelter him as a matter of humanitarian concern. Inside the American compound, Chen was grateful for medical attention—he had broken his foot during his escape—and the assurances of support. In jail and house arrest, his treatment had often improved when outsiders expressed concern about his case. (“Little do foreigners know how much impact they can have when they exert some of their influence,” he writes.) But he had inadvertently entered the embassy at a moment that worked against him. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was about to arrive in Beijing for high-level strategic and economic talks, and both sides worried that the drama around Chen’s case would damage relations between the US and China.
For days, American and Chinese officials negotiated a plan for Chen’s future. They reached a deal that would remove him and his family from house arrest and allow him to study at a Chinese university, and then at New York University’s Shanghai campus. But Chen was dispirited; he believed the Americans were naive to trust those terms and, worse, eager to see him leave the embassy. “They kept encouraging me, as if I were a child, to see just how beneficial the Chinese terms were,” he writes, adding, “I wondered if the Americans fully understood the power Chinese officials have over ordinary citizens.” Some of Chen’s expectations were grandiose—“I had requested numerous times to meet with China’s top leaders, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao,” he recalls—but ultimately his suspicion of the deal was justified: hours after Chen agreed to be moved to a Chinese hospital, authorities barred diplomats and journalists from reaching him. The US ultimately scrapped the deal and arranged for him and his family to move to America.
The strength of The Barefoot Lawyer, its intimate account of his feelings over the years, is also its limitation. Chen does not claim to offer a portrait of China but the sketch that emerges from his ordeal could be misread, in isolation, as a descendant of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, which conveyed the image of Soviet brutality and decay. China today is not the Soviet Union; it is defined by duality, by the tension between growth and modernization on the one hand, and, on the other, corruption and injustice. In that sense, Chen’s work has more in common with The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s novel of American industrialization, published in 1906, which exposed the exploitation of workers and the corruption of institutions.
Because Chen’s book focuses so closely and effectively on his story, it leaves one curious about the people he encounters on the Party’s side. There are intriguing glimpses of sympathetic guards and officials; in a remarkable scene, the judge who sent Chen to prison on ludicrous charges visits him behind bars and says, “I personally was not against you, but there was nothing I could do.” Chen writes, “I asked him why in the world he had given me such an inflated sentence; he replied by reminding me that the court had to listen to party orders.”
Whose orders? Was Chen’s ordeal dictated by Beijing, as he suspects, or was it a ham-fisted improvisation by provincial and local leaders? After Chen’s escape, were police truly unable to stop him from reaching US diplomats? Or, as some have speculated, did one faction of the Party hesitate to stop him in order to embarrass a rival faction? For the moment, the mysteries remain. China today has the world’s most extensive surveillance apparatus, but there is as yet no Chinese heir to The Lives of Others, the artful 2006 German film about a Stasi agent’s motives and anxieties. Those in power in China today have a case to make, a rationale, a balancing of needs, but they seclude themselves within the propaganda system, out of reach of journalists and the public, so their thinking remains unreal to us.
The Barefoot Lawyer ends on May 19, 2012, the day that Chen and his family reached the United States for an academic fellowship at NYU. Since then, Chen has faced additional dramas. After more than a year at NYU, he accused the university of forcing him out under pressure from Beijing, which the school denied. In search of a new home, he accepted fellowships from conservative Christian activists who had backed him because of his work against forced abortion. In an effort to maintain political harmony, he also became an adviser to the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, a liberal organization. Like other Chinese exiles before him—Liu Binyan, Fang Lizhi, Wei Jingsheng—Chen faces a harder question than simply his partisan affiliation. How will he remain relevant outside his country?
Reading his story today, one is struck by the fact that the Chinese government is not relaxing its grip over activists like him; it is tightening up. Several of the people he mentions—including his lawyer Xu Zhiyong and Guo Yushan, an NGO organizer who helped him to travel secretly from the village to Beijing—are now in jail, as part of a sweeping crackdown on dissent that human rights advocates consider the most severe in two decades. From afar, it is impossible not to wonder why anyone takes the risks that Chen and so many others accept in pursuit of greater rights and legal protections. But Chen sees it differently. Like others of his generation, and those that will follow, he came of age in a country of rising expectations and individual awareness of repression. His parents saw no choice but to “eat bitterness,” as the old Chinese expression puts it. But Chen never learned to suffer in silence. “I had always argued that there’s nothing in the world that can’t be changed,” he writes. “If you believe otherwise, I held, either you’re not working hard enough or you haven’t yet found the right tool.”