The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man’s Fight for Justice and Freedom in China
by chen guangcheng
henry holt, 352 pages, $30

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nnihilating a civilization that has withstood more famines, invasions, peasant revolts, civil wars, and tyrants than historians can keep straight takes work. It can’t be done in a day. Monuments and temples come down quickly enough with fire and axe, dynamite and sledgehammer (just ask our friends in the Middle East), but the essence of a people—the hope in their eyes, the tales of ancient heroes, the trust of their neighbors—that takes time to root out. Time, and concerted effort. Unfortunately, as the autobiography of Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng meticulously documents, it is the sort of effort that the Chinese Communist party is quite willing to make.

Chen was blind from early childhood, illiterate until early adulthood, and raised in crushing rural poverty. Lacking any formal legal training, he was nevertheless able, through an excellent memory and sheer doggedness, to become the regional legal expert. He was a “barefoot lawyer,” like the “barefoot doctors” of the Cultural Revolution who had minimal training and were sent out to villages. Unlike them, he was willing to champion the rural poor against the state’s brutal violations of their persons and property.

What brought Chen to national prominence, and the attention of the authorities, was his opposition to the Yinan County Family Planning Commission, which in 2005 attacked Chen’s village along with several others. Officials brought truckloads of thugs to brutalize the populace with little concern for whether their targets had truly “overbirthed” or were merely the victims of rumor and local grudge. Chen relays this story in much the same way he did to the Chinese public: first with statistics that are numbing in their immensity, then with story after individual story. He tells us of men and women beaten and tortured for days until they revealed the locations of their pregnant neighbors, of pregnant women abducted in the middle of the night and injected with toxins to cause miscarriage or premature labor, of relatives kidnapped and beaten until a woman turned herself in, of terrified doctors compelled to sterilize countless men and women, of newborn babies strangled or drowned at birth in the hospital, of homes demolished and livestock killed when victims were unable to pay “fines,” and on and on.

This was already known. What makes Chen’s account distinctive is his awareness of how the horror is precisely calculated to undermine the rural poor’s attempts at economic independence, grassroots democracy, and mutual aid. It is not enough that the villagers suffer the murder of their children; they must also be made to hate and mistrust one another. To this end, the campaign is quick to offer Faustian bargains (“denounce your neighbor, and we will spare you for now”), and quicker still to welcome collaborators to its banners—banners that are the stuff of nightmares. “Better a river of blood than one more person,” reads one. Another, painted in the gold-on-red customarily used for good-luck messages at New Year’s, screams: “Beat it out! Abort it out! Drag it out! Above all, do not give birth!”

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uch episodes are not merely the excesses of rapacious provincial officials, conducted without the authorization of the central government (though there is an element of that—“the mountains are high and the emperor is far,” as the old saying goes). They are rather an integral part of the Communist party’s war against any competing form of solidarity or authority. The earliest parts of the book, covering Chen’s childhood and the lives of his parents, are full of man-made famines, the collectivization of farmland and the consequent reduction of free peasants to serfdom, the beating and execution of peasants who dare to grow food in their own plots, and communal kitchens where the pliant are rewarded with food while the politically unfavored are made to choose which of their children will go hungry. In a recently translated essay, dissident and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo described the effects of an earlier terror:

People . . . scramble to sell their souls: hate your spouse, denounce your father, betray your friend, pile on a helpless victim, say anything to remain “correct.” The blunt, unreasoning bludgeons of Mao’s political campaigns, which arrived in an unending parade, eventually demolished even the most commonplace of ethical notions in Chinese life.

In the more recent family-planning campaigns, the methods may have changed, but the aim has not. As Chen puts it, “the Cultural Revolution has never ended—it has simply metastasized.” The latest terror is particularly useful to the state because it attacks the large family, the bedrock of economic and social resilience in a subsistence farming society. Indeed, Chen’s own eventual literacy was made possible only by the generous donations of brothers (he is the youngest of six children), uncles, aunts, cousins, and others (all of whom are meticulously recorded in his bulletproof memory, and thanked in turn in this memoir). Two of the most affecting episodes, Chen’s wedding day and his father’s funeral, are communal endeavors enabled by the cooperation of a large extended clan and the tight-knit village around them. How will the next generation’s Chen Guangcheng afford to study in the city? Who will he turn to in a moment of sudden economic need? How will he find consolation in the few rites and forms to have escaped obliteration in the 1960s? In the wake of the one-child policy, a dreadful uncertainty hangs in the air of the village. Indeed, that is the one-child policy’s purpose.

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he engineered precariousness of Chinese rural life reveals the lie in the Communist party’s claim to be the guarantor of stability. In fact, stability terrifies the party, for a stable society could muster a challenge to its authority, and so tremendous energy is invested in keeping the populace off balance with an “unending parade” of political campaigns. The party’s second great lie is that it restored probity and “Confucian values” to the administration, and it is on this score that Chen discovers his means of rebellion: Nearly everything done by agents of the Chinese state is illegal under Chinese law. The actions of the family-planning officials violate not only the Chinese constitution and the party-promulgated criminal law, Chen notes, but the very Population and Family Planning Law itself.

And so it is that Chen begins to defy the state, simply by taking the law seriously. The image of the blind peasant quoting paragraph after paragraph of case law to a succession of stupefied officials is one of the few humorous moments in this grim book. In fact, his rebellion is delightfully—dare we say it?—Confucian. The Sage was once asked what his first action would be if a king were to put him in charge of a territory. “I would rectify the names,” he replied—that is, call things as they truly are. This is precisely Chen’s path, culminating in a class-action lawsuit against the provincial government. An act of civil obedience! And it results, predictably, in his kidnapping and imprisonment. Even his jailing is not without its irony: Outside his hellish pretrial dungeon is a sign listing the categories of person whom it is unlawful to confine in the facility. Second on the list: “blind people.”

Another great lie the party tells is that it defends the interests of the collective over the narrow interests of individuals and that it does so in keeping with Chinese tradition. Criticizing the current order is therefore, in the party’s view, unjustifiable, individualism. Indeed, this is the tack taken by several of Chen’s interrogators, who demand that he drop his “selfish” demands for justice. The premise of this claim is preposterous. While traditional Chinese social and political thought does indeed emphasize the good of the polity (much like traditional Western thought), that has never implied a moral imperative to submit to a system of evil “for the good of the many.” One wishes that Chen had thrown back in his tormentors’ faces the words of Sima Qian, grand ­historian of the Han court and one of the greatest of the Confucian ­scholar-gentlemen: “Better than the assent of the crowd, the dissent of one brave man.”

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n the latter part of Chen’s book, the Chinese countryside takes on an increasingly postapocalyptic character. Rural electrification brings television and radio and, soon after, surveillance cameras and searchlights. A paper mill is constructed a few miles from Chen’s house and promptly turns the local river to poison. Society is emptied, then refilled by the state—literally, in the case of Chen’s home during his house arrest. Thugs smash or cart off most of his possessions and replace them with men hired by the police to lurk in his house, sit on his bed, perch on his table, and stare at him all day and all night. Even a blind man can feel the weight of those stares. It is difficult to find a more perfect metonym for the Chinese state.

On the anniversary of the Chen’s father's death, thugs disrupt the ancient rites, the power of the offense has lingered, but only like an angry ghost. And yet the gods have at least one more trick to play: Searching for a way to improve the prospects of their preposterous escape plan, Chen’s wife, a staunch atheist, scours the pages of her lunar calendar to find the most auspicious day for the attempt. Against all possible odds, a blind man with a broken foot evades the guards who have turned his village into a prison. The woman in the next village who hides him in her barn turns out to be a relative of someone he defended. She sends him to a friend with a truck, who takes him to a cousin, and step by precarious step—always aided by the tattered remnants of Chinese civil society—Chen makes his way to the U.S. embassy in Beijing.

What lingers in the mind as the book comes to an end is a proverb Chen shouts at his persecutors that translates as: “If heaven does wrong, it may yet be forgiven, but when people do wrong, heaven will surely ­destroy them!” Let us hope heaven acts soon.

William Wilson is a software engineer in the San Francisco Bay Area.