The Barefoot Lawyer by Chen Guangcheng review – a story of imprisonment, escape and tenacity

For a decade, Chen Guangcheng – a blind, self-taught lawyer from northeast China – has been an icon of Chinese resistance to the state. In 2005, he brought a groundbreaking lawsuit against his local government in Shandong, for their savage and illegal enforcement of the one-child policy. In retaliation, party officials kidnapped him and sentenced him to more than four years in prison. After his official release, he and his family (including his young daughter) were kept under house arrest and periodically brutalised by party officials and their thugs for another 19 months, during which time Chen became the beleaguered figurehead for the Chinese weiquan (civil rights) movement. In 2011, Chinese citizen-activists began expressing their support for Chen by printing T-shirts bearing his face or by posting pictures of themselves on the internet wearing sunglasses, in imitation of Chen’s own trademark spectacles. Chinese and foreign journalists and celebrities who tried to show their solidarity by visiting Chen’s village were hustled away, sometimes violently, by the party’s goons.

Detention came to an end only with Chen’s dramatic escape in April 2012. Despite breaking his foot descending a wall, he managed to drag himself under cover of darkness to a nearby village, from which he was secretly taken to the relative safety of Beijing. After a car chase involving the Chinese security service, he was given shelter by the American embassy. From there, he negotiated his and his family’s safe passage to the United States.


Chen has barely paused for breath since arriving in the US: studying law at New York University, giving interviews and lectures as well as producing this fascinating volume of memoirs in English. The book is vital reading for those hoping to understand the struggles of China’s disabled people to gain fair treatment, the party’s continuing stranglehold on the implementation of the law, and the pressures and compromises involved in human rights negotiations in China.

Chen’s extraordinary tenacity is the keynote of the book. He was born in 1971, midway through the Cultural Revolution. In the 1970s, starry-eyed western admirers of Mao made much of the way in which essential medicine was taken to China’s rural masses by “barefoot doctors” trained in basic medical skills. The reality was less utopian. When the five-month-old Chen, fully sighted at birth, developed a mysterious high fever, there was no money to get him the treatment he needed; within two days, the illness had taken his sight. Two years previously, Chen’s older sister had died after seven days of sickness. Chen and his four surviving brothers grew up thin and hungry.

Chen’s sightlessness intensified his difficulties. “People with disabilities,” he recalled, “were considered intrinsically lacking; they were thought of as not whole, not even fully human.” While his friends began school at six or seven, Chen was barred from education because of his blindness. But thanks to the support of his parents, he was enrolled at 17 in a school for the blind, where he learned to use braille. A fast learner, he accelerated through the grades over the course of eight years to reach university, where he studied Chinese medicine and massage. Though warmly appreciative of the financial sacrifices his family made to send him to school, Chen was never meekly grateful to China’s educational system. Ever the activist, at his first school he was elected student representative and petitioned the school authorities for basic rights – access to running water, freedom of movement. He was precociously alert to the power of the media to expose injustice: in the 1990s, he and his classmates called a radio phone-in programme to complain about a physically abusive teacher.

On graduating from college, Chen abandoned medicine and returned to his village to become a “barefoot lawyer”: defending ordinary people against the depredations of local functionaries. Since China emerged post-Mao from the anarchy of the Cultural Revolution, its government has claimed to re-establish stability and authority through “rule of law”. Yet the heritage of the Mao era – during which the law served as a tool of party authority – has remained resilient. Early in Chen’s career as an autodidact lawyer, a cynical acquaintance told him that “China has no law. The legal system is under the control of the administrative branch of government, which answers to the party.” When Chen was sentenced to prison for his legal fight against one-child policy abuses, his judge admitted to him that “everyone knew my case was a fraud but there was nothing he could do about it … the court had to listen to party orders”. Chen believes that in China “the Cultural Revolution has never ended – it has simply metastasised” into other campaigns designed to terrify the populace into submission to the party. One official declared in 2010 that the party viewed Chen as a “counterrevolutionary” – an old Maoist designation that, between the 1950s and 70s, usually ended in death for the individual concerned.

The book movingly describes a growing consciousness of legal rights in rural China. Chen’s aim, he writes, was to give “ordinary people a nonviolent outlet for pursuing and resolving their grievances; we tried to make the rule of law a reality in a country that lacks it, under a party that disingenuously claims to embrace it … I wanted to instruct my fellow farmers and peasants and the disabled about what should be available to them, and to encourage them to advocate for themselves and for their rights”. Chen’s important work rebuts the cliche, often trotted out by its intellectual and political elites, that China’s rural masses are incapable of understanding the concepts of democracy or rule of law. Quite the contrary: the individuals Chen describes helping have an acute grasp of the benefits of political and legal transparency, for the toothlessness of the law in China today leaves them too often at the mercy of rapacious party officials.

The book contains shocking details about the horrors of the Chinese penal system: the “black jails” into which critics of the Chinese state can disappear for months on end; the overcrowding, violence, exploitation and maltreatment rife within prisons; the arbitrary terror that servants of the party can unleash on those designated “counter-revolutionaries”. In early 2011, for example, after Chen smuggled on to the internet a video describing his illegal detention, the party dispatched a gang of policemen to beat him and his wife, and to strip the house bare of their few possessions. “We don’t care about the law – we can do whatever we want,” one security officer told him. “We’re here on party orders,” another revealed. “You’re just like the SS, then,” Chen replied, with characteristic courage.

Yet Chen also writes bitterly of his experiences after taking refuge in the US embassy in Beijing. Having once idolised the United States as a global policeman of human rights, he alleges that American officials too easily submitted to Chinese government pressure while negotiating for his safety for fear of damaging relations between the US and China. The failure of the Americans to fight for his and his family’s personal safety within China, Chen accuses, left them no option but to leave their country of birth.

Since vocal dissident groups emerged in mainland China in the late 1980s, the government of the People’s Republic has found an effective way of minimising their impact: driving them into exile abroad, where former activists grow increasingly isolated from the Chinese communities whom they want to reach. Hopefully, Chen’s exceptional energy, determination and talent for publicising his causes will enable him to avoid a similar fate.