- - Sunday, May 17, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE BAREFOOT LAWYER: A BLIND MAN’S FIGHT FOR JUSTICE AND FREEDOM IN CHINA

By Chen Guangcheng

Henry Holt, $30, 330 pages)

I have followed China’s brutal one-child policy from its inception in 1979. Living in China at the time, I saw how poor village women were being arrested, detained and tortured — forced to undergo sterilizations and even abortions — all in the name of controlling population growth. I left China with their cries for help ringing in my ears.

So when I read in 2005 that a blind lawyer by the name of Chen Guangcheng was attempting to seek justice for thousands of victims of this ongoing campaign, I sat up and took notice. I didn’t think his class-action suit would get very far in the Chinese Communist Party’s make-believe courts, but I admired his courage for trying.

As it happened, the party soon grew tired of Mr. Chen’s attempts to file a lawsuit, ordered the court to refuse to hear it, and had him arrested on trumped-up charges. After a farcical trial, he was sentenced to seven years in prison. Even the presiding “judge” (really just a party official by another name) later privately apologized to Mr. Chen for this miscarriage of justice, explaining that he had no choice but to follow party orders.

Mr. Chen spent the next four years in prison, until foreign criticism prompted the party to move him back to his home in an impoverished Shandong village. Beijing claimed that Mr. Chen was there under “house arrest,” but, in fact, his entire village of 500 people was turned into an armed camp. Literally hundreds of plainclothes policemen were assigned to watch him and his family around the clock to isolate him from the outside world. Mr. Chen wryly notes that the party created an entire “miniature security economy,” spending millions of yuan just to keep him under lock and key.

And they failed. Despite being surrounded by a small army of thugs, despite being weak from malnutrition and mistreatment, and despite being totally blind, Mr. Chen managed to escape. Sometimes walking, sometimes crawling, relying upon sounds and smells and sometimes, remarkably, on “a kind of bat-like echolocation,” he made his way to a neighboring village and from there to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

After welcoming the famous dissident with open arms, senior State Department officials — apparently on orders from Washington — soon began pressuring him to leave the embassy. Hillary Clinton was due in Beijing for a summit meeting, and Mr. Chen had become an obstacle to the coming negotiations. He was taken to a state-run hospital for medical treatment where, despite promises from U.S. officials that they would stay with him, he found himself again isolated and alone, surrounded by Chinese guards.

Mr. Chen realized that his only hope now was to leave China. But unable to receive visitors and with his cellphone working erratically, how could he announce this to the world?

Back in Washington, Rep. Christopher Smith, New Jersey Republican, had called an emergency hearing of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China specifically to discuss Mr. Chen’s plight. The congressman called the hearing to order, then dialed Mr. Chen’s cellphone number — it was the middle of the night in China — and Mr. Chen answered. “I don’t feel safe in China and want to go to the United States,” he declared. His request for asylum was broadcast by the U.S. media, and won immediate congressional and public support. China’s leaders were furious, but they agreed to allow Mr. Chen, along with his wife and two children, to leave the country.

Hillary Clinton was later to claim that Mr. Chen’s release was a major accomplishment of her time as secretary of state. She devotes an entire chapter of her book, “Hard Choices” (2014), to the episode, using it to highlight her “defense of universal human rights.” She claims that she and her subordinates always tried to do what Mr. Chen said he wanted, but that he was “unpredictable and quixotic.”

Not according to Mr. Chen. He asserts that it was pressure from U.S. officials that forced him out of the safety of the U.S. embassy. And his release was due to “pressure from Congress and the American public,” not the intervention of the U.S. secretary of state.

Chen Guangcheng is one of the most remarkable personalities modern China has ever produced. In a land where the blind are regarded as family embarrassments and kept out of sight, he learned how to read and taught himself the law. Even though he was only an unlicensed “barefoot lawyer,” he successfully exposed local corruption, raised funds to build a village well, and won a lawsuit to protect handicapped villagers from being taxed unfairly. Then he attempted to take on abuses in the one-child policy, and brought the wrath of the party-state down on his head.

One of the most chilling scenes in the book — among many — comes when Mr. Chen is kidnapped and beaten by party thugs. So that he will understand what is happening, one of them turns on a tape recording: “Only through continuous armed struggle will the proletariat and the party be victorious, and will the revolution be successful!”

If you want to understand what life is like inside the thuggish regime that dreams of ruling the world, read “The Barefoot Lawyer.” “The Cultural Revolution has never ended,” notes Mr. Chen, “it has simply metastasized.”

Steven W. Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute, is the author of “A Mother’s Ordeal: One Woman’s Fight Against China’s One-Child Policy.”


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