You already know the labels: the blind “barefoot” lawyer, the illegal house arrest, etc. Over the past days and weeks, I have come across writings about Chen Guangcheng, by journalists who covered him and by legal professionals who worked and became close friends with him, that have made deep impressions on me. Today and tomorrow I will share some of them with our audience here. –Yaxue
To say life didn’t start promisingly for him is a vast understatement. He was born on November 12, 1971, in the impoverished village Dong Shi Gu (东师古) in Yinan County, Shandong province, the youngest of five boys. He lost his vision to high fever when he was around one year old. He didn’t go to school until 18 years old. In the Chinese countryside, where living is at its barest, expectations are a rare commodity to begin with, and for the disabled, there are none. For most of the part, they are seen and treated as a family scourge that must be borne.
A Naughty Boy
Despite blindness, he told friends he had a happy childhood. His father read to him centuries-old Chinese classics such as Outlaws of the Marsh (《水浒》) and The Three Kingdoms (《三国演义》). He helped his parents in the field. Of the two popular boys’ sports, snatching eggs out of bird nests and catching fish in the river, he exceled in both, using his hearing as guide. “I couldn’t see fish, but I knew where fish were and under what rock they liked to stay.”
Being blind, sometimes he got picked on. He couldn’t catch the offender, but he could remember his voice. Next time he heard it again, he would grab him and teach him a lesson.
He grew up to be a young man who liked to talk and liked to laugh, who was tall, strong and, by all standards, handsome.
At 18 years old in 1989, he entered Linyi Elementary School for the Blind. From 1994 to 1998, he attended the School for the Blind in Qingdao (青岛), Shandong. From 1998 to 2001, he studied in Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine. At the time China had only two universities that accepted blind students, and, nationwide, only 40-50 blind people were admitted each year, all studying Chinese medicine and massage, the only subject deemed suitable for them. Still, he was one the luckiest to have gone that far in life.
Fighting Rights for the Disabled as well as the Non-disabled
His first fight was a fight for himself. China has a law called the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Disabled Persons, first promulgated in 1990, stipulating that “People’s governments at county and township levels shall, in line with the actual conditions, reduce or exempt disabled persons in rural areas from obligatory labor, public utilities fees and other social obligations.” When his father read the law to him, he was very excited that he would be less a burden to the family.
But a few years passed, and he was paying more taxes and fees, not less. In 1996, his annual payment for total 8 different taxes and fees was as high as 368 yuan when his annual income from the land was about 500 yuan. He refused to pay, and the local government recorded his “debt” in its books. When he challenged the tax collectors, he was told that “I know there is the law, but we don’t enforce it, and what can you do about us?” Still a student in Qingdao, he carried the law with him and went to the township government, then the municipal government, and then all the way to Jinan (济南), the provincial government. Getting no results, he travelled to Beijing as soon as the winter break started in 1996.
He followed the petition procedures and got a “directive”(批示) in 1997. Finally the township government exempted all the payments and gave him an annual 200 yuan subsidy. But in the same year, they took away more than one third of the land allocated to him, the equivalent of 240-yuan income.
In 1998, he read an article about the illegality of splitting agrarian land into two types (两田制) that was widely practiced in his area, that is, 40% of the village’s land was allocated based on family size, and 60% was for rent; whoever wanted to farm on it had to pay a fee. He went to Beijing again in the summer and succeeded in ending the illegal practice. After the two petitions, “people at the township government hated me to death,” he told a journalist in an interview.
Even though he had success in his two times of petitioning, he was deeply disappointed by the way the lower governments handled the issues. “Petitioning is pretty useless,” he said. “To defend our rights, we must rely on the law.” In other words, he put his faith in the rule of law.
In his first case, Chen Guangcheng helped another blind man in another township to sue a village head who forced the disabled man to dig dirt and to pay taxes. When the blind man refused, the village head chided him through loud speakers and harassed him face to face. Chen Guangcheng filed a complaint on behalf of the blind man and won the case.
More people came to him for help. He helped other handicapped people, women who were subjected to late-term abortion, people with mental illness, farmers and small business owners who were overtaxed or taxed illegally, almost always against governmental personnel or entities, from village heads to township governments, local tax authority, public security bureau, and even the Beijing subway authority. A local journalist friend of his estimated that, from 1996 to the time he lost freedom in 2005, Chen Guangcheng helped about 3,000 people directly or indirectly through legal representation and consultation. All for free.
As you can imagine, it is not easy to be a lawyer, barefoot or otherwise, and blind. In China, only two laws, the aforementioned Protection Law and the Marriage Law, had braille versions. He had to rely on his father, and later his wife, to read the laws to him. He once applied to audit law courses in Jiaotong University and was rejected unless he was an officially anointed “national model worker ” or a world sports champion. He was neither. For everything he did, he had to give ten times more efforts than a normal person.
At the same time, he is incredibly able, Chinese medicine and law notwithstanding, he knows how to use computer, and can surf online. He uses cell phone, fax, copier, and recording pen. And he speaks some English.
When he first started, he said in an interview, people at the court often sympathized with the disabled and the poor who also had the law on their side. But when pressured by people with power, they put aside both their conscience and the law, creating hurdles to thwart him and his clients. His clients were often beaten by hired thugs for resorting to the law, while he himself received telephone threats. One night, when he was walking alone on the road, a motorcycle sped toward him from behind but braked abruptly in a screech. After moments of terrifying silence, it drove away. “Perhaps he was a hired murderer who changed his mind the last moment,” Chen Guangcheng speculated.
He won some cases and lost others. The lost ones, he believed, were not lost for nothing. “The cases themselves are less important than the awareness [of rights],” he said. “These lawsuits wake people up to an understanding of this society. One case affects one family; one family can influence another four or five families. China has two hundred million families, if they all understand and know the nature of the society, they will work to change it.”
Who says he doesn’t have vision?
He became well known in the area, and people flocked—some crawled hours–to “Lawyer Chen” for help even though he was not a licensed lawyer. When he graduated from college, he had a job in the county hospital as a masseur, but he later quit it and focused on his “legal career”, supporting himself and his family as a farmer. He tried to form a NGO in Beijing in 2002 to defend the rights of the disabled, but didn’t succeed. He applied for funds from numerous foreign and domestic foundations but received only bureaucratic replies or no replies. About the foundations, he had this to say: “They were wasting precious resources on judges who knew the right and wrong but flouted the law anyway when they should be focusing on educating and empowering the powerless.”
Meanwhile, he established a library to spread helpful information to the villagers, and he invited lawyers and officials from Beijing to his village to give lectures to the handicapped about rights and self-reliance.
He met his wife on a radio call-in show in the spring of 2001. A new college graduate but jobless, Yuan Weijing (袁伟静) called the show to voice her frustration. He heard it. He called her, encouraged her, and told her his story. That summer, she visited him and they started dating. They married in 2003 and the local TV station did a live-broadcast of their wedding. When asked why she wanted to marry a blind man, his wife said, “You tell me, why wouldn’t I marry him?”
His activities attracted attention from media far and wide. In March 2002, he appeared on the cover of Newsweek. In 2003, he was selected by the US State Department’s International Visitor Program to visit several American cities and organizations of handicapped people. In the same year he was named one of Linyi’s Ten news personalities by the municipal government. Several domestic newspapers and magazines profiled him. He was, in short, a great citizen any reasonable society can have, loved by people and recognized by the authority.
That is, until he fell afoul of it. Continued…