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Book Review

‘Barefoot Lawyer’ a Lyrical, Thrilling Read

By Kathi Wolfe ‘

book cover/ the barefoot lawyer, a blind man's fight for justice and freedom in china
Recently, I congratulated myself. Using my white cane, I, legally blind, had successfully navigated my way through Grand Central Terminal. As icing on the cake, I showed a skeptical stranger on my train how I can read and write on my iPad by enlarging the text using the zoom feature. I was pretty puffed up with my quite minor achievements until I read “The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man’s Fight for Justice and Freedom in China” by Chen Guangcheng (Henry Holt. 330 pp. $30).

In a memoir as spell-binding as “Vertigo,” “Psycho” or any Hitchcock movie, Chen, a blind man, tells the story of his battle over disability and human rights in China, his escape from two years of house arrest, and his (ultimately successful) struggle to start, with his family, a new life in the United States.

Sure, getting around in this country can be difficult for people who are blind or who have disabilities – due to lack of mobility training, obstacles or inaccessibility. Even as the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act approaches, there’s still discrimination against disabled people. About 70 percent of people with disabilities are still under- or unemployed, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Yet, from the first paragraph of Chen’s gripping account, it becomes clear: The prejudice and inequities that we with disabilities experience here, though unjust, are “first world” problems compared to the injustice and indignities encountered at every turn by our disabled sisters and brothers in China.

Chen, born in the village of Dongshigu in rural China in 1971, is known as “the barefoot lawyer.” Like most of the people in rural villages there, his family was poor. Chen, one of five children, became blind after falling ill as an infant. Chen and the others in his village lived in poverty so severe that it’s almost impossible to fathom.

Even though the villagers were a close-knit community, “the people in my village lived on a knife edge of survival,” Chen writes. “... Like many rural Chinese, our family owned just a tiny sliver of land, not enough to let us scratch out even a basic living.

“When he was young, my father possessed a single pair of pants ... The villagers made what they wore,” Chen continues, “and they wore what they’d made until their clothes were completely threadbare, often going without shoes even in the dead of winter.”

The people of Dongshigu were so impoverished that they “stripped the trees bare, devouring the leaves of elms and poplars and locusts,” he writes, “gnawing the bark to ease their raging bellies.”

As a child, Chen didn’t receive formal education because in most parts of China, especially in rural areas, blind people weren’t permitted to go to school. In China, there are few career options for people who are blind other than that of being a “storyteller” or practicing traditional Chinese medicine, according to Chen. “I wasn’t even allowed in the village’s two-room schoolhouse, where my friends attended classes,” Chen writes.

In lyrical and poetic writing, Chen recalls how he learned, adapted to, and navigated in his world. “I hear the reverberating calls of birds, their overlapping, melodic lines spinning through the trees,” he writes, “and the sounds at a spring nearby ... the liquid splashing into the buckets and jugs. I hear a chorus of life: songbirds trilling, animals lowing, bleating, barking ... each moving in and out of rhythm with the others.”

Chen writes of climbing a tree with one of his brothers. “He secures one end of a rope around my waist; holding the other end, he climbs up the tree and ties the rope tight at the fork of two sturdy branches. I stand beneath the tree, waiting. He strains to pull me up ... until I reach that fork in the tree, where I can sit in perfect contentment.”

As a teenager, Chen attended a couple of schools for the blind away from his village. There, he learned that China has written legislation – The Law on the Protection of Persons with Disabilities – that protects the rights of disabled people. All too soon, however, Chen discovered that this law has no teeth, that it’s a PR stunt to make it seem as if China cares about people with disabilities.

Though the law says that blind people should be able to ride the bus for free, Chen is told to pay his fare, he writes. Contrary to the provisions of this legislation, disabled and blind people are taxed and made to work, even if they can’t because of their disability. As a young man, Chen began his lifelong work of fighting for the rights of disabled people and others who are oppressed in China.

After Chen protested when he didn’t receive the benefit provided by law, a government official told him, “There are so many disabled people ... if they were all exempt [from working,] where would we get our money?”

“I scurried to a stone staircase... breathing hard and listening... for any sign of disturbance... from the guards. The snap of a twig could betray me.”

Chen Guangcheng

Along with working to ensure that the rights of disabled people were protected, Chen began working on other human rights issues, such as opposing the Chinese government’s requirement that women only have one child. The authorities enforced this with violence, physically harming and mentally abusing expectant mothers.

Though blind people have a low status in Chinese society, people started to come to Chen, seeking help when their rights were threatened. Although Chen didn’t go to law school, he taught himself by reading law books in braille. He became a “barefoot lawyer,” providing legal services and advocacy on human and disability rights issues -- which many formally trained lawyers wouldn’t touch -- to people not only in his native village but in Shanghai and Beijing. Foreign media, such as The Washington Post, reported on Chen and his advocacy.

His efforts didn’t sit well with Chinese authorities. After two “kangaroo” trials, Chen was brutally beaten and imprisoned for four years. After his “release,” he and his family were placed under house arrest and were under surveillance by guards and cameras 24 hours a day. The guards violently beat him and his family. At one point, his wife’s eye socket was fractured after a beating.

“They curse and yell and call us names; we are running dogs, spies for the Americans ... ” Chen writes of how the guards treated them. “‘You’re barely human,’ they say ... ‘We want you and your whole family to be miserable, to have ... no way to go on.’ They recorded themselves for their superiors.”

He and his wife decided that their only way out was for him to escape, alone, and travel to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. The most suspenseful and harrowing writing in “The Barefoot Lawyer” is Chen’s account of his escape.

“I scurried to a stone staircase I knew was hidden from view, then stood at the bottom of those six rough-hewn steps, breathing hard and listening with all my might, straining for any sign of disturbance … from the guards,” he writes. “The snap of a twig could betray me.”

After an arduous escape and journey, Chen made it to the embassy in 2012. There, complex negotiations ensued. The Chinese government wanted him to study at a Chinese university, according to Chen. He wanted to go with his wife and children to America and to study at New York University.

In his memoir, Chen writes that the U.S. State Department and diplomats pressured him to accept China’s terms for his release. He was forced, Chen writes, by U.S. officials and the Chinese government to get treatment for his foot -- which was broken during his escape -- from a Chinese hospital, instead of an international hospital. U.S. officials told him, he writes, that the Chinese government would charge him with treason if he didn’t accept China’s terms.

After the publication of “The Barefoot Lawyer” in March, some U.S. officials disputed some of the elements in Chen’s account of these negotiations, according to Politico. “Many of Mr. Chen’s recollections don’t match mine, but he obviously was under a great deal of strain at the time,” Harold Koh, a former State Department legal adviser, told Politico.

“The result speaks for itself. His encounter with my ... colleagues and me ... took him from being an injured fugitive to living here comfortably with his wife and family.”

Today, Chen, who continues to be active in human rights work, is a distinguished senior fellow in human rights at the Witherspoon Institute, a think tank in Princeton, N.J.

“The Barefoot Lawyer,” translated into English by Danica Mills, is a must-read for anyone who cares not only about human rights, but humanity.

Kathi Wolfe, a regular contributor to Independence Today, writes frequently on disability issues

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