Chen Guangcheng: Civil Rights in China

Civil Rights in China
(Chen Guangcheng, April 12, 2017)

Transcript available below

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About the speaker

Chen Guangcheng is a blind Chinese civil rights activist, known internationally as “the barefoot lawyer.” Blind since infancy, illiterate until his late teens, he taught himself law and became a fierce advocate for his country’s voiceless poor.

For his trouble, he spent more than four years in prison on charges of “disturbing public order” and was then held under strict house arrest in his heavily guarded home in Shandong province from 2010 to 2012. In a daring escape that captured worldwide headlines, he fled to the U.S. embassy in Beijing. After high-level negotiations between the U.S. and China, Mr. Chen was allowed to leave for America. Since 2013, he has been a senior research fellow at Catholic University of America, the Witherspoon Institute, and the Lantos Foundation.

Chen has written a riveting memoir and a revealing portrait of modern China, titled The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man’s Fight for Justice and Freedom in China. The Atlantic Monthly said, “This exceptional book will join the ranks of classic accounts of individual bravery, principle, and vision in the face of cruelty and repression. Chen Guangcheng is known around the world for the daring of his escape from captivity; as The Barefoot Lawyer makes clear, his journey and the accomplishments before that were at least as remarkable. Anyone who wants to understand the struggle for China’s future, being waged inside that country and by friends of China around the world, will want to read this book.”

For more on China, see David Goldman’s Westminster talk, Will China overtake the U.S. as the world’s leading superpower?.


Robert R. Reilly:

We will proceed with our introduction now of Chen Guangcheng, known internationally as the ‘barefoot lawyer’. He was blind from infancy. He did not learn how to read until his late teens. He educated himself in the law and undertook the defense of poor Chinese and others much to the irritation of the Chinese government that consequently put him in prison for more than four years.

And after he was let out of prison, he was put into confinement under house arrest in his own village, which as his jailers told him would be just as bad as the prison he had been in, which proved to be the case. And the beatings he received and unfortunately, the beatings his wife received. The world was electrified when Mr. Chen escaped and made his way to Beijing and into the U.S. Embassy. If you will recall, that was a major diplomatic incident in which the United States, President Obama and Secretary Hillary had to decide what to do, in which case they made the right decision, which is why we are so happy Mr. Chen is with us this evening.

Since coming to the United States he has been a senior research fellow at Catholic University at the Witherspoon Institute and also the Lantos Foundation. Please join me in welcoming Chen Guangcheng.

Chen Guangcheng:


Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you so much to Bob for the invitation. I am honored to be here tonight to talk with you about my life and work in China and to give you a different view of China.

When I was six months old I lost my sight due to a high fever. It would have cost my mother about 25 cents to take me to the hospital for my illness but she did not have the money. As a blind child in a poor village rife with tragedies my [unintelligible] were dismal. The best I could hope for was to learn the trade of fortune telling.

Growing Up

When I was around six or seven, my peers in the village began going to school, but I was not even allowed inside the schoolhouse. I did not want to give in. Though I learned as much as I could from the natural world, the heavens, the Earth, and [unintelligible] cultures were my teachers. In ten years time I gained an understanding of nature and its laws that for many people remain forever out of reach.

In the evening my father often read to me or told me traditional stories of perils and common people who overcame adversity and fought for justice. These stories were fundamental to my development. Give me an [unintelligible] and allowing me to imagine my self in the shoes of the characters of the stories. I now had models for taking action when I saw injustice happening around me.

I was 18 when I finally had the opportunity to attend a school for the blind. My family was poor and there were no assistance from the government. I often went hungry and often had no books to study from. Eventually, half-starving, I finished college with a degree in Chinese medicine. But I didn’t want to practice medicine because I was beginning to be interested in the law.

Standing Up to Injustice

To me the law could cure society in ways that medicine could not because I had a lot of difficulties as a disabled person. I was sensitive to injustices happening around me. Gradually, I began to stand up against injustice and in the process I began to see that the law could be used as a tool to make the authorities abide by their own rules.

I worked to help disabled people reclaim taxes and fees that had been illegally collected from them. I found a way to build a well in my village. When villagers became sick from our contaminated river water, I managed to get the factory causing the pollution shut down. In 2003, I brought a successful lawsuit against the Beijing Metro Corporation, demanding that they allowed blind people to ride public transportation for free as mandated by Chinese law.

The outcomes for these cases were mostly positive but as a result I upset the authorities and they began to fight back. [Unintelligible] in 2005, when I began an investigation into the violent one child policy, campaign that was going on Lingyi Prefecture of Shandong. Here I want to give you a little background into the one-child policy. I will then talk about some of our findings from the investigation.

One-Child Policy

Since the policy began in 1979, three hundred sixty million forced abortions have taken place. This is the number quoted by the Communist Party itself. These abortions are carried out against the will of the mother, resulting in the death of her child and the violation of her physical person. These abortions are done at all points in pregnancy up and til even nine months. Sometimes babies are still alive after the operation only to be killed by the doctors or nurses on hand.

As part of the policy, old married women under age 50 are required [to] have a pregnancy test every three months under the supervision of the population planning office. Even the first pregnancy for a married woman requires a permit. If a woman is found to be pregnant without a permit, they will be arrested and dragged away for a forced abortion. Old women who become sick or injured during the operation will not be given any special care. All these measures are still in place despite the change from a one child to a two child policy.

In carrying out the policy, the authorities are extremely aggressive to meet mandated population limits. Packs of officials will descend on villages looking for people who have over birthed. If a couple has become pregnant with an unregistered child, the couple will often try to hide which can get the attended family and neighbors in trouble too. If officials cannot find the couple, they will arrest the family and neighbors and question them to find out where the mother is hiding. If they don’t answer, relatives and neighbors are tortured until they talk.

In the investigation I began in 2005, I and my friends found that in just six months time about 130,000 people had forced abortions or [had been] sterilized. An additional 600,000 people were implicated in the campaign because of familial relations and subjected to arrest, detention, and torture.

Arrested and Imprisoned

After my friends and I released the findings from our investigation online, I was kidnapped, thrown in a black jail, and disappeared. I was tried in kangaroo court and sentenced to prison for four years, three months for damaging public property and disrupting traffic.

After over four years in prison, I was released only to find the Communist Party had ordered me and my family to be placed under illegal detention at home with dozens of guards surrounding our home and village. They cut off our phone lines, set up cellphone jammers, installed surveillance cameras and high-powered spot lights and all the while the Communist Party’s State Department was telling the world that quote, “Chen Guangcheng is free,” end quote.

After living under these conditions for some time, Weijing and I managed to surreptitiously record a video documenting our treatment. We later found a way to get it out. The Communist Party was enraged.


On February 18, 2011 the CCP ordered 70 or 80 thugs to storm into our home. Over a dozen of them threw my wife, Weijing, to the ground in the yard. They covered her with a coat, standing on the edges to muffle her cries from the neighbors. They kicked her viciously, breaking ribs and fracturing the bones of her eye socket.

Another bunch of thugs grabbed me, stuffed a dirty rug in my mouth, and beat me and tortured me. Other thugs searched our home with metal detectors, looking for any equipment we had like cell phones, videos, and video cameras. After many hours they left us locked inside, refusing us badly needed medical care.

Word gradually began to get out about what was happening to us. This caught the attention of netizens in China and abroad as well as human rights organizations and Western governments, inspiring many people to make the journey to my village as a kind of protest as witness but they were routinely beaten and had belongings stolen by the guards. The actor Christian Bale, known for playing Batman, tried to come see me. His experience was filmed by [a] cameraman traveling with him.

[CNN report excerpt]

As you can see, even Christian Bale, Batman, could not fly past the guards. No one could visit us and we couldn’t go out. The guards even lived in our house 24-hours a day. That August, some officials and guards came to our house as part of a campaign to intimidate us. They threatened me, saying that the Communist Party would make me pay for the more than 90,000 babies who had been born as a result of the work we had done.


Every day I rocked my brain, trying to think of how to get free. For over a year my wife Weijing and I scrutinized our situation, the guards and our surroundings. We made many failed attempts. At last, after nearly twenty months in captivity I found an opening, a few seconds when their view was blocked and began my escape. I was alone.

Over the next twenty hours I scaled eight walls and crossed nine rows of guards. I broke three bones in my foot and crawled on my hands and knees out of my village through a forest, across fields and streams and over [a] river to a neighboring village. My clothes were torn and bloody. I finally made it to the American Embassy in Beijing and later to the United States beyond the reach of the Communist Party. I have written about my escape and my life in China in my memoir, the Barefoot Lawyer.

Rule of the CCP, not the Rule of Law

China does have laws, but as an authoritarian country it lacks the rule of law. In China, the CCP uses law as a tool to control the people. This is completely contrary to most modern democratic nations where the law is a mechanism to benefit society. In China laws that benefit the party are widely enforced. Laws that do not benefit the party are no better than scrap paper. The Communist Party has been persecuting its own people for decades.

In July of 2015, it began what has come to be known as the Seven Zero Nine crackdown. For over a year I have been getting word of lawyers, activists, netizens, and artists being disappeared, brutalized, and tortured, including many of my friends and colleagues.

My friend Li Chun Fu had just gotten his law license when I first met him years ago. He was detained in the crackdown and held for about one year and a half. This past January 12 he was released but his wife found him a changed man. Once healthy and bright, he was now cowering, paranoid, terrified, unable to look friends and family in the eye. He had clearly undergone extreme trauma that had left him fundamentally demeaned and his family bereft.

Shi Yang

My friend, Attorney Shi Yang, had been detained illegally for over a year and a half. When he was finally allowed a visit from his lawyer, Shi Yang’s lawyer has reported that Shi Yang wept as he told of how he had been tortured and was terrified. He said he would die in prison because of how he is ill and is being refused medical treatment. Shi Yang cried as he told of how he would stand near the window of the secret detention facility where he had been held, calling out when he heard footsteps, hoping that someone would tell his wife and children where he was, that he was still alive.

Since Shi Yang’s lawyer publicized these accounts in January, the Communist Party has not allowed Shi’s lawyers to visit him. Attorneys Li He Ping, Jiang Tiang Yong, Wang Qiang Zhang, Zhang Hai Tao, and many others are facing untold traumas in secret detention centers, including torture by electric shock. All for one thing, to make China a better place.

Torture in Prison

Unfortunately, people have been tortured to death in prison as was recently the case with Heng Ming, a human rights activist who had been kidnapped from abroad and sentenced to life in jail. He was in prison for twelve years when just recently the authorities notified his family that he had quote, “died of a heart attack.” The authorities promptly removed his organs, including his heart and brains to prevent forensic analysis into the cause of death.

In the Seven Zero Nine crackdown, the authorities unlawfully deny they have detained access to lawyers. The CCP uses torture and threats to family members to force people to dismiss their retained lawyers. Many, in fact, are forced to make public confessions of their so-called crimes on the CCP mouthpieces like China Central TV, violating not only international law but China’s law on self incrimination. This is China today under the control of the Communist Party. Unfortunately, many people outside China only hear about economic advancement.


Since I got to America in 2012, I have not stopped speaking out about the truth of what is happening in China. I am in constant contact with activists, netizens, and human rights lawyers inside and outside of China and I speak to media on a range of topics related to human rights in China and the influence of the CCP on the U.S. I have established a foundation here in the U.S. to continue the work I was doing in China, looking at issues such as internet freedom and the rule of law.

We now have a website, where you can look at our work. In addition, I am committed to the complete abolition of the population and reproduction planning system despite the ongoing oppression by the Communist authority. People in China are gradually awakening. They are less afraid of power and are inspired by the actions of those around them to stand up. The Chinese people know that they must rely on themselves to protect their rights. They know that maintaining their rights will require long term unceasing efforts. As people overcome their fear, transformation will come to China. I look forward to talking with you and answering any question you may have about my life in China, my work, or my foundation. Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you.


Audience member:

When I [unintelligible], I did some classes in law school there, and they have a Chinese Studies Center that supposedly studies Chinese legal developments, and supposedly does a lot of work in trying to create the rule of law in China. I know a lot of other major law schools, supposedly well-respected in the United States, do the same thing. Have you seen any positive benefit of any of their work in there or are they so determined to please the Chinese government and maintain their standing in China that they do not do what is necessary to truly create a basis for the rule of law there?

Chen Guangcheng:

In a sense, if you think that you can teach the Communist rulers regarding law and those in jurisdiction what law means, you are doomed to fail because they understand clearly what they are doing. They know they are doing some bad thing. They are evil in any of the things they got involved in. Well, in the past, I would say we are very grateful for the work of the NGOs, the Western non-governmental organizations who help the NGOs in China’s grassroots activities, which help them make some progress to realize that they have the rights. They have the laws on paper to protect them, but in the future, I would say that everybody understands that the Communist Party does not follow the rule of law. Thank you.

Audience member:

Has the recent introduction of capitalism in China helped in any way with the civil rights of the people in China?

Chen Guangcheng:

As we see that some lawyers, particularly the human rights lawyers, defend the human rights of people under a general perspective, but many of them [defend] religious activities as well, but there is only one way [to protect the civil rights of people in China. It is] to break through the one-party rule in China. Otherwise, we cannot see any hope in realizing the rule of law in China.

Audience member:

I am sure your foundation addresses this, but I was wondering what would be your advice or your encouragement to civil rights lawyers in China who are practicing now?

Chen Guangcheng:

We have just started, but we are always in contact with those human rights lawyers and [unintelligible] activities there, and our work and joint efforts make it very, very difficult for the Communist regime to do some evils behind [closed] doors.

Audience member:

In the next four years, what if anything can President Trump do in his relations with the Chinese government to improve the wellbeing of Chinese people?

Chen Guangcheng:

I would say I hope President Trump would be a great contributor if he could end authoritarian [governance], not only in China, not only [to the] benefit of the Chinese people, but also the whole world because you can see the communist regime has not only been harming the Chinese people, but now they are reaching out throughout the world in almost every corner, including the United States. For example, the infiltration in the media and academic fields. We really want to see the end of authoritarianism in China and the Communist rule in China.

When we talk about the Communist regime, and you see China rising or whatever, it is not a military power, but it harms or damages the civilization of the whole world and the culture and the values that we share. I think that if President Trump could end the Communist regime and authoritarianism there, that [would be] the biggest contribution he has ever made to the whole world, and that will make him one of the greatest presidents in history. Thank you.

Robert R. Reilly:

Can I ask what has the Chinese government done to try to keep you quiet here in the United States?

Chen Guangcheng:

I can tell you that the Communist regime never stopped intimidating me and my family back in China. They did a lot of things. For example, they intimidate by throwing rocks into the homes of my family members there. They destroyed the tires of their vehicles. And even when I was in New York University, for example, they hired on of their former so-called People’s Congress Deputies with a donation of $25 million to NYU tried to silence me. There are, of course, many, many other things behind the scenes, and you are going to learn more gradually. And one horrific thing I want to share with you [is] when I moved here not long ago, we found a bag of poison to kill rats next to our flour bag.

Audience member:

Thank you for the presentation, and excuse me for my lack of knowledge, but does your work overlap with religious groups and human rights issues concerning them? And could you comment on the characterization of their situation in China?

Chen Guangcheng:

We all know that religious freedom is one of the most fundamental human rights, but in China, you are not allowed to choose your faith, and you have to follow the Party lines, believe in communism or the communist rule, especially when you have become a kind of influence to promote human rights or religious freedom. You would definitely be in trouble with the government. But if you do not have the freedom of faith among other things, how can you become a civilized society? For example, we believe the fundamental rights, including expressions of religious faith, and they are just like air and water in our daily lives. [In] every aspect of life, you depend on them.

Audience member:

Thank you for your presentation. I am just curious, what are your thoughts about our country, and what have you found since you have been here to be a surprise, either good or bad?

Chen Guangcheng:

Well, I would say [there is] not much [that I found] surprising, but I would say one thing that really [was] beyond my imagination or knowledge is the communist infiltration into the American society. But living in a democracy, you see the social justice, which is moving to a higher level in human history. Even though [America society is] not perfect, there is some room to improve, but still [this is] the best we have so far.

Robert R. Reilly:

There were what turned out to be misplaced hopes concerning the Arab Spring in the Middle East, that people did not assume democratic constitutional governance, that when the yoke had been removed, they began fighting each other. What confidence [do you] have that were the Communist Party removed in China, that the Chinese people are ready for this?

Chen Guangcheng:

Well, when the authoritarian regime comes to an end in China, we are going to experience the learning face, learning how to exercise the balance of power, just like what happened in Taiwan in the 80s and 90s when they started democratization. But after 2000, they seemed to be growing up a lot and getting materialized. And I think in China, the same thing would happen too. People [will] learn to use the balance of power and press freedom and so forth after the communist regime [is] gone. But that is basically a learning experience.

Well, there is one fact I must tell you. There are many people who are honest [and] smart who refuse to join the communist regime. They are the grassroots elements because they cannot bear the evil regime there, and they do not want to be part of it. And also, for democracy we can see from history East Germany and West Germany, and North Korea and South Korea, so democracy is definitely the best choice that people have in history and for the future. Thank you.

Robert R. Reilly:

Please join me in thanking, Chen Guangcheng.

Chen Guangcheng:

Thank you. Thank you.