The Writer’s Block Transcripts: A Q&A with Chen Guangcheng
Chen Guangcheng, or “The Barefoot Lawyer”>the barefoot lawyer,” was born in a rural village of Dongshigu, China. Blinded by an illness in his infancy and illiterate until his late teens, he overcame enormous obstacles to become a self-taught lawyer and advocate for tens of thousands of Chinese citizens. He became China’s most prominent political activist through his work fighting for the rights of people with disabilities and women who endured forced sterilizations as a result of China’s one-child policy.
Placed under house arrest after harassment and imprisonment by Chinese authorities, his daring escape in 2012 made national headlines. It was only through high-level negotiations that he was able to escape from Beijing to the United States. In 2012 he became a law student at New York University. Since 2013 he has been a research fellow at Catholic University, the Witherspoon Institute, and the Lantos Foundation.
In December 2015 Chen Guangcheng came to City of Asylum to read from his memoir, The Barefoot Lawyer. Before the reading, Sampsonia Way interviewed Chen about his writing process, his work giving voice to those who were denied representation, and the status of human and reproductive rights in China today.
What was your process when writing this memoir and recalling events from your early childhood?
It wasn’t too hard to recall things from my childhood because a lot of them are imprinted very clearly in my mind. It was about bringing them up and then getting them down on paper.
Were you influenced by other writers when you were writing The Barefoot Lawyer?
No I really just thought about my own past and experiences and tried to tell them as truthfully as possible. I was interested in having people understand my activism and, through that, understanding China.
What was the role of your translator, Danica Mills, and editor in writing this book? How did you collaborate?
In the process of writing the book, there were a number of collaborators, and with each one it was a matter of sitting down and talking about my experiences and my recollections, and the collaborators would write down what I was saying. Then, after getting my recollections down, we put them into the written form of a story. Then we had to go back and see how it would be in Chinese, to make sure it was all correct. After that, it was edited.
Have the Chinese authorities raised questions about the American influence in the writing of the book? How would you respond if they said that this was a piece of American propaganda because you collaborated with an American editor?
First of all, up until now, nobody has really brought up any issue like that. I think it would be hard for somebody to raise those kinds of issues, because the book only goes up to our arrival in the United States. Most of it is focused on my experiences in China, so there’s really no way for it to be influenced in that way.
When it comes to my experiences in the American embassy, I was clear about thanking those who I should thank, and at the same time, I also brought up criticism where criticism was due. But all of this is not to say that it was a smooth and easy process. The original material that I put together was about 600,000 words and from that got it down to a 150,000 word draft, and then further edited it down from that. There are many, many wonderful stories that I was not able to leave in the final manuscript.
American readers often latch onto the parts of a story that are most sensationalized. In this case, your escape from house arrest is the most dramatic. If you could look at your story from the outside, what part of your story would be most interesting to you?
What to say? I think if it’s about what’s interesting then I would have to say it’s my relationship with nature, how I grew up almost at one with nature, how I learned from nature about astronomy, geography, physics, knowledge of that sort. To me that’s really really interesting. Many people start going to school at a young age and don’t have such an intimate relationship with the out-of-doors, and don’t really understand that much about it. That, I think, is a pretty interesting part of my story.
If you’re talking about what would be the most exciting, it would probably be the escape. But for me, it is the natural world. For example, if you think about a lot of different animals — cows or sheep or dogs — their intellect is somewhat similar to a young child in a lot of ways. I was able to have a certain kind of rapport with them that was really interesting.
How did the fact that you weren’t able to attend school and that you didn’t have access to books influence your ability to look past Chinese propaganda and the official narrative that Chinese authorities gave at the time?
I think it was beneficial. Since I grew up in nature I was able to learn about the laws of nature. Sometimes the propaganda from the communist party about nature was in direct contradiction with nature, in contradiction with what we would call laws of heaven, and so I didn’t believe what they said. I thought what they said didn’t make sense. So I think it was helpful.
One of the things the party used to say was that if a big river has water, the little streams will be full. And if the big river has no water, the little streams will be dry, too. What they seemed to be saying was that as long as the big rivers have water the little streams will have water too. The implication was that if the nation is strong and the government robust, the people would be then also be strong and robust and be wealthy and live prosperously. But actually their idea is backwards. What we see in nature is that if the little streams have water the rivers will then be full. If the streams are dry, where will the water come from to fill the rivers? So this is communist party propaganda, propaganda that contradicts natural phenomena. Why would they try to confuse people into thinking that water for the streams comes from the big rivers? This is complete nonsense!
You write “China on paper is not China in the streets.” How is this statement reflective of China’s approach to the rights of people with disabilities?
There are a lot of laws that sound good on paper, and legally speaking, these laws make sense. In reality those laws are often not carried out, so people have very little protection under the law. A lot of wonderful things that are expounded in the media–in newspapers and propaganda and television programs that talk about how wonderful things are–are very similar to a lot of the laws that sound good on paper, but really they’re not being put into practice. For example, the law for the protection of persons with disabilities was supposed to allow the disabled blind people to ride public transportation–whether it’s buses, subways, or ferries–for free. In reality, it took ten years from the time when the law was enacted for [blind] people to be able to ride for free. I’ve even found in Beijing, that ten years after the law had been enacted, there were still problems. [The Beijing Metro Corporation] is still charging blind people ticket fare. If even in the capital, the law is not being respected, then of course, what’s going to be happening out in the countryside?
What people are saying now, is that they’d like to live in the China of the Chinese propaganda machine. If you live there, everything is great and everything is wonderful and you have everything you want. But if you live in the real China, it’s different.
What are two things that American media reports that don’t correlate with reality in China?
I think the first thing is that China today is strong. This is not true. China is a country where the Communist Party is wealthy, and the people are poor. The party controls the money, resources and material wealth of the people, leaving people impoverished. So, to say that China is strong is incorrect. But if you say the Communist Party is strong, that’s pretty true. The terminology has to be improved.
The second thing is the US-China relationship. In the US, nearly all the mainstream media talk about the US-China relationship. To me, though, we’ve never seen a real US-China relationship, just a US-Chinese Communist Party relationship. That is, a relationship between the Chinese Communist Party and the US. To this day the Chinese people have no way to participate in the big decisions of the nation. When the Chinese people are able to participate in their government, and can freely interact and engage with the American people, that will be a real US-China relationship.
How did access to the media, like the radio program Listener Hotline, enhance your political awareness early on?
In a lot of the programs on the radio, you can hear that the guest lawyers are essentially reciting textbook law, describing what Chinese law dictates, how things would go if the law were actually followed. And from a broader point of view, the law as it’s written actually sounds pretty good. This struck me. I started thinking about how if everyone – including the government and the Chinese Communist Party – followed the laws as they are written, society would be really great.
But in reality, the party doesn’t follow the law, and we have no way to counter that. The party uses the law as a tool for it’s own purposes.
So I knew that the authoritarian regime wasn’t respecting the law, but at the same time the law was really clear. I really wanted to try to bring some of the social issues to the surface through the mechanism of the law, and have people make their own judgements once they saw the reality. I wanted to see what would happen if we put the law to the test, and hopefully if at the same time the rule of law was taking root the outcome would be really positive. But by the time I was violently locked up at home under house arrest, I realized that it was useless to hold out any hope in a authoritarian regime.
What is the tradition of traveling story tellers in China and how does this tradition relate to the rights of people with disabilities in China?
In China, for thousands of years, the disabled–especially in the countryside–had no way to earn a living except for storytelling or fortune telling. This was a way for people to earn a meager living by telling stories: travelling from village to village or telling fortunes, telling a story at night, and then getting a meal or in exchange for a place to stay. Only maybe 50 percent of the blind people in the countryside even had that as an opportunity for making a living. The other 50 percent probably were not capable or had other issues that made it impossible for them to be going out and doing those kinds of things, so they were really dependent on their families, their siblings, and sometimes even their neighbors for their support and well-being.
What impact does this traditions and its complications have on people’s understanding of individuals with disabilities and the blind in China?
It’s traditionally been so difficult for the disabled to earn even a very basic living to get by. It’s lead to situations where they’re somewhat unkempt or their clothes are very tattered and ragged and their hair is very messy. If you use the word “disabled,” then that’s the image that comes up. It’s created a situation where it is so difficult for the disabled to overcome these prejudices that are inherent in society that it is very difficult to get ahead even in a very limited way.
Some people blame preconceptions or spiritual and religious beliefs on the way that society responds to dictatorship and censorship. For example, in the case of Burma, people say “The Burmese people are politically passive, and that is why Burma will never be free.” What is your response in China’s case?
I think you’ll see over time that those kinds of things as they progress, will change. In the case of China, people already feel a lot of animosity toward the party and the governing system. It’s gotten to the point where the party knows that they have to use violence and oppression to keep back the idea that people want them to step down, but the numbers of people who have stood up, and are not afraid to face the regime, are still too small relative to the entire system. We still need to have more numbers [of dissidents] relative to the population.
In the case of Burma, they’ve had elections there. In the case of China, we’re in a sort of vacuum of belief in fact, and it’s not a matter of people believing or not believing what the regime is saying. The regime took a western idea of Communism and used it to pull the wool over the eyes of the Chinese people for decades. Now people don’t believe any of that, but part of the problem is that there’s no alternative belief to fill the vacuum. The biggest issue facing China right now is that the ideas of democracy and civil and human rights have not filled in the gap disbelief in the Communist system left behind. On the one hand, the party is oppressing its people. On the other hand, it is taking money from the people, all the while saying to the international community, “Don’t worry about what we’re doing back at home. Just pretend like you’re not seeing it. Everything’s fine.”
In The Barefoot Lawyer you write only ten percent of blind people go to school in China. How does China’s treatment of people with disabilities limit people’s capacities for hope? Does this limit the ability to enact social change?
Actually, I feel that traditional China, that China’s culture is outstanding, and good. To me, the Chinese people and the American people all have an innate kindness, and a similar drive to seek justice and equality. So when the Communist Party goes so far as to persecute the disabled, to oppress the disabled, the Chinese people are clear about what’s going on. The Chinese Communist Party appears to be really strong right now, but because it’s actions go against the laws of heaven, the people know that the party will not last much longer.
There’s a phrase in Chinese: “Win the hearts and minds of the people, and you will win all under heaven.” Now, the actions of the Communist Party are causing it to lose the hearts and minds of the people. And of course, if it loses the hearts and minds of the people, it will lose power.
What is the responsibility of the international community and the United States in calling attention to these discrepancies in Chinese disability laws to improve the lives of disabled people in China?
First of all, when the international community sees how China is oppressing its own people, they can definitely do a lot more. China is signed onto international human rights treaties with the UN and I think other countries should definitely use those treaties to [monitor] China and protect [Chinese citizens].
China recently altered its one-child policy, raising the number from one to two. What was your reaction to the news? In terms of government accountability, was the ending of the policy enough for you?
I think [the Chinese government] needs to do a lot more. I don’t think it’s enough at all, mostly because in changing from the one-child policy to the two-child policy, they’re just putting the emphasis on the second child, or the ones who come after that. That’s to say that the entire system has not changed at all. People do not have reproductive freedom and until they do, we’re going to have this system.
I think the reason why they’ve decided to make this change–although it’s just sort of relaxing–is that authorities are starting to realize that there are significant deleterious effects on society of the one-child policy. For example, society is aging and there will be impacts on laborers and on gender.
The other thing of note in this whole change in the policy is that it shows that the international community — whether it’s from individuals or organizations— after having noticed the horrors of the one-child policy and speaking out about it, is effecting the communist party’s actions. It was before 2005 when our report came out (the investigation that we did). China continually insisted that there was no issue with the violent family planning campaigns. But after our report came out in 2005, there was no way for them to continue denying it. When I was let out of prison, one of the guards told me “It’s because of you and all of the terrible things that you did, that there have been 90,000 more children born.”
China also seems appears to have fulfilled their promise of dismantling labor camps and releasing tens of thousands of prisoners last year. What was your reaction to that news?
Even though they’ve done away with the education through labor system, they’ve found other ways to oppress and control the population. Before they got rid of the policy of re-education through labor, they enacted a law — article number 73— that says that public security police can detain and imprison a citizen for up to 6 months without notifying their family of their whereabouts or wellbeing. This is an extremely egregious and oppressive measure that has allowed them to continue oppressing the population, just in a different way.
Another phenomenon is that about five years before they said that they were going to get rid of the education through labor camps, they started setting up these “black jails.” They exist in every province in China. They started out as a place to detain petitioners who were going to protest their treatment, and they can be set up anywhere — in police stations or in people’s backyards and basements, and that was all in place before the change in policy.
Before you arrived at the American embassy in Beijing, you wrote that “when the danger is real, America lives up to its most basic values.” How did the diplomatic negotiations that facilitated you coming to the United States change your perception of the US before this happened?
I still feel that America is the greatest nation even though when I was in the embassy I found that President Obama sort of caved in to the pressure of the Chinese authorities. I found that America is still the place that, when it comes to accountability and human rights, is still number one. Because of the way that the American system allows people to openly criticize their leaders when they go out of bounds, I still feel it is number one.
Have you gotten any additional attention from the Chinese authorities since the publication of The Barefoot Lawyer?
I think the authorities have never ceased watching us. And after the publication, they might have increased their watchfulness.
In early September when we came back from France, we found that someone had put a box of rat poison in our kitchen cupboard, right next to the flour. It was clear that someone had snuck into our home and put it there. I think probably most people could guess who would do something like that.
Are you afraid?
I don’t feel afraid. I just feel angry — very angry. I don’t know why they need to go do these kinds of repetitious methods. I think they could just pick up the phone and give me a call. Whoever wants to call, I’ll sit down and talk to them. I think the things they do like this are not the kinds of things that a nation, or a government, or a political power, would do. It’s more like the mafia, like thieves sneaking around in the night.
You’ve said that among the topics you want to write about is the issue of imprisonment and torture. Would you share a little bit about what specifically you want to share about these issues for in your future project?
The violence and the aggression and the torture that inmates suffer in prison is more than anybody would be able to imagine, and I can give one example: If they want you to tell them something, they’ll stick a toothpick under your fingernail and if you still don’t tell, they’ll stick another one next to that toothpick, and more and more until your fingernail falls off. Of course, this is all with your hands tied behind your back in handcuffs. I’ve spoken with many thousands of prisoners over my time in prison about this, and I think everybody agrees that there are almost no prisoners who have never undergone torture of some sort.