Chen Guangcheng’s daring escape from house arrest to the US Embassy in Beijing generated international headlines. The “barefoot lawyer” is one of the most prominent human rights activists on the planet, known for his fierce commitment to democracy and human rights, even in the face of persecution by Chinese authorities. One of his central campaigns has been confronting the evil of forced abortion in China. Millennial editor Robert Christian recently had the opportunity to ask Chen Guangcheng a few questions about his life, his values, and his new book, The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man’s Fight for Justice and Freedom in China.
Robert Christian: You are such a strong defender of democracy and human rights. How did you come to hold these beliefs?
Chen Guangcheng: As a result of my experiences, it’s clear to me that without the checks and balances of a democratic system that can guarantee human rights and restrict power, nothing is safe. If you don’t safeguard human rights, you lose other rights, and you could even lose your life. Human rights are thus just as essential to life as air and water. And in order to achieve protection of our rights, it is imperative that we establish a system of democratic checks and balances.
Some argue that China’s culture is incompatible with universal human rights and democracy, citing Confucian values and other factors. How would you respond to such claims?
First of all, universal values are values for all of humanity—it’s just that having first appeared in the West, they became known as Western values. No matter the origin or place, humanity is the same on a fundamental level: all people everywhere desire more reasonable and just social systems. And even Chinese culture contains ideas of democratic balances and the rule of law. For thousands of years in China there was the idea of the so-called Five Elements, wherein all of life was divided into the basic elements: wood, metal, water, fire, and earth. Under this theory, everything operates according to the characteristics of each of the elements, and thus together the five elements balance and sustain each other – in essence as a system of checks and balances very similar to the ideas underlying Western democracy. From ancient China we have the phrase, “Even the king is subject to the laws governing the common people.” This too is the same as Western ideas of the rule of law. What’s more, a quintessential Confucian saying is “That which you do not like, do not do to others.” This in fact presents a commonality with values dear to Western civilization.
But Chinese culture is vast and profound – Confucianism is just one of the many pieces of the picture which include things like Taoism and other forms of thought. The reason that so many people are as familiar with Confucianism as they are is because some of Confucius’ sayings from when he was young were particularly useful to those in power, and thus were praised by the rulers. Overall, those things that are advantageous for the Communist Party’s dictatorship, they will freely use for their own benefit, not because things originate in the East or the West. Take Marxism, for instance: it’s a Western thing, but they’re happy to use it in China. But whatever is not advantageous for the control of the dictatorship they will refuse flat out, like universal values, freedom of the press, etc.
How did you become an activist willing to take on Chinese authorities?
Actually, protecting rights is an innate reaction—fairness, justice, and peace are things that everyone yearns for. When rights are violated, you have to act. It’s like if you see someone about to fall down: you instinctively reach to help that person. And when you see someone being bullied and harassed and that person’s rights are violated, you want to help that person achieve justice and protect the rights that that person is entitled to. Because the Communist Party is the primary violator of rights, and because it goes to every effort to protect the dictatorship of the Party, it has itself led to all manner of social injustices. Of course in the process of demanding social justice there will inevitably be a clash with those who have created the unjust system.
Why did you decide to write your new book?
First of all, I wrote the book because I wanted to tell people that no matter the hardships you face, you should not give up. You shouldn’t think that you cannot overcome difficulty and be successful. As long as you persevere, as long as you never stop thinking about how to resolve the most pressing issues facing you, your problems will find resolution. The key to success or failure is your own enthusiasm and confidence.
Secondly, I wanted to tell the world, to show the world a true face of China, something more than what most people know of the big, modern skyscraper cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. In actuality, more than 70% of China’s population are rural residents, and the awful conditions in which they exist should be known and understood more broadly.
Thirdly, through my book and my record of struggle with the Communist Party, people will be able to see clearly the extent of the evil of the Communist Party. It has no moral baseline, and beyond most people’s imagination, it is the very embodiment of all the violent and evil dictatorships around the world. It’s the biggest threat to humanity and universal values.
Fourth, even people living in the free world need to open their eyes and keep watch over their elected governments or else their governments will begin to go against the best interests of the people and will begin to sell out on the values that underpin their nations and ignore the long-term interests of the nation in favor of their own short-term special interests.
A great deal of controversy has come from Hillary Clinton’s role in your escape with some suggesting that it should disqualify her from being president. Should people change whether or not they might vote for Hillary based on her role in your escape?
First of all, Clinton’s decision to allow me to seek safety at the embassy was extremely important and showed vision. For this I am extremely grateful to her. As for the later change in policy and the fact that American values were not upheld and basic human rights were compromised in the negotiations with the Communist Party, Obama and his advisors should bear primary responsibility for this. As for whether or not Clinton bears any responsibility, the American people should first understand the truth of the situation and then make their own judgements.