Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and LiteratureSummer 2016
Blinded by Communism: A Review
By Chris Kuell
A baby develops a bad fever. Despite the state’s claims of the best medical system in the world--free for all of its citizens--the baby’s parents can’t bring him to a doctor. They can’t pay. The baby grows into a disabled boy who is considered, like all disabled people, a burden. Other children tease him, taunt him, hit him, and their parents laugh. He is forbidden to attend school. Yet, he sits outside the local two-room school and listens to the lessons. Finally, at age seventeen, he is allowed to attend a special school for people like him, far away from his family’s village. The school is expensive, so he has little money for food. He starves. Teachers beat the students. Students who complain are beaten more or thrown out. After eight years, the boy, now a man, returns to his village.
Despite being unemployable, he is taxed at the same rate the state calculates an average person in his village would be. Or, often more. He complains, and fights for his rights. He fights for the rights of others like him. He is imprisoned for more than four years for ‘disturbing the peace’. Once home again, he is placed under house arrest and watched around the clock. So are all of his extended family members. The police go around and talk to everyone in the village, warning them not to have anything to do with the man.
The electricity and all forms of outside communication are shut off to him. Cameras are set up to watch him. Dozens of guards are on duty 24/7 to be sure he doesn’t leave his house. The state spends more than the entire village makes in a year just to watch and oppress him. And yet, he escapes.
Sound like the plot of a new dystopian novel, or perhaps Christopher Nolan’s next blockbuster film? Guess again. It’s modern day China.
‘The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man’s Fight for Justice and Freedom in China’ is a memoir by Chen Guangcheng, one of China's most outspoken political activists. A blind, self-taught lawyer who, in April 2012, climbed over the wall of his heavily guarded home, broke his leg in three places, and still escaped. He sought refuge at the U.S. embassy in Beijing, causing a political battle of wills in the middle of some critical trade negotiations.
Chen Guangcheng’s story reads as though he lived more than a hundred years ago. His blindness most likely could have been prevented with antibiotics and limited medical attention. But, his family, rural working poor farmers, couldn’t afford to take him to a doctor. By the time they did it was too late. He wasn’t given any education, or even a cane, yet somehow learned his way around the small village. He roamed and talked to people, learning as much as he could from these interactions, as well as from sitting outside the school and simply listening. When he was finally allowed to go to one of only five schools for the blind in China, he quickly mastered Braille and to travel with a cane. He also got an education in how corrupt the state is, and how little people like him matter.
Unlike most of the oppressed masses, however, Guangcheng fought back. It started with a simple dispute over bus fare. According to Chinese law, blind citizens can ride public transportation for free. Yet, everywhere he and his fellow blind students went, they were either charged or thrown off the bus. When he supplied proof of the law, it made no difference. Only when he had the idea to bring in the media and publicize the illegal practice was any headway made.
Although Guangcheng was fascinated by the law, this wasn’t a potential career for a rural blind man in China in the 1990s. He attended a school to learn massage therapy, where he and other blind students spent most of their time massaging corrupt state officials and their mistresses. But he also made friends, and had them read him texts about Chinese law—texts which weren’t available in Braille.
Guangcheng learned how to file lawsuits and developed a lawyer’s mindset on what strategy would work best to fight the state. After he successfully had his taxes reduced, as was his legal right since he wasn’t employable or allowed to charge for his legal help—other people with disabilities sought his help. He stirred up a lot of trouble when he fought to have the state-owned textile mill stop dumping their chemical waste into the small village’s river and primary source of water.
If he had kept his efforts on these lower-level issues, he might have been able to continue indefinitely. But the people with power really resented the negative media attention, especially when he caught the interest of reporters from Europe and the United States. He decided to take on the illegal enforcement of China’s one-child policy, in which teams of state-sponsored thugs routinely captured men and women with more than one child and forced sterilizations or abortions on them. Women in their twenties and thirties with a child were thrown into a van, taken to a medical clinic and forcefully implanted with an IUD, then dumped on the ground where the cadres had found them.
The barefoot lawyer (so called because, like the barefoot doctors, he was self-taught) filed a lawsuit against the state. He was bullied, and began a protest in the small village square, which was enough for the state to lock him away.
The fact that this memoir was published in the United States lets you know he made it out of China. I didn’t find the writing as captivating as some reviewers on goodreads or litlovers, but I do appreciate he was writing in his second language and a propensity for increased drama certainly helps to stir up activism. He and his family are currently in New York, and he’s getting the education he never could under China’s communist programs.
‘The Barefoot Lawyer’ is definitely a worthwhile read, and makes us realize that while rights and services for those with disabilities in the United States isn’t perfect—it sure could be a whole lot worse.
‘The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man’s Fight for Justice and Freedom in China’ by Chen Guangcheng, Henry Holt and Company, 352 pages, 2015
Chris Kuell is a writer and editor by day, superhero wanna-be by night, and activist all the time.