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Book Review-- The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man's Fight for Justice and Freedom in China

alec vanderboom

Activist Chen Guangcheng's new memoir, "The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man's Fight for Justice and Freedom in China" is a great read for all Catholic adults. Chen is a self-taught legal activist who went after the Chinese Communist Government for basic human rights violations using the Party's own legal rhetoric against itself. With a combination of his bravery and legal jujutsu, Chen finds himself winning cases of disability rights, environmental law, and pro-life objections to China's One Child Policy. Tired of being hassled, the Chinese government eventually imprisons Chen under brutal house-arrest. The blind Chen then manages to outwit 30 Communist guards and makes a solo escape to the US Consulate in Beijing. Eventually, Chen, his wife, and their two children relocate to New York City.

Although this memoir is imperfectly edited, the scope of Chen's story makes his book a thrilling page turner. Chen grew up as a fifth son in a poor family inside rural China in the 1970s and 1980s. His parents didn't give him a proper first time at his birth. Chen is called simply "Fifth Son." Chen boldly names himself as an adolescent as a sign of his growing self-identity.

Chen's parents suffer under extremely inept socialist conditions created by the Chinese Leader, Chairman Mao in during Chen's youth. As an infant, Chen goes blind after his mother is unable to access medical care for him after he suffers from a fever. Chen summarizes this incident as "I was blinded by Communism."

Blind and disabled people in rural China faced extreme discrimination. Chen is unable to attend school with his older brothers due to his blindness. Blind people in China traditionally faced extreme poverty. Yet Chen showed so much boldness as a kid. In one of my favorite passages, Chen argues against his father's desire to apprentice him as a storyteller, an traditional occupation for the blind in rural China. Chen explains to his father "The radio is here now Dad! I can't make a living as a blind storyteller when I'm older. That job is over!"

At age 17, Chen enrolls in one of the few elementary schools for the blind in a distant city. Ironically, Chen becomes the only member of his family to obtain a college degree. Chen becomes a traditional doctor after great self-sacrifice. Chen basically starves himself while spending years at school because his poor family is unable to send enough money for him to eat properly while he is attending a school far from home.

Chen begins his disability rights career as a blind student. He quickly expands to environmental activism when water pollution threatens his childhood home. Chen is able to use his English skills to connect with British Foreign Aid Workers to gain funding and publicity for his safe water projects inside his rural village. He abandons his plans to become a traditional Chinese doctor and instead becomes a "barefoot" lawyer.

Catholics will be particularly interested Chen's first hand account of how the One Child Policy is enforced inside of China. Chen talked about the major culture shift that happened to reverse the ancient Chinese reverence for having large families. Chen himself is one of five sons. Yet he was only in his 20s when his older brother was forcibly sterilized, denied his government teaching job, and fined more than 40 times the average yearly salary because he had an "extra" child. Chen's own wife was pregnant with their second child at a time when Chen bravely started documenting the abuses that the rural Family Planning Commissions committed against Chinese parents. Both Chen and his wife are beaten and imprisoned due to their activism on this issue.

The action in Chen's book is so fast-paced, it reads like a movie script. There are some wonderful passages in "The Barefoot Lawyer" that helped me feel connected to China even when Chinese cultural beliefs seem so different from my own. Chen believes deeply in the dignity of the human person. I found it refreshing to read about a passionate pro-life activist who writes from a secular point of view. Despite Chen's brutal treatment by Chinese authorities, Chen retains a deep love for his homeland. At the end of the book, I found myself hoping that Chen's current sojourn in America would not be his life's final chapter.