A Blind Lawyer vs. Blind Chinese Power

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
The blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng with his wife, Yuan Weijing, in New York City, shortly after fleeing China, May 2012

In early 2012, Chen Guangcheng, a self-taught lawyer who had been blind since infancy, lived with his wife and two children in the village of Dongshigu, where he’d been raised, on the eastern edge of the North China plain. They were not there by choice. For a little over a decade, Chen had waged a public campaign against corruption, pollution, forced abortion, and other abuses of power. Officials had responded with escalating punishments. After he completed a four-year jail sentence on a charge of “obstructing traffic,” Chen and his family were confined to his ancestral home in a form of undeclared and indefinite house arrest. The local government covered the windows with metal sheeting and stationed guards around the building. Phones, computers, and televisions were forbidden. When one of Chen’s brothers died, Chen was permitted to send only his seven-year-old daughter to mourn him. To send back a message, another brother resorted to whispering to the daughter while they knelt beside the grave.

In early 2011 Chen and his wife, Yuan Weijing, made a video pleading for help that was smuggled out of China; afterward, guards beat Yuan, breaking her ribs. A year later, when guards roughed up his mother, who was seventy-seven, Chen reached a decision—“my anger congealed into a kind of desperate resolve,” he writes in The Barefoot Lawyer, a fierce memoir of rural life and dissent. “I would escape, or try to escape, and I would do it soon.” The architect of his jailbreak would be his wife. For weeks, she visited their roof, pretending to be drying corn or hanging laundry; she was mapping out each footstep that he would take to climb into an adjoining yard. She cleared the leaves that would crackle underfoot, she counted the walls that he would scale, and she monitored the habits of the guards. Finally, she studied the lunar calendar for a chengri—an auspicious day: April 20.

At night the village was too quiet for an escape; Chen could hear the beeping of the guards’ cell phones as they played games. So he departed in daylight: over the roof, creeping from backyard to backyard, hiding for hours in a goat pen while his wife and daughter carried on a charade of normalcy. For nearly four decades, Chen had navigated his way in the village without sight, using, as he puts it, “the patterns of sounds, the mix of smells, the organization of space.” He could estimate the time by noting which village roosters cried at which hour of the day. He had a system for avoiding obstacles without use of a cane:

By making just the slightest shhhh sound, no louder than a light wind in a pine tree, I could determine from the returning sound…

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