Barefoot Lawyer by Chen Guangcheng

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

Barefoot Lawyer is a remarkable memoir by Chen Guangcheng, a blind civil rights activist from Dongshigu in Northeast China. Having lost his eyesight even before the age of one, Guangcheng battled discrimination against the handicapped, finding himself opportunities for education after being refused from the local village school. Whilst at a school for the blind in Linyi, further experiences of discrimination, such as a bus driver refusing to adhere to a law allowing the blind to use public transportation for free, sparked his dedication to social activism, ultimately leading him to become a self-taught lawyer.

Being a “barefoot lawyer” is illegal on grounds of practicing without a license, but Chen represents all clients who cannot afford legal services, or whose cases could risk angering the government because they involve infringement of human rights – cases that many qualified lawyers stay away from. Attracting the government’s attention through a class action lawsuit against illegal taxing of disabled people in 2002, and then through a lawsuit against a local government’s violent and illegal enforcement of the one child policy in 2005, Chen is thrown in jail on a fictitious charge for four years. Once released, his entire family is placed under house arrest in Dongshigu, with any visitors (including Christian Bale) banned from entering the village.

After breaking a foot coming down a wall, dragging himself through the village in the night, and racing against Chinese officials to the American embassy, Chen manages to leave the country with his family to the US with the help of Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State at the time.

This book is essential reading to gain a better understanding of the current human rights situation or the discrimination towards the poor and disabled in China. From his inability to access education to “black jails” and kidnappings, Chen recounts his experiences in full detail and leaves no stone unturned. Furthermore, the book also sheds light on the role of the US in upholding human rights around the world, as Chen discusses his disillusionment with the country during Clinton’s negotiations with the Chinese government. Rather than pushing for what Chen wanted, they instead kept trying to pressure him to accept the Chinese government’s demands, making Chen worry for his and his family’s safety.

The passion that Chen expresses for his work and beliefs is contagious, and anyone reading this book will find themselves with a strong interest for human rights and the law’s role in upholding it around the world. Providing a real world perspective on the difficulties in maintaining human rights through a legal system where not all legislation is properly enforced, The Barefoot Lawyer is sure to make you question if law alone can achieve adequate human rights protection

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