Chen Guangchen: Fighting for democracy


Perhaps the greatest moment in China’s struggle for democracy so far this century happened was when Chen Guangcheng managed to escape from imprisonment in his farm house to the US embassy in Beijing hundreds of miles away. The world’s two biggest powers were forced to negotiate over one man’s fate. Chen spoke in the Union chamber two weeks ago, and I had the privilege of interviewing him on his way back to London.

On the train, I asked him how he became a human rights lawyer: “The most important reason is that there are so many unjust events in China, and the powerless and voiceless Chinese people need a lot of help in this respect. I don’t even have a law degree, and I never got to study law properly. Whenever I witnessed people in unfortunate circumstances, I taught myself relevant laws to help them out.”

The new Chinese leader Xi Jinping likes to talk about the “Chinese dream”, evoking its American equivalent. Ironically, Mr Chen is a good candidate for someone who fulfilled the dream. Blind from an early age and poorly educated until adulthood, he taught himself law and became a barefoot lawyer who advocates for women’s rights, land right, and the welfare of the poor. The local government actually praised him for years for defending the rights of disabled people. However, the state’s praise ended when Chen organised a famous class-action lawsuit against the local party over excessive enforcement of the one-child policy. After four years in jail, Chen was under house arrest for 19 months.

I asked him why he decided to escape from house arrest: “I didn’t think there was any point in passively sitting around and waiting. I had to think creatively about how to escape.” The blind human rights lawyer managed to escape through the prison-like security surrounding his home, but why did he choose the US embassy? He said “There wasn’t much time to think deeply about the issue; I didn’t even know whether the US would help me.”

Some might say going to the Americans was a bad choice for someone who needs to garner support among ordinary Chinese citizens. The moment he escaped to the US embassy, many Chinese people might have regarded him as a part of the grand US plan to destablise the Communist party. All his activism outside China could’ve been simply reduced to serving the US interest. He responded, “No one will be fooled by such propaganda by the Communist party. The Chinese people are smart enough to discern whether I am being used by America or not.”

Chen is a great idealist, which is perhaps both his greatest weakness and his greatest strength. His thoughts seemed naive at times, and yet perhaps became more powerful for that. I asked his whether he thought that a Western concept of democracy is not appropriate for East Asian Countries like China: “The Chinese Communist Party always says we cannot copy Western democracy. In some sense, they are correct. We can’t simply copy. But why can’t China pull off a similar democracy to Japan or South Korea?”

Some people argue that the overwhelming majority of Chinese people don’t want democracy yet and support the Communist party because it delivered the fastest growth in the standards of living over the last 30 years. I asked Chen whether the Chinese people actually feel this way: “It feels as if I am listening to the Communist party propaganda. People don’t resist the government because they are scared. It’s not because they are satisfied with the status quo. The Communist party obviously wants you to believe they are, but in fact they are choosing not to express their discontent.”

How should the Chinese people defeat this fear? “It all starts from realising how unjust the Chinese society is, and I am confident that they will overcome this fear once they stand up against the party a few times… If you walk in the dark for the first time, it’s scary, but if you do it again, you don’t fear the darkness any more. The Chinese Communist party won’t stop their oppression if you just watch them and do nothing. It will only getter if you start demanding your rights.”

“I didn’t believe in democracy from the beginning. I arrived at this belief through long process. As I took on cases, I realised that there is something fundamentally wrong about the system. Democracy has its weaknesses, but it is certainly the best political system out of all.”

Many commentators have pointed to the strongly collectivist Confucian culture in China and argued that Western-style democracy is not applicable to East Asia. Chen Guancheng disagress. He believes it’s necessary.