For 20 years Chen Guangcheng has been stirring up trouble: He has pursued human-rights cases in rural areas of China, advocating for women’s rights, rights for the disabled, land rights, constitutional law, and the rule of law. He’s also an unlikely crusader. Blind since early childhood and self-taught in law, he became known as the “barefoot lawyer.”
But he doesn’t talk in terms of crusading. He says, “It was natural for me to step on this journey.” Not embarking on it, he says, would be “like trying to shy away from being beaten by somebody who uses sticks to attack you.”
That was a remark he made on March 18 at the Louis B. Mayer Theatre, where Chen was awarded the 2013 George and Katharine Alexander Law Prize, presented since 2008 to top lawyers who have used their legal careers to help alleviate injustice and inequity. Chen has lived in the United States since last year. How did he get here?
PRISON AND ESCAPE
In 2006, Chen filed a class action lawsuit against authorities in the Shandong province, alleging excessive enforcement of China’s one-child policy—which often results in forced abortions and sterilizations. Chen was arrested on trumped-up charges. After a trial, during which he was denied access to his legal counsel, he was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison. In 2006, Timemagazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Immediately after being released in September 2010, Chen was again placed under house arrest and reportedly beaten when his treatment was aired on the Internet. But in April 2012 he made a daring escape from house arrest and fled to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. He drew attention not just from U.S. diplomats but the British Foreign Secretary, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International, each of which issued appeals on his behalf. He and his family ultimately were granted U.S. visas after negotiations with the Chinese government that allowed them to travel to New York, where Chen now lives with his wife and two children and studies law.
Family members who still live in China report being pressured and abused. Among them: Chen’s nephew, Chen Kegui, who has been accused of attempted homicide after defending himself against bandits looting his home.
Today in China, “justice is kidnapped, so the ordinary people cannot voice their opinions,” Chen told his Santa Clara audience.
But that doesn’t let ordinary people off the hook. “In the United States, attorneys carry heavy responsibility for alleviating injustice. In China, lawyers are also endeavoring and working hard, but in contrast it is different, because the Chinese lawyers will face suppression. It doesn’t matter if it’s a lawyer or a scholar … everyone has a responsibility to make a society better.”
He expressed hopes for what’s to come in China, but he counseled caution about being overly optimistic about what recent changes in leadership mean for the legal system.
The Alexander Prize is made possible due to the generosity and friendship of Katharine and George Alexander. Katharine served for many years as a public defender in the Santa Clara County court system and earned a reputation as a tireless advocate for her clients. George served as professor of law for 34 years, and led as dean for 15 years.
The prize was presented by President Michael E. Engh, S.J., and Dean of Law Don Polden, who steps down this summer after 10 years of leading the law school.
Lisa Kloppenberg begins work as the new dean on July 1. She comes to SCU from the University of Dayton, where she led the law school.