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Chinese Civil Rights Activist Chen Guangcheng Recounts His Life's Journey

Civil rights activist and self-taught lawyer Chen Guangcheng made headlines in 2012 when he escaped house arrest in China and fled to the United States Embassy in Beijing.  He is in Pittsburgh for the second time to read from his memoir, “The Barefoot Lawyer.” Guancheng and his translator, Danica Mills, joined Essential Pittsburgh to reflect on his life and his thoughts on human rights throughout the world.  

Growing up in poverty in the Chinese countryside at a time when only five schools offered classes for the blind, Guangcheng, who was born without sight, was not able to obtain an education until was 18 years old.  From there, he explained his interest in the law stemmed from noticeable oppression of the Chinese citizens from the government and a will to learn about civil rights.

A self-taught lawyer, Guangcheng says he learned from both domestic and international radio broadcasts about topics such as democracy and civil rights. 

Guangcheng was convicted in 2006 for organizing a class-action lawsuit against the Chinese government for extreme enforcement of the “one child policy.” Because violence and brutality are often used in this campaign, including forced abortion and torture, Guangcheng felt it his duty to uphold the civil rights of women.

“Any person with a rational, good heart would have to react,” Guangcheng says. 

After serving his full four years in prison, he was placed under house arrest in 2010 where he and his wife tried numerous means of escape, only to be brutally beaten when they were caught.  Finally, after a year of planning, he and his wife were finally able to escape, despite breaking his foot in the process.

Once he got to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, he was grateful that he was able to seek safety, but felt pressure from the U.S. government to accept a deal with China that may have put his life and family in jeopardy.

“The White House felt it expedient to maintain the U.S./Chinese relationship above all,” Guangcheng explains.  He says aids there urged him to leave the Embassy as quickly as possible so the two parties could negotiate a compromise.  Yet even while under scrutiny from their “bosses,” Guangcheng says the workers there tried to accommodate him as much as possible and he is confident in his choice to flee to the United States Embassy.

“I still feel that America is one of the strongest nations when it comes to human rights and that if I had gone to another Embassy at that time, my situation would have been much worse.”

Although his family back home does not face the same kind of harassment that he endured from the Chinese government, he still faces threats to this day.  Still, Guangcheng challenges the Chinese people to continue to stand up for their rights and spread awareness of oppression both within and outside of the country.

“I want people to know that they need to share what is going on, share information, so everyone can communicate.”

He hopes that Chinese students attending American colleges will take their experience and share their education with those back in China, however he notes that many of these students are from wealthier families and may not understand the oppression of many back home.  Shortly after his arrival in the United States, Guangcheng took a position at New York University School of Law as a visiting scholar, but a year later left, saying the school had “asked him to leave” under pressure from Beijing.   He encourages Americans to be cognizant of the pressure from Communist China, and that very few organizations are except from its influence.

In regards to the United Nations Conference on Climate Change being held in Paris, Guangcheng says isn’t confident in the Chinese Communist authorities.  While he knows many civilians are aware of the issue, he knows they fear that action will result in backlash from their government.

“Every time people speak out or try to fight back, there’s a crackdown.  So it’s not that China isn’t able to make a change in the area of environmental conservation, but that the will isn’t there in the leadership.”

Guangcheng will be reading from his memories at City of Asylum on Dec. 1 from 7-9 p.m.  

More Essential Pittsburgh segments can be heard here.

Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA, where she writes, edits and generates both web and on-air content for features and daily broadcast. She's the producer and host of our Good Question! series and podcast. She also covers history and the LGBTQ community. kblackley@wesa.fm
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