This week VOC will award its Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom to Chinese legal scholar and civil rights activist Chen Guangcheng, for his heroic efforts promoting individual rights and the rule of law.
Through his work and activism, Chen Guangcheng has helped expose the crimes of the Chinese Communist Party, including forced abortions and corruption, and has given voice to China’s disabled population.
Chen was born in China’s Shandong province in 1971, in the midst of the country’s violent Cultural Revolution. Chen became blind when he was five-months old because of an untreated fever. This life-changing event categorized him as one of China’s greatest discriminated groups—the disabled.
In China, as Chen once explained, the disabled are not considered fully human. Until the 1980s they were referred to as “useless.” Since the 1990s China’s law guarantees employment, education, welfare, and access to the country’s disabled, but they still continue to encounter difficulties in society. Disabled children are usually kept confined at home, most schools do not allow disabled students, and figures show that only a quarter of the country’s disabled meet any form of employment. Even the cities are a struggle to those who manage to get out—pathways for the blind often lead to dead ends or trees, and other help, such as guide dogs, are forbidden.
Chen was bound to follow the same fate. However, his fate changed when he was 17 and enrolled in a school for the blind 40 miles away from his hometown. Chen spent the next decade of his life studying, rapidly moving from primary school to the university, where he studied Chinese medicine and massage. It was during this time that Chen started fighting against the injustice he saw. He would speak against teachers and government authorities that mistreated him because of his condition.
Because of his experiences, Chen left medical school and returned to his hometown to study law. He trained himself as a lawyer, earning his nickname, “barefoot lawyer.” Soon after he created petitions, standing up for those with disabilities and those who were abused by local authorities. With time, his battles against the Chinese authorities grew larger, ranging from land rights to corruption and government transparency. Chen believes that by exposing the abuses he can put an end to them.
One of Chen’s most well known fights has been against China’s one-child policy. The Chinese authorities’ coercive enforcement of the policy with forced abortions and sterilizations was replaced in the 1990s by financial incentives and fines. However, Chen found that these violent measures were still being practiced. In 2005, he filed a lawsuit against the Shandong local government, which still used coercion to enforce the policy. Although his lawsuit was rejected, he managed to raise international attention on the issue.
Because Chen was pursuing a case against the ruling party, he was marked as a “counter-revolutionary” by the authorities. He was sentenced to four years in prison. During his trial, he was accused of trumped up charges and was denied access to defense lawyers.
Upon his release, he was sentenced to house arrest along with the rest of his family. The Chinese government spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep Chen under control. They built a two-meter high wall surrounding his house for “security” measures and kept guards patrolling it. His phones were tapped and his extended family and friends were subjected to surveillance.
After a year and a half of house arrest, on April 2012, Chen climbed over the wall surrounding his house, and with a broken foot made his way to the U.S. embassy in Beijing to seek refuge. After several negotiations between the U.S. government and the Chinese Communist Party, Chen and his family moved to the states. He now works for the Witherspoon Institute and the Catholic University of America.
Chen has become one of the main figures of the Chinese civil rights movement. After being deemed a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, he was placed in TIME’s list of 100 most influential people in the world. His memoir and his work are a constant reminder of the struggles of China’s disabled, the Chinese Communist Party’s misuse of the law, and the systematic human rights violations in the world’s largest country.
Chen Guangcheng will receive the Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom on November 5th, during the inaugural China Forum in Washington, D.C.