“He who helps himself is helped by God” this phrase sums up what the prominent Chinese human rights lawyer, Cheng Guangcheng, learned during his epic escape from a Chinese regime prison ten years ago.
Chen’s sufferings during his imprisonment are common to the millions of people who have lost their freedom in China, just for demanding the free exercise of their civil rights, for belonging to an ethnic minority, or for professing a traditional spiritual discipline.
It was courage, moral integrity, trust in God, and careful observation of his enemy that paved his path to liberation, hindered by the hundreds of guards surrounding his prison-turned-home.
These valuable attributes yielded the fruit of his freedom and that of his wife and two children. Chen is one of China’s most famous political activists.
By inspiring example, Chen has motivated many of his unjustly persecuted compatriots. He has also drawn valuable lessons from this ordeal, enabling other victims to cope with the oppression they suffer in their country.
His difficult background
Chen was born in 1971 in Dongshigu, a remote rural village in Shandong Province, China. An illness blinded him as an infant; his parents were poor farmers and had great difficulty supporting him.
Despite his disability, he was determined to get an education and only finally managed to read and write at the age of 18 in a school for the blind. He would be the first person in his family to obtain a higher academic degree.
His audacity inspired him to fight for the rights of the poor in his country, for which he was repeatedly harassed, beaten, and imprisoned by the Chinese authorities.
Chen learned of many cases of injustice around him and began to denounce them. He tried to study law, but because of his blindness, he was not allowed to enter state universities. However, he taught himself and started working on legal cases related to civil rights and disability.
Among his early successes, he won free transportation for the blind throughout China after suing the Beijing Metro Corporation. Since then, he has been noticed by the international media. In 2005, Newsweek chose him for its cover.
The “crimes” Chen was convicted of
He went on to investigate the Chinese regime’s violent imposition of the One Child Policy, which included forced abortions and sterilizations.
This case led to a period of harassment and detention that would last more than seven years, including house arrest, confinement in unofficial “black jails,” and a four-year prison sentence. Chen and his wife were subjected to severe beatings, and their home was ransacked several times.
In his memoir, “The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man’s Struggle for Justice and Freedom in China,” he tells his story as a person who never accepted limits and always believed in the power of the human spirit to overcome the enormous obstacles that the Communist Party of China (CPC) placed in the way of his goals.
The epic escape
After nearly two years of brutal detention in his own home, he realized that the only way to end the situation was to escape. In this risky mission, he had the support of his wife, even though his mother had warned him that it was madness to attempt it.
He had to make it through several security rings around his home and village to elicit an escape, with at least 100 guards to elude. Also, his neighbor’s nervy dog barked at the slightest movement.
After careful observation of his enemies’ habits and counting on the fact that that night, April 20, 2012, the snitch dog was moved to another house in the village, Chen scaled the wall of his house to freedom.
However, given the limiting blindness he suffered, he fractured his foot when he fell to the other side.
Enduring the terrible pain, he took refuge in his neighbor’s pig barn, from where he set off again later that night.
After stumbling and falling many times, he tried to cross the Meng River, which proved impossible given its vast expanse.
What to do? Exceeding all expectations, he decided to use the heavily guarded bridge. He was not stopped as impossible as it may seem, apparently because the guards were asleep.
Exhausted and suffering from his broken foot, Cheng staggered into the neighboring village, Xishigu, where he was taken in by Liu Yuancheng, a villager he had defended after being beaten by family planning officials in the past.
Liu sought out Chen’s brother and his wife, Chen Guangfu and Ren Zongju, who brought Chen to Beijing with the help of their supporters.
Needless to say, Chen Guangfu was tortured by CCP officials for two days and three nights in retaliation for his brother’s escape, according to the BBC. Four other family members were also detained, and several houses in the village were raided.
Chen then took refuge for six days in the U.S. embassy, from where he traveled to New York, following high-level diplomatic negotiations. There, he obtained a New York University School of Law scholarship in 2012. He then entered the Catholic University of America.
It is to be considered that Chen’s case is not unique. An example of the repression suffered by human rights defenders violated by the Chinese regime was seen in 2015, and this year, CCP security forces lashed out against them again. As a result, hundreds of arrests were coordinated overnight across the country.
Some 300 lawyers and rights activists were targeted in the crackdown, the U.S. State Department recalled, last year.
“Six years later, the government continues to hold many of those initially arrested, such as Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi, in pre-trial detention,” it reported.
Once released, Chen won several international awards for his courageous advocacy on behalf of his fellow Chinese nationals, who the Chinese regime’s policies have trampled.
In 2013, he testified before the U.S. Congress, where he denounced the human rights abuses and violations perpetrated by the CCP.
“We cannot continue to tolerate the Chinese Communist authorities continuing to go back on their words and deceiving the international community at will,” Chen said at that hearing.
“Forced abortion is definitely a human rights issue,” Chen said. “No mother wants to kill their own children. It’s definitely dictated by the Central Communist Party. The Communist Party is above the law. So nobody can sue the Chinese Communist Party.”
Years later, he firmly reiterated: “The Chinese Communist Party is an enemy of humanity.”
He added: “In China, expressing beliefs or ideas not approved by the CCP—religion, democracy, human rights—can lead to prison. The nation lives under mass surveillance and censorship.”
Even today, Chen continues to denounce the outrages of the Chinese regime and, in one of his most recent tweets, concluded: “There is no hope for reform, and we must resolve to exterminate the communist bandits.”
On May 17, Chen was honored with the Bradley Award, given to those who restore, strengthen and protect American principles and institutions. On this occasion, he reiterated his appraisals of the communist regime in his country and the importance of the rule of law.
“The Constitution and the rule of law guarantee democracy, freedom, human rights, and social justice,” Chen said.
And he mentioned the contrast with the authoritarianism of the CCP, saying, “The ultimate objectives of the CCP are to destroy universal values, civilized culture and individual freedoms of body and mind.”