Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng delivers annual Human Dignity Lecture


The Chinese dissident and civil rights activist Chen Guangcheng delivered this year’s Human Dignity Lecture—co-sponsored by the Office of Human Dignity and Life Initiatives and the Institute for Church Life—on Tuesday, April 7, in McKenna Auditorium.  His speech, entitled, “Interpreting Reform: Human Dignity and Human Rights in Contemporary China,” focused on China’s recent reforms as well as the country’s continued human rights issues.

Chen, often referred to as the “barefoot lawyer” for his activism on behalf of the peasant class, became blind at a young age after a fever destroyed his optic nerves.  Despite a lack of formal schooling, he taught himself law and acted as an advocate for many marginalized groups in his home province of Shandong.

He first attracted international attention when he filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of women who had been forced to undergo abortions under China’s restrictive one-child policy.  He was then arrested on false allegations and sentenced to four years and three months in prison.

After his release, he was sentenced to house arrest, until he escaped to the United States Embassy in Beijing in 2012.  A deal was eventually brokered between the U.S. and China that allowed him to leave the country and accept a visiting fellowship at New York University.

Chen began his lecture at Notre Dame by reminding the audience that the foreigners’ perception of China is very different from most Chinese citizens’ reality.  Westerners are probably familiar with big cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou, but, according to Chen, over 70 percent of Chinese people live in rural areas where “they are at the mercy of nature and are forced to rise at sunrise and sleep at sundown.”

He said that the misconception that “all Chinese enjoy a wealthy lifestyle” makes foreigners unaware of the real struggle of the Chinese people.  Official government statistics also propagate this perception by using inflated figures to show that “peasants enjoy a relatively good life,” he added.

Instead, Chen claims that according to surveys, most people in the peasant class live on less than 1000 RMB (about 160 dollars) per month.  He said that this is not because local governments are not financially resourceful, but instead because the lower-class are “without a voice and misrepresented,” and are taxed based on falsified income figures.

As an example, Chen told the well-known story that circulated on the internet of a poor man in Hebei province who had an infected leg but could not afford medical treatment.  He was instead forced to cut off his own leg, a type of outcome that is not as rare as one may think.

Chen said that this inequality is mainly based on the fact that China is currently under autocratic rule, with the only party being the Communist Party of China (CPC), that of former leader and mass-murderer Mao Zedong.  Chen warned that although the government structure may give an impression of shared power, all important decisions are, in reality, made behind the scenes by a party committee.  Nothing is decided through truly democratic means within the government, he emphasized.

He continued, saying that while China does have a constitution, the CPC is more powerful than the judicial system and “will not give in to the legal system.”  As an example of the Party’s all-encompassing desire for power, Chen pointed to the existence of the “Office of Publicity,” which controls all media and must approve all stories or reports that are published.

Chen then explained his own activism in simple terms, asking the audience, “If you saw an elderly person fall on the street, would you help them up?  To me, my work seems that obvious.”

The final part of Chen’s talk focused on China’s one-child policy and the forced family planning that often occurs because of such a policy.  “It is often very violent,” Chen said, “with pregnant women being pulled out of their houses in the middle of the night and being forced to undergo abortions.”  It is on behalf of these women that he filed a class-action suit, and because of this activism that he was arrested.

He explained that the one-child policy is not only objectionable from a human rights’ perspective, but also from an economic perspective, as China’s birth rate is leading to an increasingly older population.

Chen concluded his talk by asking for the audience’s help in bringing about further reforms in China.  He pointed out that if the Communist Party were to rule according to the rule of the people, as it claims to do, then they should be willing to allow democratic elections.

He also urged foreigners not to trust the Chinese government and to continue to exert pressure upon it.  “Even if the Communist Party promised all reforms would be passed at 8:00 a.m. tomorrow, I would encourage all activists to continue their work until 7:59,” he concluded.

Peter Heneghan is a sophomore finance and Chinese major who lives in O’Neill Hall.  He can be reached at