The self taught Chinese ‘barefoot lawyer’ Chen Guangcheng may not have followed the Chartered Institute of Legal Executive (CILEX) path to non-graduate legal qualification, but for me he’s a legal executive in spirit.
Chen, who begins studying law the traditional way at New York Law School (NYU) this week, didn’t experience any form of formal education until he was 13. Blinded by a fever when he was a baby, he would go on to become the first person in his family to attend university, where he studied massage and acupuncture – one of the only professions open to blind people in China.
On the quiet, though, Chen kept slipping off to law lectures – despite the fact that blind students weren’t allowed to graduate in the subject – and subsequently used the legal knowledge he had gleaned to help people back in his village.
With his family reading legal documents for him, Chen’s clients included a dwarf who had been refused a business licence because of his height and a family whose paranoid schizophrenic son had been classed as fully-functioning by the authorities…
“Chen is really a lotus rising out of the muck; he represents the rising pressure from ordinary farmers in China who haven’t benefited from the country’s spectacular economic rise and who are often run roughshod over,” Jerome Cohen, the NYU professor who helped Chen (pictured) secure his place at the university, told the Financial Times earlier this month.
Despite his willingness to stand up to authority, Chen was initially praised in state newspapers, and held up as an example of someone who had beat their disability to provide pro bono legal advice. But he found himself in trouble in 2005 when he brought a case against the local government for carrying out illegal forced abortions and sterilisations.
In this excellent profile of Chen, which is worth reading in full, the FT explains what happened next:
The courts refused to accept his case. After he turned to the international media he was placed under house arrest and sentenced to three years and four months in prison for “damaging property and organising a mob to disturb traffic”. As he was carted off to prison, Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience.
Chen escaped house arrest last month and sought refuge in the US embassy in Beijing, sparking a diplomatic struggle between China and the US. But he has since been allowed to study in the US on a student visa. There are fears, however, for his family members left behind in China.