The struggle against corrupt and unjust officials is the main theme of the 14th century Chinese novel Shui Hu (Water margin). “It’s a kind of Chinese Robin Hood-story”, Chen Guangcheng explains. Remarkably, it were these stories, read to him by his father, that engrained in Chen a sense of justice and inspired him to become a lawyer.
Chen Guangcheng is level-headed and modest, but he has had to endure a lot in the last couple of years. A self-taught lawyer, he took up several legal cases against the Chinese government. Most famously he lodged a complaint against the authorities for the abortions and sterilizations that are still being forced on Chinese women. It brought him into conflict with the government and he was jailed for four years.
Last year Chen spectacularly escaped his house in Shandong Province – where he had been held in illegal detention – fleeing to the American Embassy in Beijing. Intensive diplomatic efforts made possible that he received a study visa for the United States one month later. Since May 2012 Chen has been living with his wife and two children in New York.
On a recent trip to Europe Chen Guangcheng found time to give an interview to ScienceGuide.
Teaching yourself law while being blind, how on earth did you do that?
“It was extremely difficult! For instance, I didn’t have any text books. Someone would borrow text books and read it out to me. I would listen and memorize it all.”
Can disabled people easily enter the higher education institutions in China?
“Before 1985 about 1% of all people with a disability would be able to enter education. In China there are ten million blind people. Today only about 4 per cent of them receive education.”
Would you have been the same activist person if you would have gone to a Chinese law school?
“I think my heart for justice wouldn’t have been different. But it would have been much easier to work as a lawyer.”
More and more Chinese universities start cooperating with foreign universities. Does this result in more openness and academic autonomy on the Chinese side?
“On the one level this cooperation empowers people to learn from each other. On another level those foreign academic institutions become self-restrained after a period of working closely with Chinese authorities.”
What is your opinion on this self-restraining?
“I think this is decadence, it is downgrading your own academic standards. And if you compromise just for the sake of convenience it is irresponsible as well.”
A secret Government directive – called the ‘seven-no policy’ – was circulated among university staff, listing topics that are not supposed to be mentioned at Chinese universities. The topics: universal values, press freedom, civil society, civil rights, historic errors of the Communist party, the class of crony capitalists and judicial independence.
What advice would you give European universities that work together with Chinese counterparts?
“I think that they should stick firmly to their principles, especially to the principle of academic freedom. It is very good to seek cooperation when it results in more academic freedom, but if your cooperation compromises this, it is a tragedy and the effort is not worth wile.”
You are now at New York University Law School, what is the focus of your studies now?
“I will focus on democracy, human rights and the rule of law with a specific accent on human rights of disabled persons. Furthermore I’m interested in the advance of social justice, in information transparency and accountability.”
If you would be China’s President, what would be the first thing you would change?
“I would first establish the freedom of expression in China. Moreover I would guarantee pluralism and end the monopoly of political power.”
Do you see a role for Open Education in China?
“At present I can’t see that trend happening . There is only one organization experimenting with Open Education and that is the Ministry of Education. But the fact that we don’t have Open Education today, doesn’t mean we can’t have it tomorrow.”
But therefore internet access is important, and internet access is being curbed…
“It is a fact that the Chinese government is increasingly trying to build up fire walls. It is a problem and I think the international community has a responsibility to break down this ‘Internet Berlin Wall’.”
“On the other hand, social networks are fired up everywhere in China now. And what’s more exciting, civil society engagement in general is growing. That is where I expect the change will come from. Furthermore, I don’t think the Communist Party wants to anger the whole world by completely cutting off the internet.”
What is your next project?
Laughing: “The English language.”