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Keynote Address by Chen Guangcheng at Commencement 2023

Chen Guangcheng, Chinese human rights activist and Distinguished Fellow at the Catholic University of America, gave the keynote address at IWP’s Presidential Investiture and Commencement for the Class of 2023. A video of this address may be found here.

Ladies and Gentlemen, good morning! And congratulations, Class of 2023!

Thank you, President Aldona Z Woś, for your generous introduction. It is truly an honor to give the commencement address to these graduating students.

Today, I will share my view of China and the Communist Party. I will also share some of my experiences in China and how I came to be a barefoot lawyer and human rights activist. I hope my story will prove useful as you step out into the next phase of life.

But first, I want to say how grateful I am to receive the Honorary Doctorate of Laws from IWP. For me, this has special significance. It is my first degree in law. In China, I could not go to law school, because I am blind.  I had to find other ways to learn about law. That’s why people call me a barefoot lawyer.

Why barefoot?

First, in the Cultural Revolution, there were barefoot doctors. Peasants learned basic medicine to treat people in rural areas. Maybe they were working barefoot in the fields one moment, then treating a patient the next. So, barefoot doctor. Similarly, a barefoot lawyer has no formal training.

How did I become a barefoot lawyer?

The story goes back to when I was a baby. I had a fever, but our village was poor. My mother had no money for a doctor. I went blind.

Being blind in China meant you were outside of society. I was not allowed to go to school. In rural areas, blind people studied fortune telling to make a living. This would be my future.

But I didn’t want to give in to fate.  When I was 18, I found a school for the blind. The only majors for blind people in China were music and traditional medicine. But I was interested in the law.  I believed the law could make society better. But blind people could not go to law school.

My friend was being abused by a party official. Most lawyers do not want to take the political risk of suing an official, especially if their client is poor. But I wanted to help, so I prepared a lawsuit, and we brought it to court. It was that simple and that hard. Afterward, I did many other cases about disabled people, poor farmers, and illegal taxes. That is how I became a barefoot lawyer.

Chen Guangcheng receiving an honorary doctorate from IWP
Dr. James Robbins, IWP Dean of Academics; Chen Guangcheng with an honorary doctorate from IWP; and Amb. Aldona Wos, IWP President

Then, in 2005, the CCP started a brutal one-child policy campaign. Party thugs dragged women from their homes for forced abortions and sterilization. Their families were beaten, tortured. The CCP lied about this. But I could not live with these lies. I could not let these atrocities continue.

So, I did an investigation and prepared a class action lawsuit. But the CCP blocked the case. So, I told The Washington Post. Finally, the world knew the truth about the CCP’s brutality.

But I was now the enemy of the CCP. They kidnapped me and put me in secret detention. I spent over four years in jail. Then they locked me and my family in our home. They beat us and took everything, even the last pencil and scrap of paper. Dozens of guards surrounded us, 24 hours a day. No one could come near us.

To the outside world, the CCP said, “Chen Guangcheng is free.”

To me, they said, “How much money can we pay you to make you stop to do human rights work?” But my conscience was not for sale. I did not give in. My family did not give in, either.

They started building a private jail for us. Bars from ceiling to concrete floor. It seemed we might die there. But, on a spring day like this, I escaped.

It was a miracle. I waited and listened.  I climbed eight walls and broke my foot. But I crawled on my hands and knees, passed nine rings of guys, and kept going out of my village. My wife and daughter pretended I was at home. The guards didn’t know I was gone.

I found friends, and we escaped. In Beijing, American officials brought me to the U.S. embassy, even with the CCP spies chasing us. However, some people didn’t want my case to upset U.S.-CCP relations. But justice prevailed. People insisted my case mattered. And at last, I came to America with my family.

This is a good lesson. Stick by your values. Even when those in power pressure you.

I made the right choice in going to the American embassy. America is the land of the free and the home of the brave. It holds the hopes and dreams of humanity. America is a beacon of freedom and a model of democracy. Democracy is not perfect, but it acknowledges its imperfections and can strive to become better.

Communist authoritarianism acknowledges no mistakes. It is fundamentally opposed to democratic constitutionalism and the rule of law.

Communist authoritarianism acknowledges no mistakes. It is fundamentally opposed to democratic constitutionalism and the rule of law. Like devil to angel, the two are not compatible. Like fire and water, they cannot coexist in the same vessel.

The CCP’s main enemy at home is the Chinese people. The CCP spends more on monitoring and repressing the Chinese people than it does on its military. Anyone who criticizes will be persecuted. Anyone who exposes the truth – lawyers, journalists, netizens, mothers, teachers – risks being kidnapped, disappeared, tortured, imprisoned. No one can feel safe under CCP rule.

The CCP’s main enemy abroad is America. The regime tries to weaken the U.S. through propaganda and theft, by infiltrating institutions and corroding civil society. The ultimate objectives of the CCP are to destroy universal values, civilized culture, and individual freedoms of body and mind. The CCP wants to tear down the West’s free market economy, social ethics, and religious beliefs.

The Chinese Communist Party not only hurts the Chinese people. It harms people around the world. The CCP has grown wealthy from trade and uses its financial power to influence the international order. But it wants more. The CCP’s dictatorial authoritarianism is more dangerous than any weapon of mass destruction. While the CCP regime remains in power, the world remains in danger.

As the world’s most powerful democracy, America has a responsibility to rally other nations to stand up to the CCP. America is a place of opportunity. As we say in Chinese, a place where “the heavens are high and the birds soar.”  But to protect our way of life and bring the freedom and democracy that people crave around the world, America must confront the CCP regime.

This is a challenge, a challenge for democracies, a challenge for each of us.

But with challenge, there is opportunity. In Chinese we have a saying: “If you experience no hardship, you will not become a Buddha.”

Graduates, this is my advice. Rise to your challenges, supported by the pillars of your conscience. It is our collective tendency to do right that will finally bring democracy and human rights to people around the world.

Even in my darkest hour, I never lost hope. I escaped the claws of the CCP and now stand before you. This is proof that nothing is impossible.

Each of you has boundless strength inside. Use it! As long as you persevere and go forward with truth and a firm conscience, your future will be bright.

Use your intelligence, your skills to create the world you want to live in. America’s future and the hope of the world rests with you and your generation.

Do not fear hardship; do not fear danger. Go forth with passion and fortitude. Together we will make miracles.

Thank you. And good luck!

Read more about IWP Commencement