Chinese human rights activist to receive Kenyon award honoring commitments to democracy

Chen Guangcheng will join Leopoldo López ’93 in conversation about personal sacrifice for the public good.

By Mary Keister
Date
Chen Guangcheng

Chen Guangcheng. Oil painting by Jeremy Rosario.

GAMBIER, Ohio — Kenyon College’s Center for the Study of American Democracy (CSAD) announced today the winner of the inaugural Leopoldo López Freedom and Democracy Award: Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng. 

The award was created in 2019 by family and classmates of prominent Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López, a 1993 graduate of Kenyon, to honor his dedication to the peaceful advancement of freedom and democracy. It was given to Chen in recognition of Chen’s extraordinary commitment to the rule of law, a commitment which came at great personal sacrifice to him and his family. 

Chen will accept his award in a virtual event held April 8 at 6 p.m. EDT. Following the presentation of the award, Chen and López will engage in conversation about the importance of personal sacrifice in supporting democracy — an extraordinary discussion that will bring together two of the world’s most prominent exiles on the same virtual stage. 

“Chen Guangcheng’s life and work vividly demonstrate that efforts to hold unconstrained and powerful regimes to account are always fraught with great peril. To advance the cause of freedom and democracy in places where it is absent demands enormous personal courage and a willingness to sacrifice on the behalf of others, rare qualities that we honor with this award,” said David Rowe, CSAD director and professor of political science.

Blind since childhood, Chen taught himself law in the 1990s while taking classes in acupuncture and massage, then the only programs available to blind students in China. He has fought for land rights and the rights of disabled people in China since the 1990s and is most well-known for his strenuous advocacy against forced abortions and sterilizations carried out under China’s one-child policy. Chen was imprisoned from 2006-2010 on charges of property damage and traffic disruption and placed under house arrest, which he escaped in April 2012 by fleeing to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. He was permitted by Chinese authorities to travel with his family to the U.S., where he lives today in exile.

Chen was named to the 2006 Time 100 list and is the recipient of numerous honors, including the 2007 Ramon Magsaysay Award, a 2008 Democracy Award from the National Endowment for Democracy, the 2012 Lantos Human Rights Prize, the 2012 Human Rights First Award and the 2014 Geneva Summit Courage Award. He is the author of a 2015 memoir, “The Barefoot Lawyer,” and currently holds appointments at the Witherspoon Institute and at the Catholic University of America’s Institute for Policy Research. Kenyon is grateful for Catholic University of America’s assistance with logistics for this event.

“Because my husband [Professor of Political Science and International Studies] Steve Van Holde had taught Leopoldo López at Kenyon, the two of us had followed Leo’s career and struggles. What had always stood out to me about Leo as a democracy activist was his bravery and ability to endure suffering.  The minute I read about the Leopoldo López Freedom and Democracy Award to honor someone who has shown a commitment to plural and inclusive democracy echoing Leo’s own commitment and bravery, I instantly thought of blind, self-taught, ‘barefoot lawyer’ Chen Guangcheng,” said Michelle Mood, assistant professor of political science and Asian studies, who nominated Chen for the award.  

“Chen’s successful efforts starting in the early 1990s to use the law to protect local citizens’ rights and stop local party-government abuses of power such as land grabs, pollution, violating disability rights and imposing forced sterilization was something no less than miraculous. He achieved much, and yet paid for it dearly, with house arrest and brutal prison time. I am extremely grateful that the Leopoldo López Freedom and Democracy Award committee has recognized Chen's achievements and chosen to honor him with the inaugural award,” Mood added.

López was arrested in February 2014 by Venezuelan authorities after being accused of inciting unrest during anti-government demonstrations. Declared a prisoner of conscience in 2015 by Amnesty International, he spent three and a half years at Venezuela’s infamous Ramo Verde prison before being released to house arrest in July 2017. He left his home in an April 30, 2019, uprising against the government of Nicolás Maduro and subsequently sought shelter in the Spanish Embassy in Caracas, later fleeing to Spain, where he now lives in exile.

Prior to his incarceration, López founded Voluntad Popular, a political party in Venezuela that has energized an activist movement against the Maduro government. He has been an important mentor to Juan Guaidó, a rising political leader recognized by a number of nations, including the U.S., as the legitimate interim president of Venezuela. López and the political upheaval in Venezuela are the subjects of “A La Calle,” a documentary featured at this year’s Cleveland International Film Festival, held April 7–20.    

The Leopoldo López Freedom and Democracy Award is administered by CSAD, and a selection committee including Rowe, other members of the Kenyon community, and representatives of the López family determine the recipient. In creating the award, López’s classmates, family and the Kenyon community at large ensure that López’s commitment and bravery will not be forgotten, and they shine a light on others who are working to uphold core principles of democracy around the world. Originally scheduled to be bestowed in April 2020, the inaugural award was delayed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

To watch this event, visit kenyon.edu/lopezaward2021. For more information, visit kenyon.edu/csad or email democracy@kenyon.edu.


Founded in 1824, Kenyon is the oldest private college in Ohio and the first institution in the U.S. to implement the model of faculty members serving as academic advisors. With a curriculum rooted in the liberal arts, Kenyon students and faculty aspire to a nuanced understanding of the world and all who inhabit it. Kenyon is a top producer of Fulbright Fellows and ranks second among Division III institutions for fostering NCAA Postgraduate Scholars. Home to the Kenyon Review, one of the nation’s most esteemed literary magazines, Kenyon celebrates a rich literary tradition that promotes writing across academic disciplines.

Established in 2007, the Kenyon College Center for the Study of American Democracy seeks open debate toward a subtle understanding of history, timeless questions and fundamental principles. The center organizes conferences, lectures and seminars with the goal of stimulating nonpartisan civic and political discourse, and it provides teaching and research opportunities for faculty and students. Contact: David Rowe, CSAD Director, rowed@kenyon.edu, 740-427-5162.