The world knows the basic biography of Chen Guangcheng, a blind dissident who slipped away from government thugs, holed up in the American Embassy in Beijing, and after negotiations won a get-out-of-jail card to study in the United States.
The result helped the Obama White House on the ever-sensitive issue of balancing human rights with continued trade. Even the Chinese government, which goes ballistic at the mention of civil liberties, looked reasonable in crafting an ending.
But it wasn’t a total happy ending. Ask the rest of the dissidents in a country with 1.2 billion people. More narrowly, will Chen’s helpers along his escape route from a small village to the capital get a pass too? They should. Within days of the travel deal, Beijing kicked out a foreign correspondent for Al Jazeera because the network dared report about slave labor camps populated by government critics.
Chen’s case highlights all of these threads. Beijing wants good relations with Washington, and given the right atmosphere such as visits by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, a free passage for Chen was possible. Mature world powers can act maturely, especially when the spotlight is on them.
But in other times, the default setting is much worse. Police goons confine and beat government critics. Outside aid isn’t welcome, and press coverage is discouraged. Censorship and jail time are the reality for troublemakers who speak out.
Chen and his global tribe of supporters deserve a cheer for their courage and success. Diplomats in Washington and Beijing got it right under heavy pressure. Now the real job should begin: making sure the next Chen isn’t harassed but allowed to speak out in a society that needs to hear criticism.
San Francisco Chronicle (May 8)