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Outside editorial: Behind the dissident's escape

Posted: May 3, 2012 - 12:16am

The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune:

The story of Chen Guangcheng is one of those sagas that would make an exciting Hollywood movie, if it were not so outlandishly unbelievable.

A blind, self-educated lawyer who brought down the wrath of Chinese security agencies by campaigning against forced abortions and sterilizations, he spent four years in prison and additional time under house arrest. That ended when he managed to escape under cover of darkness and, with help from confederates, made his way to Beijing, more than 300 miles away. He then reportedly went to the U.S. Embassy and was granted shelter.

The episode creates an awkward diplomatic situation just days before Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner are scheduled to arrive in Beijing for talks on a variety of matters. It also erupts as Washington seeks Chinese cooperation in dealing with intractable dangers in Iran, Syria and North Korea. Chen’s flight to U.S. protection could complicate a presidential campaign here, as well as a delicate leadership transition in China that will occur later this year.

The Chinese authorities are obviously not pleased by the development. In the ensuing crackdown, they arrested at least three human rights activists and blocked Chen references on China’s counterpart of Twitter. State media have been silent about the news.

The government is not likely to be so reticent in private meetings with American officials — one of whom, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, was dispatched to Beijing to, we imagine, endure a hail of complaints. Chinese leaders have always bitterly opposed American support of Chinese human rights, which they depict as an arrogant intrusion into their internal matters.

For the United States to harbor a fugitive within China’s borders will doubtless stir nationalist resentment of the West. But no American president is likely to simply hand over a peaceable dissident to the mercies of the Chinese security apparatus.

So figuring out a mutually acceptable compromise will require some diplomatic skill. Before everyone gets bogged down in such tactical issues, though, attention ought to focus at least briefly on the government policies that Chen took such risks to protest.

Most gruesome is family planning agencies’ practice of dragging pregnant women out of their homes to have their fetuses destroyed, as part of the government’s long-standing one-child policy. Forced abortions have occurred as late as nine months into a pregnancy.

The victims may also have IUDs inserted without their consent to prevent future pregnancies. The advocacy group All Girls Allowed says these atrocities help explain why China is the only nation on Earth where women are more likely to commit suicide than are men.

Chen’s crime was to publicize this savagery by filing a class-action lawsuit on behalf of women subjected to it. He was jailed for more than four years for “disturbing public order” and upon his release, he and his family were placed under strict house arrest, deprived of visitors.

Given this record, it would be unconscionable for President Barack Obama to agree to surrender Chen to the Chinese without ironclad guarantees of his (and his family’s) freedom and safety — assurances that the Chinese would be loath to give. Chen, for his part, is said to prefer to stay in China.

But his only feasible option may be the one taken by the last dissident to seek protection in the U.S. Embassy. Fang Lizhi, who helped inspire the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, was eventually allowed to take his family into exile in the United States, where he died recently.

Those negotiations took more than a year, reflecting the deep division between Washington and Beijing on such matters, and the unwillingness of either to capitulate. The Obama administration has an obligation to try to get China’s help on matters affecting international security, but it also has a solemn duty to protect someone fleeing unwarranted persecution.

If Beijing cannot recapture Chen, it may settle for being rid of him. The inspiration he has provided for China’s dissidents will not be so easy to purge.

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