No screenwriter could have dreamed up the saga of the blind Chinese human-rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng, a story so dramatic that it threatens to upend U.S.-Chinese relations but offers China's leaders a unique chance to promote legal reforms.
Here's the saga so far: Chen angered local officials by helping the villagers of Linyi, who were protesting illegal forced abortions. After years of brutal mistreatment by local officials, during which he became a Chinese -- and international -- human rights hero, Chen made a dramatic escape from unlawful house arrest. He took refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, just before Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived this week for high-level talks.
Chen wanted to remain in China, to work for reforms. So U.S. officials negotiated a deal to permit the self-taught lawyer to finally attend law school and ensure his and his family's safety. The U.S. ambassador accompanied him to a hospital, where he was reunited with his family; Clinton publicly called on China to keep its commitments.
But once in the hospital, Chen panicked, saying he had learned that Linyi government thugs had threatened to beat his wife to death. He said he'd been misled and now feared for his life, and wanted to leave China; he appealed to President Obama.
Clinton, in Beijing to talk about trade, Syria and Iran, faces a human rights crisis, as does Obama. So do China's leaders, who will confront an international outcry if they harm or detain Chen.
Yet -- if U.S. and Chinese officials can handle the Chen affair wisely -- this story could still, just possibly, end well.
In the last decade, corrupt and illegal behavior by local party bosses has become a scourge that undermines China's development. It has led to a growing number of protests across the country against unlawful land seizures and staggering corruption at local and regional government levels.
But divisions within China's top leadership have hampered any campaign to rein in local officials. However, the rule-of-law issue has emerged front and center as China heads toward a once-in-a-decade shift in leadership this fall.
Now comes the Chen case -- which could offer political reformers a golden chance.
"The ultimate question leaders of China have to confront is lawlessness," says New York University professor Jerome Cohen, the top U.S. expert on the Chinese legal system. "The party has encouraged rule of law, and increased the rights consciousness of the masses" but in practice has punished those who tried to obey the law.
Cohen knows Chen well; he spoke to him at length by phone while he was in the embassy. "Chen wanted to use the system," Cohen says. "He wasn't calling to change party rule, but for them to put their money where their mouth is" on the rule of law. The smart move for Chinese party leaders would be to make the blind lawyer into a symbol of the need to curb lawless local officials.
"With new leadership coming in China, this could be an opportunity," Cohen continued, "for a cluster of [top Chinese] leaders to say the people of China are ready for a better legal system, and we've failed to respond as we did with opening up the economy." Cohen hopes Chen's case could galvanize Chinese leaders to take such action.
But the blind lawyer won't be safe unless Obama and Clinton insist that China guarantee his and his family's security and freedom, or let them leave the country.
After all, Chen Guangcheng is a true Chinese patriot, promoting the rule of law his country needs to prevent aggrieved peasants from taking to the streets.