The tale of Chen Guangcheng
Sometimes, the courage of a single individual can shake the mightiest of nations.
Think of Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, Aung San Suu Kyi -- and now, just maybe, Chen Guangcheng.
A week ago, you had probably never heard of him. He's a blind, self-taught lawyer from a remote village in eastern China, a courageous campaigner on behalf of women forced to undergo involuntary abortions or sterilisation.
Today, he's in a hospital in Beijing, but he may soon be on his way to the United States, his fate having thrown into crisis the always delicate relationship between the world's two most powerful nations.
His story is worth telling in some detail, I think, because it shines a spotlight on some of China's internal stresses and contradictions as it struggles to chart a political path that won't risk tearing the nation apart.
Chen first made a name for himself as a campaigner on behalf of disabled people. He was, for a time, officially approved of -- but then, when he started agitating on behalf of women who fell foul of the official one-child-per-family policy, he ran into trouble.
He was sentenced to four years in jail on what his supporters say were spurious charges -- then, after his release in September 2010, his house was surrounded by "security officials", in reality either plain-clothes police or thugs hired by local Communist party officials, and he and his family were subjected to an informal, but effective, form of house arrest.
The account of how he made his escape, according to a detailed reconstruction published in the New York Times, is straight out of a Hollywood thriller.
According to the Times: "Mr. Chen feigned sickness for weeks, tricking his minders into thinking he was bedridden. Then, on a moonless night on April 22, he began his mad dash from Dongshigu village, heaving himself over the first of several walls while the guards slept. It was during the first few minutes of his scramble that Mr. Chen severely injured his foot. In all, he told friends he fell 200 times as he made his made his way to a predetermined pickup point."
He was driven 300 miles to Beijing. The plan was that he would lie low until he could decide what his next step should be. But his foot injury meant he needed urgent medical attention -- and that, according to the New York Times, is when friends contacted the US embassy to ask for help.
Here's how the Times described what happened next: "A rendezvous point was agreed upon in an area some miles west of the embassy where an official car would meet the vehicle carrying Mr. Chen. The plan was for the lawyer to be helped into the embassy car.
"But as the two vehicles were about to converge, the Americans noticed Chinese security cars tailing them, one behind the embassy car, the other behind the car with Mr. Chen and his friend ... It was clear the handoff would have to happen in a rush. As Mr. Chen's car moved into an alley, the embassy vehicle drew alongside, and the lawyer was pulled into the American vehicle. The Americans evaded the two Chinese cars and headed for the embassy ..."
Chen spent six days at the embassy before being transferred -- with his full agreement, according to US officials -- to a Beijing hospital. He had apparently received assurances from Beijing officials that he and his family would not have to return to their home in Shandong province and would be protected from the thuggery of local officials there.
But as soon as he had an opportunity to discuss things with his wife, and she was able to tell him of her own experience at the hands of those officials, he changed his mind. While Hillary Clinton was in town for a series of high-level talks, lower ranking officials desperately scurried to come up with a formula that would not be seen in either the US or China as a humiliating climb-down.
As of this morning, Friday, it looks as if they may have managed it. According to the Chinese foreign ministry: "Chen Guangcheng is currently being treated in hospital. If he wants to study abroad, he can apply through normal channels to the relevant departments in accordance with the law, just like any other Chinese citizen."
So what have we learned? That the US and China both see the need to work together, even if neither really trusts the other? Perhaps. That pragmatism, even in what often looks like a monolithic Communist party, is a powerful policy motivator? Maybe.
But also, I'd suggest, that a single individual -- even if blind, self-taught, and from a humble background -- can sometimes make a real impact. The big question now for Chen Guangcheng is whether that impact will be diluted if he goes into exile.
And the question for China's leaders in Beijing is how long they are prepared to tolerate the illegal and corrupt behaviour of local officials. That's also the issue that lies behind the crisis of Bo Xilai in Chongqing, the former party high-flyer whose wife is alleged to have been involved in the death of the British businessman Neil Heywood.
Things are changing in China -- but it's a messy, protracted and uncertain process, as is illustrated, in their very different ways, by the fates of Bo Xilai and Chen Guangcheng.