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What's right in this picture? A Chinese dissident in US custody

Pleas for US help like those from dissident Chen in China can wear down a superpower trying to reorient itself. Yet foreigners still look to American for moral leadership. A mature democracy should know how to resolve such dilemmas.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / April 30, 2012

This undated photo shows blind Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng with his son and wife in Shandong province. Chen made a surprise escape from house arrest on April 22 into what activists say is the protection of US diplomats in Beijing.

www.ChinaAid.org/AP Photo

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Despite a perception that it is headed toward decline, America is constantly reminded of what makes it strong. The latest example comes from China, where a prominent dissident, Chen Guangcheng, sought refuge in the custody of the US Embassy in Beijing.

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Mr. Chen is a blind, self-taught lawyer who was being punished for exposing the practice of forced abortion and sterilization. He was able to escape from his well-guarded house detention and secretly travel to the embassy, a place that most represents a beacon of freedom and human rights in China.

For people like Chen who plead for US support or protection, it is not the giant US economy or its military that draws them. Rather, it is the moral attraction of America’s ideals. What values do China, Russia, or many big powers stand for?

As President Obama has said: “America’s interests are not hostile to peoples’ hopes; they’re essential to them.” His words echo Thomas Paine’s line that “the cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.”

During the Arab Spring in 2011, Muslims who would normally spout anti-American slogans beseeched Mr. Obama to speak out or act on their behalf. When he finally demanded an “immediate” transition to democracy in Egypt, the crowd in Cairo’s Tahrir Square broke into applause. In Libya, with anti-Qaddafi rebels in Benghazi about to be slaughtered, a child held up a sign that read “Mama Clinton, please stop the bleeding.”

The 2011 Japanese earthquake, like one in Pakistan or the tsunami in Indonesia, saw a welcome reception of immediate assistance from the ever-ready US military. Uganda recently received assistance to track down Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army. The democracies around China are now seeking a closer alliance with the United States to protect themselves from Chinese aggression.

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