Exhausted by our own fractious culture wars heating up again, Americans may have been surprised to read in news stories this week about the role of a Christian organization in the escape from house arrest of Chen Guangcheng, the blind human rights lawyer in China. Reports link the Texas-based group China Aid, led by the exiled crusader for religious rights Bob Fu, to Chen's daring journey from captivity to the American Embassy in Beijing. Apparently, associates of Fu stood ready to spirit Mr. Chen off the Mainland. Missionary Christianity has been an unstable actor in Chinese politics from the time of Hong Xuiqan, the messianic leader of the 19th-century Taiping Rebellion, who believed he was the younger brother to Jesus Christ, but the Christian theme is only one strain in the complicated political performance between the United States and China. Chen's presence in the Chinese capital, days before American officials were set to meet there with Party leaders already reeling from the Bo Xilai scandal, continues to be exceedingly tricky for the Americans and embarrassing for the Chinese. Like's Bo's alleged crimes, it is another act in the troubling drama of capitalism with Chinese characteristics, in which the United States continues to play a less than sympathetic role.
I read about Chen's journey with growing shock and recognition because it bears an eerie resemblance to the plot of my novel, "Ministers of Fire," coincidentally making its trek to bookstores last week while Chen was making his way to Beijing. For 10 years I have been writing the story of a Tiananmen dissident who escapes from house arrest with the help of a Chinese-American ex-Marine who was recruited for the job by a group of American Christians (and the CIA). The dissident Yong is pursued by the Ministry of State Security, hides out in a once-Quaker church outside Nanjing, and eventually finds his way to the apartment of a human rights activist in Shanghai. If I revealed any more, it would spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that the similarities don't end there. In fact, the complicated levers of power and sympathy that I wrestled with in writing the final pages match almost exactly the choices that American and Chinese leaders faced in negotiating Chen's fate. One crucial difference, which came immediately to light as Chen feared for his safety in a Beijing hospital after the Americans released him, lies in Chen's lack of a bargaining chip to keep the Chinese honest: his wife and children are perilously in the hands of the authorities.
So why would an American novelist brew up a story like this, then wake up the week after his book is published to discover the plot on the front page of the New York Times? Perhaps because the massacre at Tiananmen Square was one of the most shocking of my life -- I was 23 -- and it continues to trouble me that the goods consumed, the innovative products celebrated by the majority of Americans, myself included, have been built in a country that jails and tortures its political dissidents and sterilizes women by force. Mr. Chen represented those women and spent 51 months in prison and 19 more in his rural stone farmhouse-turned-jail for his trouble. There may be political reasons for American Christians to support Chen's efforts -- some of the women he defended in Shandong Province underwent unwanted abortions and of course the Chinese government has long mandated birth control -- but in helping Chen and others like him escape they are doing the right thing. In the coming days, Secretaries Clinton and Geithner will urge the Chinese to let their currency float, which Mrs. Clinton has publicly avowed is a higher priority than human rights, but perhaps the awkward but wonderfully symbolic presence of a blind lawyer in a hospital nearby will remind us that no matter how much American debt Beijing holds or how many Buicks their new middle class may buy, the Chinese people want and deserve basic freedoms of speech, religion and assembly, and to be free from fear. Even in the season of our own division, maybe the right and the left can agree to put heroes like Chen above political expediency, consumption and greed.
Mark Harril Saunders is the author of the novel 'Ministers of Fire' (Swallow Press, 2012)