In the fall of 1983 in Moscow, we came in from the cold. Ending our tour of what was then the Soviet Union, a group of editorial writers from across the United States stepped on American soil for the first time in three weeks. Our reception that night was at the U.S. Embassy. We were free. Back home. Oh, Freedom!
All we'd seen from Irkutsk in Siberia to Yerevan in Armenia was an evil empire already beginning to crumble, but still a police state. And a nuclear power.
And then: Light. The walls of the brightly lit U.S. Embassy were decorated with signs from old New England inns. The first one I saw in the foyer said Live and Let Live. Which was the exact opposite of all the official exhortations, party slogans and looming billboards we'd encountered at our every stop for the past three weeks.
I went to sleep each night listening to my wife sob as she went over in her mind what she'd seen during the day -- the empty shelves in the state stores, the burly KGB types watching our every move, the outward subservience of Soviet subjects to their masters and their inward resentment, the whispered requests for help getting out, the occasional bursts of vodka-fueled truth deep in the night ... such was life in the workers' paradise.
But tonight we were free, and the next morning we would be leaving. At the airport, I tried not to look nervous thinking of the messages I was carrying in the hidden pocket of my parka. Messages from refuseniks, Jews who'd been denied visas, that I'd agreed to get to relatives in America.
Luckily, the man in front of me, a tourist from Red Wing, Minn., was acting as if he were already home. He was demanding some books that Customs had confiscated from him when he entered the country. By the time he got them, I'd squeezed past and was on my way to the West and freedom. I was surprised that my sigh of relief wasn't audible.
I thought of my mother stepping foot on American soil for the first time February 10, 1921, shaking the dust of Europe from her feet and never looking back, except with relief. She couldn't say the word America without gratitude. On her lips, it sounded like prayer -- of thanksgiving. A psalm. She'd made it! And the look she reserved for anybody she heard badmouth this country ... it would melt iron. What could they know of real poverty, real injustice, real oppression, and real war and revolution?
Now it seems one blind man from the village of Dongshigu in Shandong Province deep in still Communist China has confounded the best laid plans of two world powers. Just by saying what he pleases, just by acting like a free man in his own country. Free enough to escape from house arrest and seek refuge in the U.S. Embassy, even free enough to change his mind if he wants to.
All the empty suits, interrupted in the course of their state visit last week in Beijing, were reduced to issuing empty press releases about his case. They tried in vain to stay ahead of this one free man, but could only stammer from day to day, hour by hour, always behind him.
The fate of Chen Guangcheng, acupuncturist by profession, amateur lawyer by avocation, free man by instinct, dominated this suddenly shrunken summit meeting -- and the world news.
While the titular newsmakers bobbed and weaved, Chen Guangcheng just pressed ahead. You could almost see them thinking: What will the man do next? Put in another call to a congressional committee while it's right in the middle of discussing his case and how our State Department was mishandling it? Leap over still another wall? Ask the American secretary of state to meet with him, or even get him and his family to America on her plane?
Whatever he does next, the one thing certain about Chen Guangcheng is that he'll keep talking truth to power, and that power can only stutter in response.
Few on the outside, or even in China, had ever heard of Mr. Chen all those years he was protesting forced abortions in his village, and been imprisoned for it after a sham trial. (His lawyer wasn't even allowed in the courtroom.) Now newsmen all over the world are learning how to spell his name.
Our secretary of state couldn't seem to say his name during any of her many newsless news conferences in Beijing. Lest the Chinese people overhear it, and the tightly controlled Chinese press have to give this unperson a name.
Instead, the Hon. Hillary Clinton contented herself with tangential allusions to the one aspect of her visit that had caught everyone's attention: the fate of this one lone dissident. "This week has shown again," she said at one point, "that we cannot wall off human rights from our bilateral relationship."
Did it take until last week for so elemental an observation to sink in? How strange. Mrs. Clinton had to go halfway around the world to realize anew that America still stands for freedom, at least in the eyes of others. Our own emissaries seem embarrassed by it.
. . .
Nothing shakes up our officialdom like the sudden appearance of one free man. In 1975, when Alexander Solzhenitsyn made it to Washington, he was pointedly not received at the White House (Gerald Ford, Current Occupant). Lest the tyranny that Henry Kissinger was courting at the time take offense at the writer's being seen with the president.
Who were the Soviet "leaders" supposedly in power when Solzhhenitsyn still walked the earth? Now their names are forgotten, reduced to footnotes in his biography. Just as one day an obscure reference to Clinton, Hillary R. may be found in the index to the collected writings of Chen Guangcheng.
Once there was an American protester who refused to pay his poll tax in a New England village -- rather than support a government that condoned human slavery. He went to jail instead. And the country's political and intellectual class went into fits. His friend Emerson visited him in prison, demanding to know what he was doing in there. To which Henry David Thoreau could only respond, "Waldo, what are you doing out there?"
Thoreau was mainly amused by how easily confused supposed power can be when confronted by just one free man. "I saw," he concluded, "that the State was half-witted, that it was timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons, and that it did not know its friends from its foes, and I lost all my remaining respect for it, and pitied it."
Pity poor Hillary, with all her prestige and titles and press coverage, suddenly reduced to stammering by the power of one free man. Blind, he sees what the sighted would like to ignore. But can't -- because Chen Guangcheng goes on saying what he thinks, afraid of nothing and no one. Like an American.