Paul Greenberg
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For lovers of freedom the world over and Americans in particular, there can be no doubt about what was the signal event of the week just past: the safe arrival in this land of the free of a champion of freedom.

As in the last decades of the grandly styled Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the ironically titled People's Republic of China -- each word is a lie -- has become so uncertain of its ideological, political and moral moorings by now that it was unable to suppress one lone voice for freedom.

Chen Guangcheng's dramatic escape, first from house arrest and then from a vast police state, came complete with a succession of miscues and misunderstandings and misconnections. But his daring venture and adventure had a happy ending. He set foot on American soil last Saturday.

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Welcome, Mr. Chen. You've always been part of us, as every voice of freedom is. Much as our bureaucrats high and low balk at that realization. Theirs is a mistake that goes back at least to Henry Kissinger's wanting to snub a troublemaker named Alexander Solzhenitsyn -- lest he complicate Dr. Kissinger's practice of realpolitik, specifically his plan for a grand detente with that era's Evil Empire.

Like so many of his fellow sophisticates, Henry Kissinger was appalled by the simple, naive and scandalously candid approach of the president who would undo all his carefully laid plans: a B-movie actor named Ronald Reagan, that cowboy. Or as one of the Democratic Party's gray eminences, Clark Clifford, famously called him, that "amiable dunce."

Yet somehow that clumsy amateur would end the Cold War, the nuclear arms race, and the Soviet Union itself. All of the above. All by blind chance, no doubt. Talk about a bull in a china shop.

This latest escapee to go stumbling around today's vast, real-life China shop is a blind man who can see all too well. He saw right through a vast tyranny and all those in the West who would enable it. In the end, with just a little help from his friends, he somehow managed to confound two great world powers. For he didn't have to climb only physical walls to make his escape, but political ones.

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Having defied the oppression of a still formally Communist but mainly just fearful regime, this lone protester had to deal with the bumbling bureaucracy of a system supposedly dedicated to freedom. By last week, he had clearly become an embarrassment to both governments. Beijing just wanted him out -- as it became clear just who was at the mercy of whom as this crisis unfolded -- and by then Washington had little choice but to welcome him here.

Such is the power of a single individual armed only with moral force. Meanwhile, those of us who are never discomfited by the spectacle of liberty in action, but only cheered, delighted and amused by turns at the discomfiture of the supposedly great and powerful, could only smile a quiet, Gandhian smile. One lone, blind dissenter had captured the imagination of free men everywhere. And illuminated once again what matters in the course of human events -- Freedom!

The vision of a single, only physically blind man would prove more trustworthy than all the statesmanlike press releases out of various embassies, high contracting parties, under-secretaries and elevated muckety-mucks. It was clear that all those functionaries of high and low estate thought of this jailhouse lawyer and general agitator mainly as a headache. Prophets do tend to strike those in supposed power that way.

This man is not going to just fade away. He has not come this far to fall silent. A great man from a country that has become one vast gulag, like a great writer whose words thrill with the electric touch of truth, is always a kind of second government -- a shadow cabinet all by himself.

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Such a man does not need a political office to rouse a whole country, a whole world. Martin Luther King Jr. never held political office, either, yet a whole nation hung on his every word, including the gumshoes who had to tap his phones and tail him. In the end, he would catch the ear and maybe even the conscience of those who had feared and despised the threat he represented to their comfortable way of life.

In the end, that black preacher would save the South from itself, and arouse its mind and spirit and truer, better self -- maybe even cleanse the soul of a nation. And he did it without the benefits and preferments of high office -- indeed, often in spite of those who held such offices. There is power in words, if they be the right ones, and if the speaker is willing to risk all to say them.

The Soviets discovered as much in the case of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, another troublesome type who appealed to the conscience of both East and West. For he criticized both with equal insight, answering only to his own conscience.

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Now let us see how Chen Guangcheng, having challenged the authorities in Beijing, will challenge our own complacency. This could be interesting, even chastening, and in the end cleansing.

Hurried out of his own country, our guest left in haste, carrying little with him and yet everything: hope, conviction, courage. In that regard, he was something of an American even before he left China. He left with a message for those of his fellow freedom fighters he had to leave behind: He wasn't leaving the fight, he said, just asking for a leave of absence. They, and the world, will be hearing from him.

And his words may not always assure. A true prophet's seldom do. But they will challenge us, and in the end strengthen us. Which is what happens when others stick by our convictions, and articulate them when we ourselves have drifted away from them. The courageous Mr. Chen is not likely to let us forget our own ideals. That's why his arrival in this country last week was in the category of news that matters. And will matter.

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In other news, the heads of the G-8 countries met again last week, this time at Camp David. As usual, they didn't so much address the economic crisis looming ever larger with each passing month as try to talk their way around it. Their statements were full of the usual platitudes, banalities and evasions. They seemed willing to do anything about their countries' ever-mounting debts but act. Barack Obama was among those having their picture taken, their empty words solemnly recorded. News it wasn't.

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Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.