The unceasing advocate Bob Fu, president of China Aid Association and himself a Tiananmen Square student leader, noted in the Washington Post Monday that Chen has never "established a political party or organization. He has never advocated overthrowing the Communist Party." Instead, Chen wants "to live a normal life as a Chinese citizen" with his family. He has joined the hallowed ranks of individuals like the Soviet dissidents Natan Sharansky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose courage in the face of tyranny captured the world's imagination.
Now, a different type of courage will be required: political courage. If Chen is indeed in U.S. diplomatic protection, will he remain there? Will Chen decide to stay in China? Will his safety and that of his family be guaranteed? Will his case, and others like him, be central in any future bilateral engagement?
The situation is complicated, but Chen's case is not. There is a place for pragmatism in diplomacy -- perhaps that is what motivated Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan when asked this weekend about Chen's case to say that the president will aim to "balance our commitment to human rights" while maintaining "our relationships with key countries overseas." But pragmatism must not result in Chen's abandonment in the name of good relations.
Chen represents China's future. He is bright and bold. He loves his family and cares deeply about his fellow citizens. But until there is a fundamental change on the part of the Chinese government, Chen, like his compatriots, Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, writer and academic Yu Jie, and so many others whose names we do not yet know, will be viewed as enemies by the country that they love. We can be certain that they are watching closely as Chen's fate unfolds.
Much has been written about the timing of Chen's escape. Coming on the heels of the embarrassing Bo Xilai scandal and this fall's Communist Party leadership transition, in most diplomatic and foreign-policy circles the conventional wisdom is that the timing couldn't have been worse.
But for an opportunity for the United States to show its commitment to freedom, the timing couldn't be better.
Chen's escape is the stuff of history. All that remains to be seen is whether America will be on the right side.