Resisters: The Heroes In—and Behind—the Headlines

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U.S. Embassy Beijing Press-Getty Images

What makes a dissident? Václav Havel, the great Czech playwright and statesman who died earlier this year, wrote that some people have the souls of collaborators, and others the souls of resisters. Collaborators, he argued, aren’t simply the active supporters of a system’s oppressions. They are everyone who tacitly accepts injustice without a murmur. They confirm the system, fulfill the system, and validate the system; they are the system.

Last week, during the dramas surrounding the blind Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng, I attended the PEN gala, where every year writers and publishers honor resisters. It’s a recognition of individual moral courage and a reaffirmation of the value of lighting the dark corners the oppressors prefer to keep concealed (while collaborators look the other way). At PEN we learned of the resister Ragip Zarakolu, a Turkish publisher who has been imprisoned for ventilating such taboo subjects as the repression of Turkey’s Kurdish minority and the Armenian genocide. We were moved by the ethereally beautiful Ethiopian activist Serkalem Fasil, who wept as she told us of the ordeal of her husband, Eskinder Nega, a journalist silenced with a trumped-up “terrorism charge” and now facing a death penalty. She herself was behind bars for the birth of their child in 2006.

The world best helps resisters by not collaborating, by paying sustained attention to wrongs done to them. That’s a sure thing when someone like Chen bursts into the headlines. He escaped house arrest by fooling his guards, climbing over eight walls, and reaching the U.S. Embassy in Beijing after a breakneck 300-mile drive. It was a thrillingly brave act, but we should have almost equal admiration for the network of activists who helped him, especially He “Pearl” Peirong, the woman who drove him. She was released Friday, but absent the world headlines accorded to Chen, people like her are more at risk of being forgotten than the hero of the hour.

Melinda Liu, our Beijing bureau chief, first reported on Chen’s work 10 years ago, and Newsweek put him on the cover of its March 4, 2002, International edition. Chen battled for years against China’s brutal one-child law and campaigned for the rights of the disabled, who get short shrift in China’s coldly expedient society. Melinda gave him one of her old computers to help him disseminate his message. That friendship is why she was the first correspondent to whom Chen expresses his fervent wish to fly out with Hillary Clinton and can now tell his story to us with such contextual richness.

One of the unsettling aspects of the Chen affair, as with the dissenter Fang Lizhi in 1989, has been the diplomatic dance required between geopolitical economic considerations and America’s commitment to human rights. Fang, who died in Tucson, Ariz., this April, was a refugee in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing for a year before Henry Kissinger extricated him after a dialogue of stupefying subtlety with Deng Xiaoping. We danced along the same tightrope for many years in relations with the Soviet Union. Any hopes that Vladimir Putin is a “reformist” have long been dashed. Putin’s most recent biographer, Masha Gessen, writes of what’s happened to another dissenting voice—that of chess champion Garry Kasparov. Putin’s regime didn’t need to imprison Kasparov. They simply rendered him a nonperson. Drivers taking him to engagements mysteriously got lost. His rallies were incorrectly publicized. Halls where he was due to speak were closed at the last minute due to “burst pipes.” His wife and child are now in exile in New York, but valiantly he carries on nurturing the network of dissidents who took to the streets of Moscow last winter. He says he won’t stop, no matter how marginalized he is, because he wants to see “the dawn of freedom.”

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