Last week, thugs prevented Batman star Christian Bale from meeting with the blind Chinese lawyer and activist Chen Guangcheng. Mr. Chen is noted for his work exposing abuses in China's "one child" policy, and spent four years in prison on trumped-up charges after accusing family planning officials of forcing women to undergo sterilizations. He currently remains under house arrest. Mr. Bale hoped to visit him and, as he told CNN, convey his regards.
We knew the state of human rights in China was bad. China's censorship has been common knowledge for a while now. Their approach to dissidence – vanish protesters, torture and silence people who expressed dissatisfaction with the system on or off-line — has long been a source of discomfort.
But now they've messed with Batman.
You can censor speech. You can lock up activists. And somehow, people will put up with it. But maybe, just maybe, if you try to beat up the Batman, you've gone too far.
Is this flippant? Of course. But sometimes it takes a fictional character to draw attention to the plight of real ones. I know Mr. Bale isn’t fictional — sometimes he behaves as though he is, and he has the distinction of having become a meme at one point — but this is one time where his film role as a crusader for justice overlaps with his life. It seems to be attracting attention — even of the kind that might hurt the at-least-in-part Beijing-backed film “The Flowers of War” that Mr. Bale is trying to promote.
Generally, I’m chary about celebrity advocates for things. D.C. is full of celebrity advocates. Bono waltzes in to tell us about — whatever it is that Bono is telling us about, and Sheryl Crow periodically ducks into Congressional hearings to inquire if anyone needs someone to sing a song about hope at a benefit concert for something. It’s on par with those essays posted on the Huffington Post every day. (“Have You Thought About Darfur Lately?” asks Jessica Simpson.)
But this time I hope it attracts notice.
This is a tough time to be a dissident in China. It’s more than just failed visits from the Batman. Last week, word surfaced that China is demanding that Weibo, its Twitter-like microblogging service, require users to register with their real names. This could be a serious step backwards. Weibo has been clawing its way around the elaborate censorship system of the Great Firewall for a while now, attracting notice for its discussion of the high-speed train accident that state-sponsored media outlets sought to suppress. Internet anonymity is fast dying in the West — far too ’90s, a relic from when the Internet was a place you went to escape your daily life rather than to promote it. Now your Klout score is something you bring with you to job interviews. Your Facebook friends are your real friends. But there are still valid reasons to maintain anonymity online, and the censorship situation in China, where online comments can have painful and serious real-world ramifications, is one of them.
So as people watch the Batman trailer, I hope the Bale incident continues to attract notice. This is not the kind of publicity China needs. But it's the kind it deserves.