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Much more is at stake in China than Chen Guangcheng’s fate

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T he departure from China on Saturday of Chen Guangcheng and his family is an occasion, as he said, for mixed emotions. It is wonderful that Mr. Chen is free and will have a respite, at least, from the harassment, confinement and beatings he has endured in recent years. It is troubling that he had to leave relatives behind in less certain conditions. It is worrying to think about what the entire episode has retaught the world about arbitrary rule in China.

Mr. Chen is the blind lawyer-activist whose escape from rural house arrest to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing inspired human-rights supporters the world over — and roiled U.S.-China relations.  Last month U.S. officials thought they had a deal under which Mr. Chen would be allowed to stay in China and live freely, as he preferred; that fell through, in part due to his second thoughts. U.S. officials then helped negotiate his exit, to study law at New York University. Fulfillment of this deal Saturday should give Mr. Chen,  whose vocal opposition to forced abortions and other abuses of China’s “one-child” policy first attracted the attention of China’s security apparatus in 2005, a measure of calm in which to think about his future.

Not so, however, for the rest of Mr. Chen’s family or his home village. According to a report released Wednesday by the Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), Mr. Chen’s brother, Chen Guangfu, was shackled and severely beaten with a leather belt by plainclothes police who burst into his house looking for the escaped dissident on April 27. When the plainclothesmen returned to the house later that night and began beating Chen Guangfu’s wife, Ren Zongju, their son Chen Kegui reportedly rushed to defend her, knife in hand. The minor injuries he allegedly inflicted on the security men have earned him a criminal charge, for which he is now being held in the Yinan County Detention Center, according to CHRD.

Obviously, these reports come from Mr. Chen and his supporters, but Chinese officials’ behavior toward those attempting to gather independent information strongly implies that the government has something to hide. When The Post’s Keith B. Richburg approached Mr. Chen’s home village, Dongshigu, a week ago, he found it sealed off by plainclothes thugs who kicked his car and chased him away. The fear of these men has spread from Dongshigu to the surrounding villages, Mr. Richburg reported.

Separately, Chinese state security has held four South Korean human rights activists for the past 50 days in Dandong, Liaoning Province, on charges of posing a “threat to national security.” It would seem that their real crime was researching conditions among the many North Korean refugees who escape to that part of China. So far, only one of the detainees has been granted a visit from the South Korean consul, even though all of them are entitled to consular access under international law.

All of this conduct is blatantly at odds with China’s claim to be a nation of laws. No doubt these are nervous times for the Chinese government, embroiled in a power struggle that has cost Bo Xilai, the Communist Party boss in Chongqing, his career. The economy is increasingly troubled as well. Yet the cases of Mr. Chen and the jailed South Koreans are symptoms of the same larger ailment. China can have neither prosperity nor stability without greater freedom and more official accountability — no matter how threatening those may be to the people who currently hold power.

Read more opinions on this topic The Post’s View: Defending Chen Guangcheng Perry Link: America’s outdated view of China Bob Fu: U.S. credibility is on the line E.J. Dionne: We have to support China’s dissidents

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