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Commentary: Chen Guangcheng's one-child policy fight must outlive the news cycle

This is the kind of thing that happens in the age of YouTube.

A blind Chinese dissident escapes from house arrest by climbing over a wall and somehow eludes several cordons of minders. Then he manages to make his way to Beijing and into the American embassy. A video appears on YouTube in which he accuses government officials of brutalizing members of his family and demands that the responsible parties be punished. From the safe harbor of the embassy, he demands that he be allowed “to live like a normal Chinese citizen.”

Overnight, through his and his supporters’ deft use of social media, Chen Guangcheng has become a household word across the globe. His image has stormed the Internet; media attention has been nonstop.

It has helped that Chen himself looks cool, always sporting shades. And that the method and timing of his escapade maximized the embarrassment of the Chinese government, created a sticky diplomatic incident, and even got inserted into the meat grinder of American partisan politics.

And then there is the man’s remarkable curriculum vitae. He’s a bit of Helen Keller, Erin Brockovich and Thurgood Marshall combined in one man. Born a peasant and blinded in his childhood, Chen was denied an education. Nonetheless, he taught himself the law and set about championing the rights of the forgotten and oppressed.

He led campaigns to aid fellow disabled people, halted the dumping of environmental toxins into a river and used China’s growing legal system to fight many a battle for people like himself: poor and routinely beaten and jailed by the ruling Communist Party.

The irony is that the hype threatens to eclipse significant details of Chen’s remarkable tale.

This man’s ability to shift the gargantuan forces of his Communist government — to make them fear his presence — is the stuff of legend. The option contracts on his story may already be written in Hollywood. His fan base is already posting “solidarity” photos of themselves in sunglasses on Facebook.

Others have insisted that the Obama administration bring Chen and his family to America — sweet freedom — and fulminated that its failure to have done so already is a sign of weakness. As I wrote this, there were suggestions that Chen might be set up with a fellowship at an unnamed U.S. university.

With all this hype and hoopla, the Chinese government might just want to let him go. And that might just be the end of the talented, and troublesome, Mr. Chen. The YouTube drama, the urgent tweets, the breathless TV coverage — all that might just go away.

After the public is done with its crush on Chen, it will likely forget what he was fighting against: the often brutally repressive one-child policy that has been in place for more than three decades.

Chen was preparing to legally challenge the policy with a class action lawsuit. He highlighted cases where people were tracked down, especially poor rural peasants, for forced sterilizations and abortions. Think about that: a government that regards its citizens much as we regard animals, suitable for spaying and neutering at some bureaucrat’s whim.

The one-child policy has been softened somewhat since it was imposed in the late 1970s. Urban married people are allowed one child. In rural areas, families can have two, if the first is a girl.

Enforcement measures, the use of fines, differ widely depending on the province. Families with more means can pay the fines, restoring their right to bear children as they wish by virtue of their wealth.

In 2002, China outlawed the most heinous practices linked to its population control efforts — barbaric methods like forcing saline solutions into the bellies of nearly to term pregnant women. However, the system still encourages brutality. Officials who meet population quotas for their regions are promoted. Surreal social engineering mixed with bureaucratic ambition has not produced humane results.

Common humanity is what Chen’s activism has been about. The kind of humanity that can only be promoted by civic freedoms, and by the institutions that safeguard those freedoms. In America, we often take those freedoms, and that humanity, for granted. In China, it will take hundreds or thousands of Chens to demand those freedoms and to create the institutions that will sustain and safeguard them.

Obviously, Chen’s next move should be up to him. If he and his family must flee China to save themselves, so be it. But, strange as it is to say, while that may be good for Chen, it wouldn’t be for the people and the causes he championed.