The flight of blind activist Chen Guangcheng from house arrest in Shandong to apparent US protection in Beijing has made international headlines, as much for its daring as its inconceivability. In an online video posted after his escape, he appealed for Premier Wen Jiabao to take action against officials who had assaulted him and his wife. There could not have been better timing for maximum publicity, coming ahead of tomorrow's visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. But for all the diplomatic urgency created, the embarrassment and global attention, the mainland's mainstream media has been silent and authorities have responded with the usual disregard for freedoms and rights. Chen's relatives and friends, and those believed to have helped him flee, have been detained, questioned and harassed. The great firewall that keeps comments considered sensitive from circulating on the internet has been tightened, with a host of new search keywords deemed potentially incendiary being blocked. It is a near repeat of the reaction to the downfall of Chongqing Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai, but the issues could not be any more different. Bo's removal was about political power and threats to the leadership; Chen was fighting for basic rights and social justice. Chen exposed how authorities in the Shandong city of Linyi broke laws by forcing thousands of women, sometimes in late stages of pregnancy, to undergo abortions and sterilisation to meet provincial targets under the one-child policy. A self-taught lawyer, he helped victims sue officials, which won him public acclaim and a legion of local and online supporters. Such regard for rights and society should have earned him the respect of the government, but instead he was put under house arrest, jailed for four years and three months and on release, again placed under home detention and constant surveillance. His being honoured in 2007 with Asia's equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Ramon Magsaysay Award, for his 'irrepressible passion for justice in leading ordinary Chinese citizens to assert their legitimate rights under the law', made no difference. A string of fellow advocates of human rights and democratic ideals have received similar treatment, among them Aids activist Gao Yaojie . She has been in the US for three years and is fearful of returning to face continued persecution. It seems likely Chen may also end up in the US under a deal struck between Chinese and American officials, but that is no solution. If the central government is sincere about its pledges to be building a better China, it would make him and like-minded people welcome. They should be encouraged and helped, and the officials they expose who break the law have to be investigated and prosecuted.