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If one image lingers from Chinese President Hu Jintao’s recent trip to the United States, it is that of 47-year-old Dr. Wang Wenyi, a Chinese-born U.S. resident and member of the suppressed Falun Gong spiritual movement, shrieking at the visiting leader during his appearance with President George W. Bush on the White House lawn.

It was a fascinating incident, rife with revealing detail. Among the things it revealed: While China’s position on free speech is crystal-clear — the BBC reported that in Beijing, television video of the event cut to black when Dr. Wang began her tirade — many in the West have yet to figure out where they stand. At the very least, that puts the cause of free speech at an enormous disadvantage in attempts to press China on it and other human rights issues.

That ambivalence was reflected in every aspect of the White House incident. Just consider the Americans’ torn response once the heckling began. On the one hand, there was Mr. Bush, the very picture of the embarrassed host, moving quickly to reassure his angry guest. On the other hand, there was the Secret Service’s strange delay in silencing the woman.

She was able to go on for so long — three minutes of a voice like a nail drawn across tin — it almost seemed as if Falun Gong had figured out how to stop time. Either that, or the Secret Service people just weren’t in much of a hurry to reach her. You don’t have to be a Chinese official to suspect that they could have acted much faster — and it didn’t help that their casual response followed the announcer’s gaffe in calling China by Taiwan’s name. Given the tight security and meticulous planning at these events, it’s easy to see why the Chinese might think all the insults had been staged.

That is absurd, of course. If Mr. Bush stands for nothing else, he stands for good manners. He has apologized to Mr. Hu. As for Dr. Wang, who attended the event as a credentialed reporter for a Falun Gong-affiliated newspaper, she faces much more than a slap on the wrist. She has been charged with the federal misdemeanor of “intimidating, coercing, threatening and harassing a foreign official,” which carries a penalty of up to six months imprisonment and a $5,000 fine.

The public response, however, has been divided, a fact that the Chinese won’t have missed. In an editorial last week, the Washington Post said Mr. Hu had never been in danger of “anything more serious than irritation or humiliation” and that “the United States shouldn’t indirectly apologize to the Chinese by means of an action that affronts American values.”

Also last week, an interdenominational group of U.S. Christian leaders called for the charges against Dr. Wang to be dropped, citing concerns about religious freedom. They know this is an issue that Mr. Bush has taken up with Chinese leaders and was one reason the administration ranked Mr. Hu’s visit as merely “official” rather than “state.”

The difficulty in coming up with a definitive response stems from the fact that neither Dr. Wang nor Falun Gong as a whole has a clear claim on Western sympathies. She is easy to dislike. Strident and confrontational, she rushes in where diplomats mindful of a bigger picture (with trade very much in the foreground) fear to tread.

As for the organization she champions, there is little consensus. Originating in qigong, a system combining exercises with meditation, Falun Gong was so widespread in China by the end of the 1990s that it was banned as a cult. Last week, officials reiterated their assertion that the movement’s spiritual agenda is simply a front for seditious political activity.

Experts abroad are split. Some concede that Falun Gong has the characteristics of a cult, noting its aversion to medical treatment and practitioners’ devotion to their leader, Li Hongzhi. Others disagree, citing its advocacy of peaceful rather than violent protest and the fact that its only political agenda appears to be winning protection of its followers’ civil rights. Even more controversial is the movement’s claim that official persecution now extends to the harvesting of organs from convicted Falun Gong followers. The claims have not been verified, but neither have they been refuted — and unfortunately for China, its own record of abuses lends them a presumptive credibility.

The bottom line is, people find it hard to sympathize with such a fuzzy victim — and Falun Gong is being victimized. Censorship is only the least of its problems. The United States has been given a remarkable opportunity to take a stand: By dropping its charges against Dr. Wang, it will send the message that maybe those Secret Service people had a point letting her rant for three minutes.

Listen up, China: The right to free speech extends even to rude, irritating fanatics whom you’d just as soon stifle.

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