The Obama administration wishes it didn’t have to deal with the request of the brave Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng for American protection. The United States has a large agenda to discuss with the Chinese government during a visit by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner that starts Wednesday. In seeking refuge at the U.S. Embassy, Chen has interrupted the flow of the usual diplomacy with a moral challenge. The United States has to meet that challenge and guarantee Chen’s safety.
In many ways, President Obama has run a foreign policy based on the sort of realism that characterized the administration of George H. W. Bush. There is a lot to be said for realism, especially after the draining Iraq war, which was often justified in sweeping terms as an intervention on behalf of democracy. But realism alone is never enough.
It would be unconscionable for a nation committed to democracy and human rights to cave in to any Chinese pressure to turn Chen back over to the government that he fled and that had sentenced him to 51 months in prison on bogus charges. Fortunately, things seem unlikely to come to that. The Chinese may be perfectly happy to have the United States grant Chen political asylum. As The Post’s Steve Mufson writes in a sophisticated piece today, the Chinese regime may be happy to have Chen in the United States since “Chinese dissidents who have gone into exile in the United States have gained freedom, but most have lost stature.” That’s why some reports say that Chen would prefer to stay in China with some guarantees from the government. A New York Times editorial noted this morning that Chen may have “offered a face-saving path” in a video suggesting that Prime Minister Wen Jiabao “personally intervene” by investigating[a brutal assault on him a few years ago] and holding local officials accountable.
Whatever happens, the United States can’t abandon Chen, and by extension, all who are trying to open up the Chinese system. As The Post editorialized last week, our government must show that we are “serious about defending those who seek to push China toward that different path.” Realism will always be primarily about protecting and advancing American interests. But it must also be about acknowledging the character of the governments we are dealing with and honoring the obligations we assume because of our national commitment to personal freedom and democracy.