Something very odd is happening in China. A few days ago the most sanguine predictions claimed that dissident Chen Guangcheng's desperate flight to the U.S. embassy at Beijing would end -- could only end -- in severe embarrassment for China. Now Mr. Chen has departed the embassy, and with it the protection of the U.S. government, allegedly on the basis of promises made to him by its representatives. Mr. Chen now requests asylum.
The details are hazy, and as with most human rights crises we may not know the full parameters until it is too late and the matter effectively buried. That may be the desired solution, certainly for China and arguably for the U.S. as well. After all, it's not 1952, and China is not the USSR. This Communist nation is a critical trading ally with whom we are currently engaging in delicate negotiations. These talks may have critical importance for our own faltering economy, and thus for the welfare of the American people. The Chinese government is notoriously sensitive to charges of human rights abuse, and desperate not to lose face. Extending asylum to Mr. Chen will almost certainly complicate relations with that nation, perhaps for some time. Moreover, it is by no means certain whether -- in an election year -- anything can be gained or lost politically by doing so. Given all that, is this really the right time for President Obama to take a hard line on human rights?
Actually, it is the perfect time. To paraphrase a Supreme Court Justice, ethical challenges of this kind rarely occur in times of quiet. The bizarre confluence of circumstances may indeed offer (to quote the president's favored expression) a teaching moment of unparalleled value. What we do and say with regard to Chen Guangcheng in the next few days may define our relationship with China for the next decade.
The political calculus favors caution, but sometimes caution can be reckless. If we fail to protect Mr. Chen, it will be hard to maintain with any credibility that he was not sacrificed on the altar of Mammon. Looking ahead, one of our most critical bargaining points with the Chinese government -- its dismal human rights record -- will be negated. It is we, not they, who will have lost face. That, too, will be remembered.
Finally, there is the matter of legacy. For all their efforts, presidents have little control over which of their decisions tip the scales in rendering a verdict on their administration. Who would have thought, for example, that the most lauded policy of the Bush administration would be its humane assistance to AIDS-stricken Africa? Yet every so often a president is confronted with a choice that announces itself. For all the potential fallout, that moment has arrived in China. By saving Chen Guangcheng, the United States asserts the legal principle on which it was founded, and on which all human rights law rests: that the freedom of the individual must be valued above the material wealth and even welfare of the collective.
And when has history condemned a president for asserting that principle?