This Blind Chinese Lawyer May Be the Toughest Foreign Policy Challenge Obama Has Ever Faced

How the White House deals with Chen Guangcheng, reportedly hiding in an American embassy, could reveal more about its agenda and values abroad than maybe any other international crisis.

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Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng. AP.

The Chinese government is so terrified of Chen Guangcheng that, when rumors spread on Sunday that he had boarded United Airlines flight 898 from Beijing to Washington, state censors almost immediately blocked Weibo users from sending any messages with the word "UA898." Chen, a lawyer who campaigned against state-forced sterilizations and abortions meant to enforce China's one-child policy, is blind; the words "blind man" were also blocked online. Though Chinese police often bend over backwards to avoid harming Westerners, especially high-profile ones, they roughed up Christian Bale and a CNN crew for trying to visit the building where he is kept under house arrest.

This is how seriously the Chinese government takes Chen Guangcheng. Now, Chen has escaped house arrest and reportedly fled to the American embassy in Beijing. In immediate human terms, the U.S. response would be easy and automatic: grant him legal asylum and fly him back to the United States. But foreign policy is more complicated than that. If China knocked around Christian Bale just for trying to shake Chen's hand, what would the country to do the American foreign policy agenda if Obama grants Chen his freedom to continue raising awareness about Communist Party abuses, embarrassing the leaders of that party in the process?

"We're going to make sure that we do this in the appropriate way and that appropriate balance is struck," U.S. counterterrorism adviser John Brennan carefully and tellingly put it on Fox News Sunday. Brennan said that Obama tries to "balance our commitment to human rights" as well as "to carry out our relationships with key countries overseas." Less than two months ago, the police chief of Chongqing rushed into an American consulate to confess his boss's most heinous abuses -- including his role in the murder of a British citizen -- and to seek asylum. The U.S. officials turned him away, and the police chief was arrested. This isn't the same situation -- the police chief had committed his share of crimes as well, and Chen Guangcheng is one of China's most successful activists and one of its best known abroad -- but the police chief's case highlights how sensitive the U.S. is about upsetting China's leadership.

If Chen Guangcheng is still locked up in an American diplomatic office, he poses a remarkable challenge to President Obama, one that asks how U.S. foreign policy under his leadership balances American ideals with American interests, whether he is able to achieve both, and, if not, which he will privilege. Obama's foreign policy team, and possibly Obama himself, face a question that is about more than just the fate of this one lawyer, or even about the U.S.-China relationship. It's about the role that America plays in the world, what we do with all the military and economic power at our fingertips.

It's hard not to think of the clichéd action movie climax, when the hero is forced to choose between saving, say, the sidekick or the love interest. He always managed to save both -- it makes for a better ending -- but the scene is compelling because it's an impossible choice, and because in saving one he is condemning the other. Chen's flight to a U.S. diplomatic building forces Obama to choose between ferrying Chen out of China or keeping him there, between human rights or diplomacy, between America's image in the world or its political capital with Beijing, between making China a little bit more democratic or a little bit more cooperative. Obama might be able to have it both ways, like the Hollywood hero, but he will probably have to sacrifice something.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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