Realism, Idealism, and the fate of Chen Guangcheng

Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng with his wife and son in 2005.

Chen Guangcheng, a blind Chinese dissident and human rights lawyer, made a daring escape from house arrest this week and somehow made it to the U.S. embassy in Beijing, where he now sits.  This will make for an uncomfortable visit to China later this week by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner as they meet Chinese officials in a “Strategic and Economic Dialogue.”  As explained in this New York Times analysis, the politics of this case are complex and militate against an easy solution for several reasons: (1) President Obama is under domestic political pressure in his reelection campaign to show toughness on China, (2) the Obama administration has praised Mr. Chen as a human rights leader, making it difficult to simply hand him over to the Chinese authorities, (3) moderate Chinese officials are under pressure from hardliners who will likely claim this incident is part of a U.S.-driven conspiracy to embarrass China, and (4) China’s economic and military rise has given its leaders greater self-confidence in dealing with America than at any time in recent memory.

Beyond these broad political constraints, Mr. Chen’s fate will depend on whether the Obama administration is more willing to act according to realism or idealism.  These opposing approaches to world politics emphasize very different priorities and methods.  For realists, the national interest (defined largely in terms of economic and military power) reigns supreme, and issues like human rights, the environment, and economic development are frequently viewed as an unnecessary distraction unless they directly affect the national interest in some way.  For idealists, these “values” issues should not be crowded out by national interests, narrowly defined, since we live in a global village and cannot divorce ourselves from the fate of other human beings.

Realist presidents like Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush have been willing to downplay Chinese human rights violations because a stable security and trade relationship with the rising Asian power is seen as vital to America’s national interests.  Presidents with stronger idealist inclinations, such as Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, have decried the subordination of human rights to crass material self-interest but when in power have frequently pursued policies not much different from their realist counterparts.  If the Obama administration (which has shown some evidence of both realist and idealist tendencies at different times) chooses to focus on America’s economic and security interests, Mr. Chen may very well find himself back in the hands of Chinese authorities before long.  If, on the other hand, their concern for human rights (or fear of the domestic political costs of “caving” to China) is sufficiently strong, a prolonged standoff with China could result–with serious implications for the U.S.-China relationship.

What do you think?  Should the U.S. return Mr. Chen to Chinese custody?  What are the consequences of doing so?  Of refusing to do so?  Do you expect the Obama administration to act according to the dictates of realism or idealism in this case, and why?

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