Published for, May 7, 2012

Like most dissidents, Chen Guangcheng has a lousy sense of timing. Count it among his virtues.

When this blind human rights attorney found his way to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing late last month, he provoked an instant diplomatic incident. That’s because his arrival came on the eve of a visit to China by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. Now that Mr. Chen has left the embassy, he’s made the situation messier still by asking the U.S. to take him and his family to America.

Mrs. Clinton, who deserves credit for having raised Mr. Chen’s name when he was under house arrest, said what you would expect a U.S. secretary of state to say. At a news conference in Beijing on Friday, she declared that the U.S.-China dispute over Mr. Chen would not endanger the other “significant matters that we are working on together.”

Mrs. Clinton is right that the other matters between China and the United States are significant. At times the human rights community can forget this. These matters include such items as China’s valuation of the yuan, whether China will use its influence to help dissuade Iran and North Korea from their nuclear ambitions, and what role China might play in using its economic clout to ease tensions between Sudan and South Sudan.

That’s where dissidents like Mr. Chen come in. They remind us of something we can forget in our enthusiasm to negotiate: We do well to be skeptical about how much trust to repose in agreements with a government that would beat up and detain a blind lawyer, clap a Nobel Peace Prize winner into prison, or tell Chinese families how many children they can have.

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