The U.S. State Department said Friday that it expects China to let blind dissident Chen Guangcheng study at an American university. That would be a welcome resolution to what The New York Times called “a diplomatic crisis that has deeply embarrassed the White House and threatens to sour relations with Beijing.” It also was a timely relief for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who hailed that “progress” as she visited Beijing — though all China publicly acknowledged was that Mr. Chen could apply to study abroad.

Numerous Republicans, including Mitt Romney, had condemned the Obama administration for helping convince Mr. Chen to leave the U.S. Embassy in Beijing Wednesday after spending six days there.

The courageous, persecuted opponent of Communist China’s sterilization and forced-abortion policies said he left the embassy only after government security agents threatened that his family would be harmed if he stayed there.

But if China does grant permission for Mr. Chen to accept a fellowship at New York University (and take his wife and their two children with him), that would represent a victory for not just U.S. diplomacy but for the human rights of China’s more than 1.3 billion people.

Critics of how the Obama administration handled this challenge should also recall that past Republican administrations have had problems of their own with China.

Less than three months into George W. Bush’s presidency, a U.S. intelligence plane collided with a Chinese military plane and had to make an emergency landing on the Chinese island of Hainan. China held the American crew of 24 for 10 days until the U.S. issued “an expression of regret and sorrow” for the death of the Chinese pilot and for entering Chinese airspace. Though the U.S. statement also maintained that “we did not do anything wrong, and therefore it was not possible to apologize,” the Chinese dubbed it “the letter of the two sorries.”

Maybe something got lost in translation. We finally got our plane back — in disassembled form — three months later.

Ten years later, balancing American ideals with Chinese realities remains a difficult task. China’s rise as an economic — and military — power over the last few decades makes “getting tough” on it much easier said than done. After all, China holds a major chunk of our massive debt.

Fortunately, though, the expansion of economic freedom in China has inevitably boosted calls for more political and personal freedoms.

And China does seem sensitive about its image — and vulnerable to international pressure on the human-rights front.

If not, why has China at least appeared to acquiesce in the case of Mr. Chen.

Regardless of who’s in the White House, the U.S. should remain a persuasive advocate for freedom everywhere — including the planet’s most populous nation.