Chen's case has become an embarrassment for Beijing. Fu and Chinese-based activists say he slipped away from his intensely guarded home on the night of April 22. His wife and 6-year-old daughter are still there.
Chen recorded a video as a direct address to Premier Wen Jiabao, condemning the treatment of him and his family and accusing local Communist Party officials by name. Activists sent the video Friday to the overseas Chinese news site Boxun.com, which posted part of it on YouTube.
If Chen is in the U.S. Embassy or with U.S. officials at another location, it is not known how he would be able to leave or where he could go without Chinese permission. There was no extra security outside the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Saturday.
In 1989, Fang Lizhi, whose speeches inspired student protesters throughout the 1980s, fled with his wife to the U.S. Embassy after China's military crackdown on the pro-democracy movement. He was forced to stay there for 13 months before China eventually let the couple leave the country. Once China's leading astrophysicist, he died April 7 at age 76 in Tucson, Ariz., where in exile he was a physics professor at the University of Arizona.
Chen is widely admired by rights activists in China who last year publicized his case among ordinary Chinese and encouraged them to go to Dongshigu village and break the security cordon. Even Hollywood actor Christian Bale tried to visit, but was roughed up by locals paid to keep outsiders away
A self-taught lawyer blinded by fever in infancy, Chen served four years in prison for exposing forced abortions and sterilizations in his and surrounding villages. Since his release in September 2010, local officials confined him to his home. Amnesty International and other human rights groups say he was abused over the last 18 months.
But Washington will have to weigh its response at a time it is seeking China's help on many issues around the world, from trying to restrain North Korean and Iranian nuclear ambitions to forcing Syria's government into observing a cease-fire. There are also debates about currency and trade policy considered highly relevant to U.S. and global economic recovery.
Alongside Russia, China has brushed aside American pressure to raise the pressure on Syria despite repeated U.S. warnings that those in opposition will end up on the wrong side of history. China has shielded North Korea from tougher international action despite the reclusive communist government's continued nuclear activity and a series of provocations that nearly plunged the Korean peninsula into war two years ago.
The overtures have left Obama vulnerable to charges that he is being naive or too accommodating to China. Republican critics, including likely presidential nominee Mitt Romney, say the administration hasn't pressured China enough on issues vital to U.S. economic and strategic interests.
Since Obama took office, China's booming economy has driven global growth while the U.S. has struggled to emerge from its worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Greater Chinese assertiveness has resulted in clashes with the U.S. over naval vessels in the Yellow Sea and American exporters trading with Taiwan; with Japan over fishing rights; and with Southeast Asian nations over claims to the resource-rich South China Sea.
But Washington has pushed back. To ease concerns posed by the threat of China-backed North Korea, the U.S. has strengthened military alliances with South Korea and Japan. By speaking out against China's maritime claims, it has improved ties with Southeast Asian nations fearful of an expansive and potentially belligerent Beijing.
U.S. relations with Vietnam and the Philippines in particular have benefited. Even reclusive Myanmar, long an international pariah protected by China's diplomatic sway, has initiated democratic and human rights reforms to improve its standing with the U.S. and the West. The U.S. also has led talks on a new regional trade pact that would exclude China.
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