The key to resolving the situation may well rest with an aging cadre at the top of China's Communist Party, who could either promise protection for Chen and his family in China or allow him to leave the country, possibly even to Hong Kong or Macao, as they prepare for their own leadership transition later this year.
Activists say Chen prefers to stay in China if his safety and that of his family can be guaranteed. That would require national leaders to step in and protected Chen from local officials, who've kept him and his wife confined at home since his September 2010 release from four years in prison on charges that supporters say were fabricated.
The ouster of powerful Chinese politician Bo Xilai following a deputy's visit to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu in February has already embarrassed the party. It doesn't want to lose more face over Chen, whose case was raised repeatedly by American officials, including Clinton, until the information blackout began last week.
Clinton also declined to talk Monday about Chen but said she would raise human rights issues at the upcoming meetings in Beijing.
"A constructive relationship includes talking very frankly about those areas where we do not agree, including human rights," she told reporters.
Human rights talk has angered Beijing for decades and it has criticized the U.S. approach as lecturing. Clinton made waves on her first trip abroad as secretary of state when she said human rights could not dominate the entire agenda with China at the expense of other pressing issues. Her comments drew fire at the time, but the relationship has clearly evolved as global priorities have shifted.
China in the 1990s was in need of foreign investment and diplomatic partners and was willing to send jailed dissidents into exile to get them. But Beijing sees little need for such concessions now, with its diplomatic clout and coffers bulging with foreign exchange.
Activists said the top U.S. diplomat for Asia, Kurt Campbell, had been in intensive discussions in Beijing to strike a deal over Chen before Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's arrival. Those efforts were continuing Tuesday, according to activists.
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.
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