WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton headed Tuesday to Beijing, where a tense human rights showdown awaits over the fate of a blind Chinese lawyer said to be under U.S. protection after escaping from house arrest.
The issue of Chen Guangcheng's future threatens to overshadow this year's round of high-level strategic and economic talks between the world's two biggest economic powers. Those talks begin Thursday.
Publicly, the U.S. and Chinese governments have said nothing about the Chen case. Neither side wants the biggest human-rights issue between the two since Tiananmen Square to damage a working relationship between the world's top importer and exporter, and between the world's biggest military and the fastest developing.
Chen, a 40-year-old lawyer who exposed forced abortions and sterilizations as part of China's one-child policy, was delivered into the protection of U.S. diplomats in Beijing late last week, according to fellow activists. They say American and Chinese officials are intensely discussing his fate, which could mean getting political asylum in the United States or staying in China, which Chen has told some activists he prefers.
Questioned on Chen's future, President Barack Obama on Monday dodged the issue at a Washington news conference, declining to confirm that he was under U.S. protection in China or that American diplomats were attempting to negotiate an agreement for him to receive asylum.
"Obviously, I'm aware of the press reports on the situation in China, but I'm not going to make a statement on the issue," the president said. "Every time we meet with China the issue of human rights comes up."
The Obama administration has stressed that the global economy, North Korea, Iran and Sudan — issues in which millions of lives are at stake — are far more important in U.S.-Chinese relations. And it is refusing to say whether Chen will even be a topic of discussion this week.
The president's options are limited. Pressing the issue too hard may prompt a backlash from China, which the U.S. relies on for foreign capital and support in trying to lead the global economic recovery, deal with North Korea and Iran's nuclear programs and prevent a potential war between Sudan and South Sudan.
But facing a tough fight for re-election in November, Obama cannot afford to ignore the situation. Doing nothing to help a visually impaired, self-taught lawyer who has fought against forced abortions and corruption in China would open Obama to attacks from his presumed Republican opponent, Mitt Romney.
Romney and several Republican lawmakers already have demanded that Obama not back down to Beijing. Handing over Chen without adequate safeguards would also draw intense criticism from the human rights community in the United States, one of Obama's core constituencies.
"The U.S. government has a moral obligation to ensure that Chen Guangcheng, his family and any who aided his Houdini-like escape from house arrest are either granted asylum in the United States or are not mistreated if any of them choose to stay in China," said Frank Jannuzi, head of Amnesty International's Washington office.
Bob Fu of the Texas-based group ChinaAid, who has been in touch with people close to Chen, said Tuesday he had no direct word from the lawyer's wife and two children, but understood from people living in the same locality that they were still at their home in Shandong province.
Chen's older brother, Chen Guangfu, is still missing, he said. Rights activists say the brother was detained last week.
But Chen's nephew, Chen Kegui, has contacted a human rights lawyer and does not appear to be in custody, Fu said. He had reportedly gone missing last Friday after a confrontation with men outside his house in the same village.
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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