U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has left Washington for Beijing, where she said she will raise human rights issues with Chinese officials during the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue later this week.
Clinton set off on her trip on April 30 at a time when prominent Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng is seeking refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing after fleeing heavily guarded house arrest on April 22.
Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Kurt Campbell traveled to China earlier than scheduled to discuss the question of Chen's fate with Chinese officials.
Before departing, Clinton told a press conference that China and the United States do not see eye to eye in the area of human rights, but that "a constructive relationship includes talking very frankly about those areas where we do not agree."
She declined to comment on Chen's case, but said, "I can certainly guarantee that we will be discussing every matter, including human rights, that is pending between us."
Earlier in the day, Obama also demurred when asked about the matter, but at a White House press conference with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, he maintained that China would benefit if it took steps to protect human rights:
"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," he said. "What I would like to emphasize is that every time we meet with China, the issue of human rights comes up. It is our belief that not only is that the right thing to do because it comports with our principles and our belief in freedom and human rights, but also because we actually think that China will be stronger."
A Major Test In Bilateral Relations
Chen, 40, is a self-taught lawyer who was left blinded by a fever when he was an infant. His fight for justice in China has included pulling back the curtain on forced abortions and sterilizations in support of the government's one child policy in the rural area where he lives. He spent four years in prison and was placed under house arrest in September, 2010.
A leading U.S.-based China human rights campaigner said on April 30 that U.S. and Chinese diplomats are close to a deal that will allow Chen, who is blind, and his family to come to the United States for medical treatment.
Citing a source close to both governments, Bob Fu, of the Texas-based ChinaAid, said "both sides are eager to solve this issue" and predicted a decision would be made before Clinton begins talks with Chinese leaders on May 3.
Analysts say this week's negotiations between Washington and Beijing over Chen's fate constitute the greatest test in bilateral U.S.-China relations in more than 20 years. China cannot offer credible guarantees of Chen's safety if he remains, but his friends and fellow dissidents say he does not want to leave.
Guo Yushan, a Beijing-based researcher and rights advocate who has campaigned for Chen and helped bring him to Beijing after his escape, said Chen "was adamant that he would not apply for political asylum with any country."
Yang Jianli, who runs the U.S.-based pro-democracy group Initiatives for China, said Chen is "determined to stay in China."
Chen's wife, mother, and six-year-old daughter are thought to still be under the control of several dozen hired guards who regularly beat, harass, and threaten supporters and journalists who try to visit the family at their home in the rural town of Dongshigu.
With reporting by Reuters and AP