USA-CHINA-DISSIDENT:Clinton heads to China and into dissident drama
By Chris Buckley and Chris Baltimore
BEIJING/MIDLAND, Texas (Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was set on Wednesday to begin a high-stakes trip to Beijing, where a blind dissident is reportedly holed up in the U.S. embassy as China and the United States try to work out a solution before high-level talks.
Legal activist Chen Guangcheng, according to one of his helpers, appeared to soften his initial insistence on staying in China to press on with his campaign for reform - a stance that would have complicated U.S.-Chinese negotiations on his fate.
"The movement is headed in the direction that Cheng's family will be allowed to come to the U.S. for non-asylum issues," said Bob Fu, whose religious and political rights advocacy group ChinaAid has been the chief source of information about Chen.
"Chen insists he does not want to seek asylum per se. I think he will agree to come for medical treatment and live a safer life after seven years of torture and misery in China," Fu told Reuters at ChinaAid's office in Midland, Texas.
Fu, who himself fled religious persecution in China in the 1990s, predicted that "the deal could come soon, at least not (in) months. It should be resolved in a few weeks at the most."
Both governments have avoided official comment on the Chen case and neither has confirmed that he is under U.S. protection in Beijing.
Chen's audacious escape from house arrest, under the watch of the world's largest domestic security apparatus, was a "miracle" of planning and endurance, said Guo Yushan, a Beijing-based researcher and rights advocate who has campaigned for Chen and helped bring him to the Chinese capital after his escape.
Chen, who campaigned against forced abortions as part of China's "one child" population control policy, had been confined to his village home in the eastern province of Shandong since September 2010 after release from jail on charges he rejected as spurious.
On Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama nudged China to improve its human rights record. But he walked a fine line between not saying anything that would make it harder to resolve Chen's case while conveying U.S. concern for human rights and appreciation for wider cooperation with China.
It is a politically fragile period for both countries.
Obama, who is seeking re-election in November, wants to avoid giving any political ammunition to his Republican foes who already accuse him of being too soft on China and have demanded he ensure Chen and his family are protected from persecution.
"To date, this administration has made a calculated decision not to challenge the Chinese regime on its dismal human rights record," said Republican congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee in response to Obama's comments.
"This is an opportunity to correct that mistake," she said.
Frank Jannuzi, head of the Washington office of right group Amnesty International, said the United States "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 they choose to stay in China."
"Any other outcome would be another setback for China's human rights movement," added Jannuzi.
In Beijing, the ruling Communist Party is gearing up for leadership changes later in the year. But the carefully choreographed planning has already been jolted by the downfall of top official Bo Xilai in a case linked to the apparent murder of a British businessmen.
Before leaving for China late on Monday, Clinton promised to press China's leaders on human rights, an issue that has dropped down the agenda between the two countries in the more than two decades since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
The Chen case has distracted attention from this week's two-day talks, which U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner will also attend amid some progress in long-standing disputes over currency, trade and market access.
"Both sides are bending over backward to not make strong statements about the issue - indeed to say as little as possible about it," said Nicholas Lardy, an expert on China's economy at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.
"If the Chinese had reacted extremely strongly on this case right off the top, it would have had the potential to derail the whole dialogue and become a major thorn in bilateral relations," he added.
The talks also give Washington a chance to win more Chinese cooperation on international issues including pressuring Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs, halting Syria's continued crackdown on unarmed protesters and reducing tensions over competing territorial claims in the South China Sea.
(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed, Laura MacInnis, Paul Eckert and Andrew Quinn; Editing by Will Dunham)