With activist's escape, human rights abuses are at center of U.S.-China talks

The daring escape of a legal activist from extrajudicial house arrest apparently to American diplomatic protection is likely to force U.S. and Chinese officials to confront a subject this week that both sides have approached only cautiously in recent years: China’s abysmal record on human rights.

Although U.S. officials previously have brought up concerns about China’s treatment of dissidents during visits to the country, they’ve been more a side issue than the centerpiece of the nations’ diplomatic relations. During her first visit to China as secretary of state, in 2009, Hillary Clinton said that persistent disagreements on areas such as human rights shouldn’t be allowed to derail progress on economics, climate change or security.

Now, however, with Clinton scheduled to begin high-level talks with senior officials in Beijing on Thursday, the dash to the capital city by self-taught lawyer Chen Guangcheng has pushed the issue to the fore. Unless the situation is resolved quickly, it’s likely to become a serious irritant in the United States’ relationship with China, the second-largest economy in the world and a crucial stakeholder in matters that range from North Korea’s nuclear weapons-development program to proposed sanctions on Iran.

Chinese officials on Monday were still trying to piece together how Chen, who’s been blind since childhood, managed to evade multiple rings of security and make it to Beijing and what role, if any, American officials had in the chain of events. The United States hasn’t acknowledged that Chen is at its embassy, and China has declined to confirm or deny the reports.

President Barack Obama declined to address the subject Monday at a news conference in Washington, saying only that he was “aware of the press reports” about Chen.

"What I would like to emphasize is that every time we meet with China, the issue of human rights comes up," he said. "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 China will be stronger as it opens up and liberalizes its own system.”

One of several of Chen’s associates who’ve been detained in recent days told McClatchy on Monday that his interrogators had asked about a supposed meeting between Chen and U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke. The friend, Hu Jia, was held overnight after being summoned Saturday to speak with police. He said his captors had asked him, “When did Chen Guangcheng meet with Gary Locke and if I was there.”

Hu, who was released Sunday, said he told his interrogators that he hadn’t accompanied Chen to the embassy.

Hu said the agents seemed particularly interested in tracing Chen’s route to Beijing. They asked for details about what time Chen left his home province, the time he arrived in Beijing, who picked him up once he arrived and where he stayed before approaching the embassy last Thursday.

Such details would be crucial to backtracking Chen’s route through the nation’s extensive surveillance systems. For those queries, Hu said, he answered only with what was already known publicly.

One activist group that’s involved with Chen’s case said over the weekend that “high-level talks are currently under way between U.S. and Chinese officials regarding Chen’s status.”

The head of the U.S.-based Christian rights group China Aid Association said in an e-mail exchange that his information was based on a source with access to both governments. “There will likely be a decision soon” by Chinese officials, said Bob Fu, China Aid’s president.

Chen's video appeal to Premier Wen Jiabo

Clinton is scheduled to attend the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue on Thursday and Friday, a summit that’s meant to promote cooperation from agencies across both governments. Underlining the sensitivity of the situation with Chen, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, the top American diplomat for East Asia, made an unannounced trip to China’s capital over the weekend. His presence was made public only after the Associated Press managed to get his photograph Sunday in a Beijing hotel.

It wasn’t clear, though, what the way forward for Chen might be. His wife, daughter and mother are thought to be still in their home village in China’s eastern Shandong province. When a high-profile dissident took refuge with U.S. diplomats in Beijing in 1989, after the brutal crackdown on student protests at Tiananmen Square, he and his wife lived at the embassy for more than a year before they were able to leave China.

Chen, however, reportedly has said he doesn’t want to leave the country; instead, he’s looking for a safety guarantee and punishment of those who’ve tormented him.

Further complicating things is an ongoing scandal at the top levels of Chinese government that also was triggered by a flight to a U.S. diplomatic post.

Bo Xilai, the former Communist Party secretary of Chongqing, a politburo member and rising star in the Chinese Communist Party, was removed from his seat April 10 after being accused of serious discipline violations. His wife also was alleged to have been involved in the killing of a British businessman. Bo’s undoing began when his deputy mayor, Wang Lijun, turned up at the U.S. consulate in the city of Chengdu in February.

According to reports, Wang told American officials of the Bo family’s ties to the businessman’s death, and he may have sought asylum. The Americans rejected the asylum request, but they allowed Wang to remain on the premises as he contacted officials in Beijing and was picked up the next day. Had Wang been handed over to allies of Bo, the outcome probably would have been much different.

Some observers have cast Bo’s downfall as a victory for reform-minded Chinese politicians such as Premier Wen Jiabao over more conservative elements. In a video that Chen released last week, he appealed to Wen directly to intercede.

It’s far from clear, though, whether the resolution of Chen’s plight will be wrapped into any larger struggles between political factions in Beijing.

State media had long denied that Chen, 40, was subject to rough treatment. But after slipping away last week, Chen appeared in the video describing severe beatings that he and his wife had suffered at the hands of officials and police. China’s online censors blocked that recording, as well as mentions of Chen and his story.

Chen had been sentenced to 51 months in prison in 2006 – on trumped-up charges of damaging property and assembling a crowd to block traffic – after he campaigned on behalf of women who’d undergone forced sterilizations and abortions amid a local government campaign to enforce China’s one-child population-control policy.

Upon being released from prison in September 2010, he was placed under home detention even though he hadn’t been charged with any additional crimes. After 19 months, there’d been no sign of that changing, and Chen made a run for his freedom.

Lesley Clark contributed to this article from Washington.