BEIJING -- 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: Chinas abysmal record on human rights.
Although U.S. officials previously have brought up concerns about Chinas treatment of dissidents during visits to the country, theyve 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 shouldnt 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, its 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 Koreas nuclear weapons-development program to proposed sanctions on Iran.
Chinese officials on Monday were still trying to piece together how Chen, whos 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 hasnt 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 Chens associates whove 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 hadnt accompanied Chen to the embassy.
Hu said the agents seemed particularly interested in tracing Chens 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 Chens route through the nations extensive surveillance systems. For those queries, Hu said, he answered only with what was already known publicly.
One activist group thats involved with Chens case said over the weekend that high-level talks are currently under way between U.S. and Chinese officials regarding Chens status.