WASHINGTON - The blind Chinese lawyer at the center of a diplomatic storm between Washington and Beijing is a taboo topic in each capital. Neither side wants the biggest human-rights issue between the two since Tiananmen Square to disrupt strategic and economic talks set to begin Thursday.
President Obama's administration and China's officials have signaled that the global economy, North Korea, Iran, and Sudan - issues in which millions of lives are at stake - have become far more important in U.S.-Chinese relations. Thus, both refuse to admit anything is amiss as a high-profile dissident is believed to be sheltering with U.S. diplomats in China.
To listen to officials in both countries, Chen Guangcheng is an invisible man.
Obama himself declined to address the issue on Monday, and would not confirm that Chen 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 at a White House news conference.
He added: "What I would like to emphasize is that every time we meet with China, the issue of human rights comes up."
Obama offered no information as his administration and the Chinese government sought to prevent the issue from disrupting high-level strategic and economic talks set to begin in Beijing on Thursday.
Earlier, State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland was also tight-lipped.
"I have nothing for you on anything having to do with that matter," she responded repeatedly to reporters' questions.
She confirmed that the top U.S. diplomat for Asia, Kurt Campbell, is in Beijing to prepare for the fourth round of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, she refused to say if he was discussing Chen and pointedly refused to utter the dissident's name.
Campbell arrived in Beijing early Sunday, at least a day ahead of schedule and, according to activists, is in discussions with the Chinese to strike a deal over where Chen should go - to asylum in the United States, to stay in China, or go to a third location - before Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner get there. But Nuland said the meetings will go on as planned.
"Both sides want to solve this in a low-key manner and they do not want this to dominate other issues in the [strategic and economic] dialogue so that's why they are working hard to find a speedy solution," said Bob Fu of the Texas-based rights group ChinaAid, which was involved in Chen's escape from house arrest last week.
Despite the silence, the handling of his case - the most serious U.S.-China rights crisis since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre - will have profound ramifications on both sides of the Pacific.
Obama, facing a tough fight for reelection in November, 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 him up to attacks from his presumed Republican opponent, Mitt Romney. It would also draw criticism from the U.S. human-rights community.
But pressing the issue too hard may prompt a backlash from China, on which the United States is increasingly reliant for foreign capital and support as it seeks to lead the global economic recovery, deal with North Korea's and Iran's nuclear programs, and prevent a potential war between Sudan and South Sudan.