WASHINGTON - Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton headed Tuesday to Beijing, where a tense human-rights showdown awaits over the fate of a blind Chinese lawyer said to be under U.S. protection after escaping from house arrest.
The issue of Chen Guangcheng's future threatens to overshadow this year's round of high-level strategic and economic talks between the world's two biggest economic powers. Talks begin Thursday.
Publicly, the U.S. and Chinese governments have said nothing about the Chen case. Neither side wants the biggest human-rights issue between the two since Tiananmen Square to damage a working relationship between the world's top importer and exporter, and between the world's biggest military and the fastest developing.
Chen, a 40-year-old lawyer who exposed forced abortions and sterilizations as part of China's one-child policy, was delivered into the protection of U.S. diplomats in Beijing late last week, according to fellow activists. They say American and Chinese officials are intensely discussing his fate, which could mean getting political asylum in the United States or staying in China, which Chen has told some activists he prefers.
Questioned on Chen's future, President Obama on Monday dodged the issue at a Washington news conference, declining to confirm that he 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. "Every time we meet with China, the issue of human rights comes up."
The Obama administration has stressed that the global economy, North Korea, Iran, and Sudan - issues in which millions of lives are at stake - are far more important in U.S.-Chinese relations. And it is refusing to say whether Chen will even be a topic of discussion this week.
The president's options are limited. Pressing the issue too hard may prompt a backlash from China, which the United States relies on for foreign capital and support in trying to lead the global economic recovery, deal with North Korea and Iran's nuclear programs, and prevent a potential war between Sudan and South Sudan.
But facing a tough fight for reelection in November, Obama 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 Obama to attacks from his presumed Republican opponent, Mitt Romney.
Romney and several Republican lawmakers already have demanded that Obama not back down to Beijing. Handing over Chen without adequate safeguards would also draw intense criticism from the human-rights community in the United States, one of Obama's core constituencies.