U.S. Rep. Chris Smith has never met the blind Chinese dissident whose dramatic escape from house arrest to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing dominated international news for days.

But the New Jersey Republican has kept tabs on Chen Guangcheng's welfare and whereabouts for seven years, ever since Chinese officials jailed Chen for exposing the government's practice of forcing women to undergo abortions and sterilization to comply with China's "one-child" policy.

"This hideous practice has hurt so many women," said Smith, a staunch opponent of abortion who has traveled to China six times seeking the release of political prisoners and persecuted Christians.

On Tuesday, Smith has scheduled a hearing before a House human rights subcommittee he chairs to discuss Chen and the fate of his family and friends, who have faced beatings, arrests and surveillance since Chen's escape in late April.

"There's no safe place for a dissident in China," Smith, 58, of Hamilton, said in an interview last week. "It's an oxymoron; it does not exist. They have myriad ways of exacting revenge."

Smith's record

Smith, who has represented parts of Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean Counties for 32 years, is perhaps best known for his opposition to abortion. A former executive director of NJ Right to Life, he has called RU486, a pill that induces abortion, "baby pesticide." He was a major force behind the movement to ban late-term, or "partial-birth," abortions.

Smith, a devout Roman Catholic and married father of four, also has been a champion for human rights.

He has written three laws to combat human trafficking. In 2005, Smith won approval for $361 million in federal funding to help prosecute domestic trafficking and compensate victims. The same year, Congress passed a bill he backed that doubled U.S. contributions to international peacekeeping missions and permanently funded Radio Free Asia, a radio and Internet news service that aims to provide news to Asian countries where the government censors the press (although China reportedly blocks transmission and access to the RFA website).

Smith has tried numerous times to meet with Chinese dissidents and has asked for release of political prisoners. Once, a Chinese foreign ministry official laughed in his face when confronted with Smith's list of people he wanted released, he said. When Smith managed to meet with Chinese Premier Li Peng in 1992, Li - who had presided over the Tiananmen Square massacre - looked at Smith horrified.

"He stood there like [the list] was electrified," Smith said.

Smith argues that the United States should impose trade penalties on China for human-rights abuses. "The human-rights issue has been so demoted and degraded," he said. "We just want the deal, 'How much money we can make?' "

But those who have studied Sino-American relations say matters are not that simple. The two countries are intimately tied economically, with China investing heavily in U.S. debt, therefore making a bet that the United States will remain economically viable, said Avery Goldstein, a political science professor and the director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China at the University of Pennsylvania.

The United States needs China's help, for example, to help prevent North Korean proliferation of nuclear weapons, he said.

"The relationship between the U.S. and China is really too important at this point to let one issue override all of the others," he said. "Our leverage has never been great because we've never been able to just demand things from the Chinese. I would expect that these kind of disagreements . . . over human-rights issues are going to occur."

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who was in Philadelphia on Friday promoting her new memoir, said of her interactions with the Chinese under President Bill Clinton: "We always raised human rights; they always raised Taiwan."

"A lot of our future depends on our relationship with China," she said during a question-and-answer session at the Free Library of Philadelphia's Central Library. "We have an awful lot of business to do with them."

Many hearings on China

As chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, Smith said, he has held at least 40 hearings on human-rights abuses in China. The 23-member panel, composed of representatives, senators, and presidential appointees, was created in 2001 by Congress to monitor human rights and the legal system in China.

It was during Smith's last hearing, May 3, that he first heard the voice of the man he had followed so closely for years.

Chen, 40, a self-taught lawyer from Dongshigu village in Shandong province, called from his hospital bed in Beijing.

"I'm really afraid for my other family members' lives," Chen said after Smith put him on speakerphone. Chen had called the cellphone of friend and fellow dissident Bob Fu, who was testifying at the hearing.

Chen ignited the diplomatic crisis between the United States and China when he sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing last month. The United States released Chen to the Chinese on May 2 with assurances that they would allow him to live safely in Beijing.

But on his way to a Beijing hospital, Chen panicked and said he no longer believed he could live safely in China; he wanted to go to America. After a second round of negotiations, the Chinese agreed to allow Chen and his family to travel to New York so Chen could study law at New York University for several months.

Chen, who broke his foot during his escape, remains in the hospital. He could leave China in the next couple of weeks if Chinese officials process his student visa quickly, said Fu, a Texas pastor who left China in 1996.

The fate of Chen's friends and relatives is less certain.

"The media in the West will eventually take their eye off these people," Goldstein said. "And it's at those times when local officials who think they've been embarrassed by this whole situation may have an opportunity to make their lives difficult."

The hearing Tuesday at the U.S. House subcommittee on Africa, global health and human rights, which Smith heads, will focus on the fallout from Chen's escape.

Smith said he would continue to watch out for Chen's family as best he could.

He may have to do it from Washington; China denied Smith a visa for the first time last year. He had told officials he planned to visit Chen.

"We are our brothers' and sisters' keepers," he said. "If you want peace, work for human rights."

Contact Joelle Farrell at 856-779-3237, jfarrell@phillynews.com or @joellefarrell on Twitter.