Barack Obama silent on China activist Chen Guangcheng

President Obama said he would not make a statement on China

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US President Barack Obama has refused to comment on Chen Guangcheng, the Chinese dissident said to be at the US embassy after fleeing house arrest.

Mr Obama told a news conference he was "aware of press reports" on the issue, but would not make a statement on it.

Hillary Clinton, due in Beijing later this week, also declined comment but said rights issues would be discussed.

Activists claim Mr Chen entered the US embassy in Beijing earlier this month, after slipping out of his home.

US and Chinese officials are thought to be in talks on his fate.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland confirmed that a senior US official, Kurt Campbell, had travelled to Beijing, but declined to say whether he was in discussions about the activist.

Mr Campbell, who arrived on an unscheduled visit, is believed to be in highly delicate negotiations with the Chinese authorities.

The BBC's Adam Brookes in Washington says one of the options on the table is for Mr Chen to go into exile, but he is said to be averse to that solution.

Analysis

All this comes days before a very important China-US bilateral meeting, which Hillary Clinton is due to attend.

She and her Chinese counterparts will want to discuss Iran, Syria, North Korea and trade, but as of now, all anyone is interested in are the whereabouts and the fate of Chen Guangcheng.

There are those in America who are using Mr Chen's predicament as evidence of China's cruelty and duplicity. There are those in China who think America is meddling and discrediting the Chinese political system at a delicate time of leadership transition.

Trust between these two Pacific giants is easily undermined, and it seems to have fallen to US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell to find a solution which preserves American interests, Chinese pride and Mr Chen's safety.

Ms Nuland said Mr Campbell's visit was to prepare for the visit by Mrs Clinton, the US Secretary of State, on Wednesday. Both she and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner are due in Beijing for the annual US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue - now expected to be overshadowed by the issue of Mr Chen.

Ms Clinton said on Monday that she would raise the issue of human rights during her talks.

"A constructive relationship includes talking very frankly about those areas where we do not agree, including human rights," she was quoted saying by the Reuters news agency.

Mr Obama, meanwhile, when asked specifically about Mr Chen's case, said he could only stress that "every time we meet with China the issue of human rights comes up".

"We want China to be strong, we want it to be prosperous and we are very pleased with all the areas of co-operation that we have been able to engage in," he said.

"But we also believe that that relationship will be that much stronger and China will be that much more prosperous and strong as you see improvements on human rights issues in that country."

'Utmost restraint'

Mr Chen was placed under house arrest in Shandong province in 2010 after spending more than four years in jail for disrupting traffic and damaging property.

Chen Guangcheng

  • Born 12 Nov 1971
  • Nickname: The Barefoot Lawyer
  • Went blind as a child
  • Campaigned for women forced to have abortions or sterilisation under China's one child per family policy
  • Jailed for four years in 2006 for disrupting traffic and damaging property
  • Released from jail in 2010 placed under house arrest
  • Daughter barred from school during much of 2011, reports say
  • Escapes house arrest, April 2012

He is thought to have escaped the house where he was being held more than a week ago, although the news only emerged at the end of last week. Activists say he was then driven to the US embassy.

The activist, who has been blind since childhood, has long been a high-profile figure and international rights groups have frequently expressed alarm at the treatment of him and his family.

Mr Chen exposed how local authorities in Linyi, in Shandong province, forced thousands of women to have abortions or be sterilised as part of China's one-child policy.

US officials have often raised Mr Chen's case with China on human rights grounds.

Earlier, the EU urged China to "exercise utmost restraint" in connection with Mr Chen, amid reports that some close to the activist had been rounded up.

His colleagues said last Sunday's escape had taken months to plan, and was carried out with the help of a network of friends and activists.

He scaled the wall that the authorities had built around his house, and was driven hundreds of miles to Beijing, where activists say he stayed in safe houses before fleeing to the embassy.

Several people involved in Mr Chen's escape have been detained or have disappeared in recent days, and fellow activist Hu Jia has been questioned.

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