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Can US contain flap over dissident, before Hillary Clinton gets to China? (+video)

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a high-level entourage are set to arrive in Beijing Thursday for economic and security talks with China. The US custody of Chinese dissident Chen Guangchen jeopardizes that meeting, but some analysts say it's likely to proceed regardless.

By Staff writer / April 30, 2012

A Chinese paramilitary police officer stands guard at the entrance of the US Embassy in Beijing, Sunday. Chen Guangcheng, a blind legal activist who escaped house arrest, is under the protection of American officials, activists said Saturday, creating a diplomatic dilemma for the US and China days ahead of a visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Vincent Thian/AP

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Washington

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton no doubt hopes the diplomatically delicate case of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, who escaped house arrest and then sought refuge with US authorities in Beijing, can be resolved before she and a high-level entourage including Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner arrive in the Chinese capital Thursday.

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The Chinese government is refusing to comment on reports that Chen Guangcheng is sheltering in the embassy.

Both American and Chinese officials are tight-lipped on their deliberations over the rights advocate, whose treatment has figured prominently in official Western protests of China’s human rights record. Mr. Chen, blind since childhood, is a self-taught legal authority and critic of the forced abortions he exposed through risky investigations.

At the White House on Monday, President Obama said during a press conference that he was "aware" of the Chen case but would not say how the US will treat Chen's case. He suggested, however, that the issue of human rights in China would come up in this week's talks, as it always does with Beijing, not only because "it is the right thing to do" but also because "we think China will be stronger as it opens up and liberalizes its own system." 

While everything suggests both countries prefer to see the Chen matter resolved soon so that the two days of high-level security and economic talks can proceed, the complexity of a case like Chen’s could make a quick fix impossible.

“My sense is that both sides for their own reasons think this has come up at a very inopportune time,” says David Lampton, director of Chinese studies at The Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, in Washington. “But as much as both sides might hope it could be quickly resolved, the complications of this case and the priorities each side is going to have are likely to mean this will take some time.”

Referring to other cases of Chinese dissidents, Dr. Lampton adds, “If past experience is any indication, then we ought to be thinking in terms of weeks, not days” before a resolution is reached.

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