(Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton left on Monday on a high-stakes trip to Beijing, where a blind dissident is reportedly holed up in the U.S. embassy in a drama threatening to overshadow top-level meetings between the two governments.
Dissident Chen Guangcheng, according to one of his helpers, will demand to stay in China and press on with his campaign for reform, adding to tension between Beijing and Washington that poses risks for both governments as well as to relations between the world's two biggest economies.
Both governments have scrupulously avoided official comment on the Chen case and neither has confirmed that he is under U.S. protection in Beijing.
Chen's audacious escape from house arrest, under the watch of the world's largest domestic security apparatus, was a "miracle" of planning and endurance, said Guo Yushan, a Beijing-based researcher and rights advocate who has campaigned for Chen and helped bring him to the Chinese capital after his escape.
But he said the 40-year-old, self-taught lawyer wants to stay in China and campaign for reform.
"He was adamant that he would not apply for political asylum with any country. He certainly wants to stay in China, and demand redress for the years of illegal persecution in Shandong and continue his efforts for Chinese society," said Guo on Monday, speaking in his first long interview since he was released from days of police questioning.
Chen, who campaigned against forced abortions as part of family planning, was confined to his village home in the eastern province of Shandong since September 2010, after release from jail on charges he rejected as spurious.
President Barack Obama nudged China to improve its human rights record, saying the two countries' 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".
But at a news conference, he walked a fine line between not saying anything that would make it harder to resolve Chen's case while conveying U.S. concern for human rights and appreciation for wider cooperation with China.
It is a politically fragile period for both countries.
Obama, in this presidential election year, wants to avoid giving any political ammunition to his Republican foes who already accuse him of being too soft on China and have demanded he ensure Chen and his family are protected from persecution.
In Beijing, the ruling Communist Party is gearing up for leadership changes later in the year but the carefully choreographed planning has already been jolted out of step by the downfall of top official Bo Xilai, in a case linked to the apparent murder of a British businessmen.
Before leaving, Clinton promised to press China's leaders on human rights, an issue that has dropped down the agenda between the two countries in the more than two decades since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Clinton ducked a question about Chen, but hinted that she would not be shy about the matter in Beijing.
"A constructive relationship includes talking very frankly about those areas where we do not agree, including human rights," she told a news conference.
The Chen case has already distracted attention from this week's two-day talks, which U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner will also attend amid some progress in long-standing disputes over currency, trade and market access.
The talks also give Washington a chance to win more Chinese co-operation on international issues including pressuring Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs, halting Syria's continued crackdown on unarmed protesters and reducing tensions over competing territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Analysts said Chen appears to have two options: going into exile or getting the Chinese authorities to allow him to live in freedom within China, a challenge at best.
Yang Jianli, who runs the U.S.-based pro-democracy group Initiatives for China, said he believed that both the United States and China would prefer that Chen go into exile but that he did not think the dissident would.
"He is not the (kind of) person who will give in," Yang said. "He is so determined to stay in China."
Bob Fu, whose religious and political rights advocacy group ChinaAid has been a source of information about Chen, suggested the most plausible solution would be for him to leave China for the United States with his family, ostensibly for medical care.
Fu, who said he has spoken with senior U.S. diplomats in China about Chen's case, suggested the dissident ultimately may have little choice.
"At the end of the day, that is the only option that is left, if he wants safety and freedom for himself and his family."