Days before their annual bilateral meeting begins, the United States and China are largely quiet about the blind dissident who recently escaped house arrest and is thought to be under U.S. protection in the Chinese capital, Beijing.
In a response to a reporter's question on Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama said he would not make a statement on the issue. He said he is aware of press reports on the situation and added that every time the United States meets with China, the issue of human rights comes up.
U.S. state department officials also declined to comment on the situation surrounding Chen Guangcheng, a lawyer and activist who received a four year jail sentence in 2006 for highlighting abuses stemming from China's one-child policy.
The top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, Kurt Campbell, arrived Sunday in Beijing and is expected to talk with Chinese officials about Chen.
Chinese activist Chen Guangchen
After serving his full sentence, Chen was put under strict surveillance in his home in Shandong province.
Activists say Chen's house arrest was mostly enforced by thugs hired by local officials from his hometown, Linyi. Activists say Chen escaped from his home last week and spent days on the run before seeking what some believe is refuge with U.S. diplomats in Beijing.
Officials at the U.S. embassy have not confirmed the reports.
Chen's ordeal comes ahead of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, scheduled to begin on Thursday in Beijing.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who in the past has pressured the Chinese government to release Chen, and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner are set to meet with their Chinese counterparts to discuss bilateral relations.
Zhu Feng, a U.S.-China relations expert at Peking University, calls the Chen issue a “hot potato” [delicate topic] for both countries. “First of all, they want to maintain a low key approach,” he said, "and there is a tacit agreement that the situation should not be hyped.”
Although Chen’s escape has made headlines around the world, there has been no report of his status in Chinese media. Chinese Internet censors have silenced online discussion about the case.
In addition to the Chen case, other issues are expected to cause friction at this week's Sino-American meeting, including the possibility that the Obama administration will approve the sale of warplanes to Taiwan.
The White House says it is considering the proposed sale, which analysts say would draw heated criticism in China. Beijing authorities consider Taiwan part of China, and view arm sales to the island as unwelcome interference in Chinese domestic affairs.
Because it is an election year in the United States, analyst Zhu Feng said the Obama administration is in a very difficult situation with regard to the talks with China. “The basic principle is that the U.S. should not make easy concessions to China,” he said. “But at the same time, [U.S. President] Obama cannot not want a severe conflict with China over human rights or over arms sales in Taiwan because he realizes that Chinese economic and financial repercussions would be severe.”