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WASHINGTON/MIDLAND, Texas (Reuters) - President Barack Obama nudged China on Monday to improve its human rights record and his top diplomat said she will raise the issue in Beijing this week, but both stayed mum about a Chinese dissident said to be under U.S. protection.
At a news conference, Obama appeared to be walking a fine line between not saying anything that would make it harder to resolve Chen Guangcheng's case while conveying U.S. concern for human rights and appreciation for wider cooperation with China.
Chen's case arose as the U.S. secretaries of state and treasury prepared to travel to China for talks on Thursday and Friday with senior Chinese officials, an annual meeting likely to be overshadowed by the fate of the blind dissident.
Chen, who has opposed forced abortions in China, escaped house arrest in rural China and is under U.S. protection in Beijing, according to a U.S.-based rights group, creating a diplomatic dilemma for the world's top economic powers.
Analysts said the dissident appears to have two options: going into exile, which he has told associates he does not want to do, or getting the Chinese authorities to allow him to live in freedom within China, a challenge at best.
Bob Fu, whose religious and political rights advocacy group ChinaAid is the chief source of information on Chen, suggested the most plausible solution would be for him to leave China for the United States with his family, ostensibly for medical care.
"Another option that is more realistic is for him and his family to come to the U.S., face-savingly for the Chinese government, to receive medical treatment," Fu told Reuters in an interview in Midland, Texas, where his group is based.
Neither Obama nor Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said a word in public about Chen, whose shadow will loom large at this week's U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing even if he himself remains invisible.
Asked about Chen's case, Obama told a news conference: "Obviously I am aware of the press reports on the situation in China but I am not going to make a statement on the issue."
Obama said the issue of human rights comes up every time there are senior U.S.-Chinese talks, saying the United States does so both on principle and because "we actually believe China will be stronger as it opens up and liberalizes its own system."
"We want China to be strong, we want it to be prosperous and we are very pleased with all the areas of cooperation that we have been able to engage in," he said at a news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.
"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," he said.
Clinton also ducked a question about Chen, but she 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 with the Philippine foreign and defense ministers.
"That is the spirit that is guiding me as I take off for Beijing tonight and I can certainly guarantee that we will be discussing every matter including human rights that is pending between us," Clinton added.
A senior U.S. diplomat, Kurt Campbell, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, flew to Beijing to work on a solution to the Chen case ahead of this week's U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing, a source briefed on the matter said on Monday.
The U.S. State Department said nothing about Campbell's whereabouts over the weekend but on Monday confirmed he was in Beijing. A State Department spokesman described his trip as part of the preparations for Clinton's talks this week.
Associates of Chen said he is firmly against leaving China.
"He was adamant that he would not apply for political asylum with any country," said Guo Yushan, a Beijing-based researcher and rights advocate who has campaigned for Chen and helped bring him to Beijing after his escape.
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."
But 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," he said.
The source briefed on the Chen case said Campbell, the senior U.S. diplomat who traveled to Beijing over the weekend, had an enormous challenge.
"I think Kurt is there to negotiate one of the two more favorable outcomes, either his asylum or his exoneration by senior Chinese officials so that he can return home to Shandong and live unmolested," said the source, saying this was an inference on his part.
"I don't think either of those outcomes is going to be easy to negotiate."
On Sunday a top Obama administration official, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, declined to comment on the Chen case or whether the United States was protecting the dissident, but he neatly summarized the dilemma for Obama.
"I think in all instances the president tries to balance our commitment to human rights, making sure that the people throughout the world have the ability to express themselves freely and openly, but also that we can continue to carry out our relationships with key countries overseas," Brennan said on the "Fox News Sunday" television program.
Additional reporting by Laura MacInnis, Paul Eckert and Andrew Quinn; Editing by Eric Walsh