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Obama calls on China to improve human rights as activist’s fate debated

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Without specifically mentioning negotiations over blind activist lawyer Chen Guangcheng, President Obama on Monday urged China to do more to improve its record on human rights issues “because we actually think China will be stronger as it opens up and liberalizes its own system.”

A confidant of Chen’s said U.S. diplomats have met with officials at the Chinese Foreign Ministry to try to hammer out an agreement on what to do about Chen before Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner arrive Wednesday morning. Chen escaped from house arrest in China last week and is reportedly in U.S. custody now.

During an appearance at the White House Monday afternoon with Japan’s prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, Obama said he was not going to make a statement on Chen, but did say human rights comes up “every time we meet with China.”

“We want China to be strong, and we want it to prosperous,” Obama said. “And we’re very pleased with all the areas of cooperation that we’ve been able to engage in. 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.”

Bob Fu, a U.S.-based activist with the group China Aid who says he helped Chen escape house arrest last week, said it seems increasingly likely that Chen would be brought to the United States, possibly for the stated reason of seeking medical treatment.

Chen had initially been “very, very reluctant” to seek asylum abroad, Fu said in an interview on Monday. But the difficulty of guaranteeing his safety inside China, Fu added, was making departure for the United States the most attractive option for both American and Chinese officials.

Chen left his wife and daughter behind when he fled to Beijing a week ago and, in a video posted on YouTube, appealed to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to guarantee their safety. He is believed to be under the protection of U.S. diplomats, though his precise whereabouts are not publicly known.

“I think right now, realistically, it’s going to be tough for him to stay in China with any sustainable safety guarantees by the Chinese government given the intense political transition,” Fu said. “A realistic option is to have him and his family come to the U.S. for medical treatment. He does have sickness. And he’s a blind man. He needs his family to come with him.”

Fu said he had been in touch with U.S. officials about the ongoing negotiations. He has helped other Chinese dissidents escape the country and find political asylum abroad.

Chen’s case is unlike that of some earlier dissidents who were allowed to move to the United States, however. Many of those earlier dissidents were released on medical parole, meaning they would be arrested again on returning to China. Chen is not currently serving any sentence and is, technically, a free man and could possibly return to China.

Fu said that if Chen is at a U.S. embassy site in Beijing when Clinton arrives, she may feel obliged to meet with him, further highlighting the U.S. role in protecting Chen.

Although the State Department and Chinese government have said nothing about Chen’s whereabouts, he is widely assumed to be in one of the U.S. embassy buildings in Beijing based on what his fellow activists have said. In addition, on Sunday morning television talk shows, U.S. counter-terrorism adviser John O. Brennan seemed to implicitly confirm that Chen was under U.S. protection.

Asked about Chen on “Fox News Sunday,” Brennan said: “We’re going to make sure that we do this in the appropriate way and that appropriate balance is struck.”

President Obama, he added, “has faced similar situations in the past in terms of this balancing requirement” and that he “will do whatever he thinks is in the best interest of the United States as well as the individuals involved.”

The State Department dispatched assistant secretary of State Kurt Campbell to Beijing during the weekend, a move seen as a sign that he would step up negotiations over Chen before Clinton’s arrival.

Chen has been a leading voice against officials in Shandong province who were enforcing China’s one-child policy by forcing women to undergo abortions or sterilization. He has been in and out of prison since 2005, when he filed a class-action lawsuit accusing Shandong officials of mistreating the women of the province.

After his last prison release, in September 2010, he was taken to his farmhouse in Dongshigu village and kept under unofficial house arrest, surrounded by armed men in plain clothes who prevented Chen and his wife from leaving and blocked journalists and activists from visiting.

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