U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in China on Wednesday for top-level talks that risk being upstaged by the fate of a blind dissident whose supporters say is under U.S. protection in Beijing after escaping house arrest.
Clinton has in the past repeatedly criticized China’s treatment of the 40-year-old legal campaigner, who riled authorities by exposing forced abortions and sterilizations under China’s "one-child" policy.
The United States hopes the talks will encourage greater Chinese cooperation on trade as well over Iran, Syria, North Korea and other international disputes.
Chen’s friends and supporters have earlier said he was inside the fortress-like U.S. embassy in northeast Beijing.
But the state news agency Xinhua said that “Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng has left the U.S. embassy in Beijing of his ‘own volition’ after being there for six days”. The brief report provided no other details.
A senior U.S. official confirmed that Chen was out of the embassy.
“Chen Guangcheng has arrived at a medical facility in Beijing where he will receive medical treatment and be reunited with his family,” said the official who requested anonymity.
The Chinese activist told Secretary of StateClinton "I want to kiss you" as they spoke by phone in Beijing on Wednesday, a US official said.
Relations could easily go awry between China and the U.S. over this case, especially with the ruling Communist Party wrestling with a leadership scandal and a looming power succession.
"Of course, as the U.S. must realize, this does quite a lot of harm to China-U.S. relations," Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing said of Chen’s reported flight into U.S. protection.
"In this situation, both sides want to restrict the impact of this (Chen) incident. But whether they can find a way to resolve the problem relatively quickly depends on how the dialogue and discussions go," Shi added.
Kenneth Lieberthal, a China expert who was a top aide to President Bill Clinton, said he believed that the United States wanted a solution that is "the least embarrassing to China and to do so as expeditiously as possible."
"The question to my mind is whether in China this turns into a political football in a very political season.
"I think it’s more likely to be resolved than to turn into a political football, but you never can predict this stuff," said Lieberthal, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Before leaving for China on Monday, 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.
But Beijing has been reluctant to back tougher international sanctions against Tehran and Pyongyang. It also worries that U.S. efforts to strengthen its presence in Asia have emboldened countries disputing Chinese claims in the South China Sea.
On Monday, Obama nudged China to improve its human rights record. 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.