BEIJING - A senior Chinese diplomat declined to comment on Saturday on unconfirmed reports that blind activist Chen Guangcheng had fled into the US embassy in Beijing, an issue which now threatens to overshadow a top-level China-US meeting next week.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai said the question was not relevant to his news briefing, which was about next week's talks with US officials in Beijing.
"Your question does not come within the scope of today's briefing. So I have no information to give you," he said when asked about Chen, a blind rural campaigner whom supporters have said escaped house arrest and is probably inside the US embassy.
Chen's reported escape comes days before China and the United States hold high-level talks in Beijing. The US government has not commented on Chen's whereabouts.
Chen, a self-schooled legal advocate who campaigned against forced abortions, had been restricted to his village home in Linyi in eastern Shandong province since September 2010 when he was released from jail.
His confinement and relentless surveillance with his family fanned protests by Chinese sympathisers and criticism from foreign governments and activist groups.
Chen's reported escape and the furor it has unleashed could add to the headaches of China's ruling Communist Party, which is striving to ensure stability and authority before a leadership transition later this year.
It also threatens to overshadow a visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who are due to visit Beijing next week for the annual "strategic and economic dialogue" between the two countries.
Asked whether any issue could force the meeting to be cancelled or postponed, Cui said he had already stated the event would be going ahead.
"I don't know why you'd ask the question," he said. "Our holding this briefing today shows that the Strategic Economic Dialogue will take place as scheduled."
Cui added the dialogue would include discussion of human rights, but as part of the broad array of topics, which are expected to touch up North Korea, the South China Sea and trade, among others.
"I don't think this issue will occupy much time or be a focus," he added.
There was no sign of any greater than normal security around the fort-like US embassy in northeastern Beijing.
If he is sheltering at the US Embassy, it could thrust Washington back into the limelight at a sensitive moment, recalling the case of dissident Chinese astrophysicist Fang Lizhi who took refuge at the US Embassy with his wife following the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, to Beijing's outrage.
Fang eventually settled in the United States and died recently.
"It is the Shandong government that has bungled this by turning a small matter into an international affair. This is foolish. It is certainly a loss of face for the central government," said Li Datong, a former editor at the China Youth Daily, a party paper, who was pushed aside for denouncing censorship.
"It is especially a loss of face if a regular Chinese citizen has gone to another government to seek protection."
The United States also found itself in an uncomfortable position in February when a senior Chinese policeman who implicated the wife of top Chinese official Bo Xilai in a British businessman's murder visited the US consulate in Chengdu.
US officials say that the policeman, Wang Lijun, did not request asylum and left the consulate of his own accord. But his trip set in motion a broader scandal that saw Bo removed from his top leadership post in one of the most divisive political upheavals in China in decades.
Officials in Shandong said again on Saturday they had no comment on Chen's escape.
State media has made no mention of the saga.
But it has been widely discussed on China's popular Twitter-like service Weibo, reflecting his status as a cult hero, with users reverting to innuendo and word games to get round censorship of his name.