WASHINGTON - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton heads late Monday to China as US officials raced to find a solution to a sensitive row over a top dissident reportedly holed up at the US embassy in Beijing.
Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner had long planned to go to Beijing for the annual meeting between the world's two largest economies that now is likely to be overshadowed by the case of blind activist Chen Guangcheng.
Chen, who riled authorities by exposing forced abortions and sterilizations under China's one-child policy, made a daring escape last week from house arrest and, according to fellow activists, took refuge in the US embassy.
US officials have kept an unusually solid wall of secrecy over the case, refusing even to say Chen's name.
But President Barack Obama and Clinton both said Monday that they would press for human rights in China.
"A constructive relationship includes talking very frankly about those areas where we do not agree, including human rights. That is the spirit that is guiding me as I take off for Beijing," Clinton said.
Experts said that they saw few easy ways to resolve the case of Chen, who has said that he and his wife suffered severe beatings for defiantly speaking out after he completed a four-year jail sentence.
Chen, 40, is said to want to stay in China, but US officials would be loath to hand him over without iron-clad safety guarantees.
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.
China is preparing for a once-in-a-decade political handover, with the communist leadership eager to preserve calm as Vice President Xi Jinping prepares to succeed President Hu Jintao.