WASHINGTON - The United States faces a tense week in China as high-level talks on trade and global hot spots like Iran and North Korea open in the shadow of a blind Chinese activist's bold escape from house arrest to seek US protection in Beijing.
The trip to Beijing would have been challenging for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner even without a human rights dispute over Chen Guangcheng, who a US-based group says is hiding in the US Embassy in Beijing.
The May 3-4 Strategic & Economic Dialogue is the last of such annual consultations before political seasons heat up in the United States and China, giving leaders in both countries less flexibility over contentious economic and security issues.
The United States goes into full campaign mode for the November presidential election, while China's ruling Communist Party enters a leadership transition in the fall that has been complicated by a scandal that toppled senior leader Bo Xilai.
Bob Fu, whose religious and political rights advocacy group ChinaAid is the chief source of information about Chen, said he had confirmed "intensive talks" between the United States and China began right after the activist took shelter in the embassy on Friday.
"I was told the Chinese top leaders have been deliberating a decision to be made very soon," Fu said on Sunday by telephone from Texas. A "Chinese official response (is) expected in the next day or so," he added.
The United States has not confirmed reports that Chen, who slipped away from under heavy surveillance around his village home in eastern Shandong province, fled into the US Embassy. China has also declined public comment on Chen's reported escape.
Fu said he got his information from "both sides" in the talks over Chen's fate. The State Department would not comment.
The New York Times, however, reported that Kurt Campbell, an assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, arrived in Beijing on Sunday for talks about Chen, citing unidentified officials in Washington and Beijing. The newspaper said the senior diplomat was photographed in a Marriott hotel.
Chen, a self-schooled legal advocate who campaigned against abortions forced under China's "one child" policy, had been held under extra-legal confinement in his village home in Linyi since September 2010 when he was released from jail.