Activist's Escape Puts Pressure on US-China Talks

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The United States and China are trying to work out terms for the release of a top Chinese human rights activist, just days before leaders from both countries are set to have strategic talks on the economy.

Chen Guangchen recently made a daring escape from house arrest. The blind activist is a leading foe of China's one-child policy and is one of the country's best-known dissident figures.

Chen is now thought to be in U.S. custody, forcing both the United States and China to resolve a diplomatic issue that's remained relatively under the radar.

The incident comes on the eve of major talks between Washington, D.C., and Beijing.

Click play to watch John Waage's report followed by analysis from CBN News Sr. International Correspondent George Thomas, who has reported extensively on human rights abuses in China.

China has held Chen and his family under house arrest for nearly two years. Chen's dramatic escape from a heavily guarded farmhouse is seen an embarrassment for the government.

"If they agree to Chen's very reasonable demands, which is just to put an end to his unlawful house arrest and to start an investigation into what happened to him, that would be handing a victory to rights activists in China," explained Nicholas Bequelin, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch.

"And that could galvanize this movement that the party sees as a threat to its power," he added.

As pro-Chen demonstrators gathered in Hong Kong, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was preparing to fly to China early this week for important talks. But with Chen in U.S. custody, both sides are looking for a way out of the standoff.

"If the Chinese want to play it down, we may want to reach some sort of agreement for him to leave the country. If not, this could fester and become a very big issue," Kenneth Lieberthal, director of the China Center at Brookings Institution, claimed.

U.S. and Chinese officials were hoping to make the May 3-4 meetings an annual event to smooth out differences over the economy, trade, and strategic military issues.

"I think in all instances the president tries to balance our commitment to human rights," White House Chief Counter-Terrorism Advisor John Brennan said. "And China-U.S. relations is very important, so we're going to make sure that we do this in the appropriate way."

Chen sent a video to the Chinese leaders. He wants Beijing to investigate the beatings he and some family members received at the hands of the government.

But if Chen and his family get U.S. asylum, activists say the Chinese will take it out on others.

"Even if it's the government's fault in the first place for this absurd treatment that they gave over to Chen Guancheng over the years," Bequelin explained. "Still this is something that they will blame on these activists and the people who have been campaigning for him over the years very courageously at the high personal risk."

In 2006, Chen was given a four-year prison sentence for allegedly "damaging property and organizing a mob to disturb traffic."

Activists say he has sought the protection of U.S. diplomats in Beijing.

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John Waage has covered politics and analyzed elections for CBN News since 1980, including primaries, conventions, and general elections. 

He also analyzes the convulsive politics of the Middle East.