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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene. Rachel Martin is away this week.

A senior US official has arrived on an unscheduled trip to Beijing, apparently to negotiate over a Chinese dissident believed to be under U.S. protection. We should say the purpose of the trip has not yet been confirmed.

But as NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Beijing, the fate of the activist puts both China and the United States in a diplomatic bind.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, Mr. Campbell, can you tell us what you're here in Beijing for, please?

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: There was no comment from Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, arriving in Beijing days earlier than planned. He's facing a big diplomatic headache: how to deal with dissident Chen Guangcheng, who's believed to be under U.S. protection.

So far, the United Nations has remained silent; a good sign, according to Susan Shirk, who's at UC San Diego and who was a State Department official responsible for China during Bill Clinton's presidency.

SUSAN SHIRK: Rather than making big public statements and dramatic gestures, the United States is using quiet diplomacy, which is exactly I would think what is needed at the current time.

CHEN GUANGCHENG: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Chen Guangcheng himself has not stayed quiet. After escaping from 19 months under house arrest, he released a dramatic video, describing abuses and naming the perpetrators. He's a blind self-trained lawyer who exposed illegal forced abortions by local officials.

Activist Hu Jia met him in Beijing after his escape. He says Chen's case is vital.

HU JIA: (Through Translator) Chen's case has become the epitome of China's human rights situation. Chen is living evidence both of violent family planning abuses and of an unimaginable crackdown on human rights.

LIM: For China's leaders, the timing could hardly be worse. They're already struggling with a major domestic political scandal over the sacking of a powerful politician. Yet some China-watchers hope this could be a turning point.

Here's Dali Yang from the University of Chicago.

DALI YANG: For the central government, it could potentially become an opportunity. They can demonstrate their commitment to the rule of law and also try to correct some of the local injustices.

LIM: But time for quiet diplomacy is limited. In a few days, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Beijing for previously scheduled diplomatic and economic talks. In the past, she's urged China to do the right thing in Chen's case. Now Shirk says Clinton will have to live up to her words.

SHIRK: Secretary Clinton must see Chen Guangcheng when she's in China. It would be shameful for her to go and not to see him. I'm sure that she will. And it's conceivable that the Chinese side might interrupt the talks or cancel them because of that.

LIM: Her actions will be seen as a litmus test of the U.S. commitment to human rights. And how the world's two superpowers now deal with this blind dissident could test their relationship to its very limits.

Louisa Lim NPR News, Beijing.

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