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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

I'm Audie Cornish. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton takes off tonight on a trip that was supposed to be a routine checkup on U.S.-China relations. Instead, she's flying into a diplomatic firestorm. That's after a high-profile dissident staged a daring escape from house arrest. He's now reported to be under U.S. protection in Beijing. As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the U.S. is scrambling to resolve the issue quickly and quietly.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: On her first visit to China as secretary of state in 2009, Hillary Clinton downplayed human rights issues.

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SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: We have to continue to press them, but our pressing on those issues can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crises.

KELEMEN: This time around, human rights issues will certainly interfere with Clinton's agenda, and they should, says Congressman Chris Smith, a Republican of New Jersey.

REPRESENTATIVE CHRIS SMITH: My hope is that this week will be a game-changer for the administration, which has been very weak and enabling of the Chinese dictatorship. You know, hope springs eternal. This is the week to make a difference and be very strong with Chen Guangcheng.

KELEMEN: Chen Guangcheng is the blind dissident who escaped house arrest and is now said to be under U.S. diplomatic protection in Beijing. To Congressman Smith, the timing of his escape was ideal, with so many high-level Obama administration officials descending on the Chinese capital for the strategic and economic dialogue.

SMITH: Chen couldn't have chosen a better time to make his escape and to bring attention to himself, his family and the human rights abuse that he so courageously fought against, which is forced abortion and forced sterilization.

KELEMEN: Administration officials wouldn't comment today directly on Chen's case. Secretary Clinton would only say she's working on, as she puts it, a constructive relationship with China.

CLINTON: Now, a constructive relationship includes talking very frankly about those areas where we do not agree, including human rights.

KELEMEN: And she says that will be guiding her in her talks with Chinese leaders. U.S. diplomats are already in Beijing trying to resolve Chen's case, and Kenneth Lieberthal, of the Brookings Institution, hopes that can be done quickly.

KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: Keep in mind, he wants to stay in China, and is seeking from the Chinese government at the center an investigation of the local authorities who have been abusing him so badly.

KELEMEN: Lieberthal says a more likely outcome, though, is asylum, but much will depend on politics in Beijing.

LIEBERTHAL: To me, the worse possible outcome here would be the Chinese neither are prepared to guarantee the safety of Chen Guangcheng and his family in China, nor are willing to let us get him to the airport and get him out of China. In which case, we've got a long-term resident in U.S. facilities, and we have a long-term major irritant in our bilateral relationship.

KELEMEN: Lieberthal is sympathetic to Clinton's approach to human rights issues in the past, trying to keep them separate from other tough issues, and he says this week's agenda is already very full and serious.

LIEBERTHAL: This meeting may test that proposition, whether you can keep each of these in their own category, so that problems in any one area don't undermine your ability to deal with the others, because all are very consequential.

KELEMEN: Congressman Smith, though, says the Obama administration should ignore diplomatic niceties this week and make Chen's case the priority.

SMITH: This is not just a test for Premier Wen, who talks about the rule of law and reform, but it's also a test for this administration, which has been AWOL on human rights - vis-a-vis China - for the last three-and-a-half years.

KELEMEN: President Obama says his administration brings up human rights issues at every chance. But he, too, declined to speak about Chen's case today. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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