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After Escape, Chinese Dissident Reportedly Under U.S. Protection

April 30, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: The mystery surrounding an escaped Chinese dissident deepened today as U.S. officials took pains to say as little as possible about the case. But both countries appear to be working behind the scenes to diffuse a delicate diplomatic situation.

“I finally escaped,” the words of Chen Guangcheng on this amateur video that emerged Friday. It’s been widely reported that the blind self-taught lawyer took refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. But U.S. officials have pointedly not confirmed it.

This afternoon, after a White House meeting with the prime minister of Japan, President Obama declined to talk about Chen directly.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Obviously, I’m aware of the press reports on the situation in China, but I’m not going to make a statement on the issue.

What I would like to emphasize is that every time we meet with China, the issue of human rights comes up. It is our belief that not only is that the right thing to do because it comports with our principles and our belief in freedom and human rights, but also because we actually think China will be stronger as it opens up and liberalizes its own system.

GWEN IFILL: Chen ran afoul of Chinese authorities by campaigning against forced abortions used to enforce China’s one-child policy.

He served more than four years in prison before his release in September 2010. Since then, with security men watching, he and his family have been under house arrest. But eight days ago, despite the agents at his home and those posted at the entrance to his village in northeast China, he managed to slip away.

Now, Chen has become the center of escalated diplomatic tension between the United States and China just days before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to arrive in Beijing for semi-annual talks.

She spoke at a Washington news conference today with Defense Secretary Panetta and their counterparts from the Philippines.

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: 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 tonight. And I can certainly guarantee that we will be discussing every matter, including human rights, that is pending between us.

GWEN IFILL: Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell arrived in Beijing yesterday, at least one day ahead of schedule.

Texas-based China human rights campaigner Bob Fu says high-level behind-the-scenes talks are under way on a possible deal to grant Chen and his family asylum in the United States.

BOB FU, founder/president, ChinaAid: If he was given a choice to stay in China with the safety and freedom guarantee, he would prefer to stay in China. But at this current environment and the Chinese leadership transition, it is almost impossible for that scenario to happen.

GWEN IFILL: In the meantime, the country’s leaders are still coping with turmoil over Bo Xilai, a one-time rising star in the Communist Party. He’s now been ousted from his position and his wife stands accused of murdering a British businessman.