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Dissident's case poses diplomatic test for United States and China

WASHINGTON -- When Hillary Clinton made her first trip abroad as secretary of state, she baldly said the United States could not let human rights disputes g e t in the way of working with China on global challenges.

Now that the blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng is under U.S. protection in Beijing, according to a U.S.-based rights group, the United States will find out if China has made the same calculation.

Chen's escape after 19 months of house arrest and apparent request for U.S. protection comes at a vexing time for both countries, with diplomats preparing for annual economic and security talks in Beijing this week, and with the Chinese Communist Party trying to contain a divisive political scandal involving a former senior official, Bo Xilai.

Assuming it has Chen, it is inconceivable that the United States would turn him over to the Chinese authorities against his wishes, said current and former U.S. officials.

That leaves China with a choice — let the broader relationship suffer in a standoff with the United States, or seek a compromise current and former officials saw as probable though by no means certain.

“I can't imagine they will tank the relationship,” said a senior Obama administration official who spoke on condition that he not be identified. “This isn't the same as a spy plane incident or Tiananmen Square. I do think they will try to manage it.”

In 2001, relations between Beijing and Washington suffered a plunge after a collision between a Chinese fighter jet and U.S. surveillance plane.

The Tiananmen Square incident of 1989, when Chinese troops crushed pro-democracy protesters who had made the square their base, brought ties with Washington to an even deeper nadir.

Awkward Timing

As of Sunday, the United States has not publicly confirmed reports that Chen fled from house arrest in his village home in Shandong province into the U.S. embassy. China has also declined direct comment on the dissident's reported escape from his carefully watched home.

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