Obama administration walks fine line with Chinese human-rights activist

President Obama on Monday refused to confirm widespread reports that Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng has sought refuge at the U.S. embassy in Beijing, but used the opportunity to press China on the issue of human rights.

"I'm not going to make a statement on the issue," Obama said. "What I would like to emphasize is that every time we meet with China, the issue of human rights comes up.

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"It is our belief that not only is that the right thing to do because it comports with our principles and 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," Obama said. "We want China to be strong and we want it to be prosperous, and we are very pleased with all the areas of cooperation that we've been able to engage in, but we also believe that that relationship will be that much stronger and China will be that much more prosperous and strong as you see improvements in human rights issues."

Chen's escape from house arrest on Friday has put the White House in an awkward spot just days before this week's visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner for the U.S.-China strategic and economic dialogue. The United States needs China's cooperation on issues ranging from the global recovery to the crises in Iran and Syria, but has long championed Guangcheng's right to criticize the country's repressive single-child policy.

Chen's escape has already become an election-year issue, with presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney over the weekend calling on the administration to "take every measure to ensure that Chen and his family members are protected from further persecution."

"Any serious U.S. policy toward China must confront the facts of the Chinese government's denial of political liberties, its one-child policy, and other violations of human rights," Romney said. "Our country must play a strong role in urging reform in China and supporting those fighting for the freedoms we enjoy."

Romney has cast himself as a tough critic of China and has vowed to label it a currency manipulator if he wins the presidency.

The Obama administration for its part has tried to balance human-rights principles with cold geopolitical facts.

"The president tries to balance our commitment to human rights, making sure that the people throughout the world have the ability to express themselves freely and openly," Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan said Sunday. "But also, that we continue to carry out our relationships with key countries overseas."