President Barack Obama declined to confirm or deny Monday that blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng is hiding in the U.S. embassy following a daring escape from house arrest, but he did call on China to improve its behavior on human rights.
"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," Obama said Monday during a press conference with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. "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."
"We want China to be strong and we want it to be prosperous, and we're very pleased with all the areas of cooperation that we've been able to engage in," Obama said. "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 on human rights issues in that country."
The State Department declined to confirm that Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell was dispatched earlier than scheduled to Beijing to deal with the issue, although Campbell was photographed Sunday night arriving at his hotel in Beijing.
"It is not uncommon for Assistant Secretary Campbell or other assistant secretaries to travel in advance of the secretary's trips. So he is involved in preparing the trip," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at Monday's press briefing.
Nuland repeated her mantra from Friday's briefing to decline to say anything substantive on the Chen case, such as where he is, whether the U.S. would offer him asylum, or whether the U.S. and Chinese governments are discussing the matter.
"Again, I have nothing for you on anything having to do with that matter," Nuland said.
The State Department again postponed a briefing to preview Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's trip to Beijing to attend the May 3 and 4 U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) and Nuland refused to say if the Chen incident would impact those talks.
"Well, as you know, the secretary is looking forward to her trip to Beijing. We've leaving this evening. This is the fourth round of the S&ED. And further than that, I don't have anything for you," she said. "The plan is that it will go forward."
Reporters at the briefing pressed Nuland to at least repeat past statements in support of Chen and his family or to acknowledge that Chen's family has been subjected to additional abuses since Clinton last publicly spoke out about the case last November.
Nuland wouldn't even mention Chen's name out loud and eventually got fed up with the repeated questioning and shut down the discussion.
"I have nothing further for you on this subject," she said. "I think that was the eighth time I've said that. I want to learn how to say it in Chinese, but I couldn't get a good, clear translation."