Washington: Amid a row over a blind Chinese dissident reportedly holed up at the US embassy in Beijing, US President Barack Obama has declined to comment on the sensitive issue even as he pressed China to "improve" on the human rights front.
"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 when asked to comment whether Chen Guangcheng was under US protection and whether his administration would grant him asylum if he were to ask for it.
The President said he also believes that bilateral ties will be much stronger and "China will be that much more prosperous and strong as you see improvements on human rights issues in that country."
"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 strong as it opens up and liberalises its own system," Obama said during a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda at the White House yesterday.
His comments came as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton left for China.
"I have nothing for you on that subject," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in response to a question about whether Chen was in the US embassy in Beijing.
Nuland said that Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell was in Beijing, paving the way for Clinton`s arrival, but would not elaborate.
"I don`t have anything further on that," Nuland said of whether Campbell`s visit was related to Chen.
40-year-old Chen evaded guards who had kept him under house arrest for over 18 months in a small eastern village and made his way to Beijing on April 22, fellow activists said.
Once in Beijing, Chen moved from safe house to safe house before finding refuge at the US embassy, according to Hu Jia, a fellow activist and one of the few people who had said they had seen Chen since he arrived in Beijing.
Chen, who has been blind since childhood, has long been a high-profile figure in international rights groups. He had exposed how local authorities in Linyi, in Shandong province, forced thousands of women to have abortions or be sterilised as part of China`s mandatory one-child policy.
A Chinese court had sentenced Chen to over four years in prison in 2006 on charges of damaging property and "organising a mob to disturb traffic" in a protest.
Since his September 2010 release from prison, he had been confined to his home along with family.