Chen, a blind lawyer who has served four years in prison, last week escaped house arrest and sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. The dissident, who says he and his family have endured beatings, exposed forced abortions and fought corruption in China.
Chen left the embassy after six days, with officials saying that he had been promised safety for himself and his family. But Chen told the Associated Press that he had been informed by U.S. officials that Chinese authorities had indicated they would beat his wife to death if he did not leave the embassy. U.S. officials dispute that claim, and insist they did not pressure Chen to leave the embassy. Chen now says he wants to leave China for his own safety -- along with his family, which he says he cannot reach -- ideally on Clinton's airplane; Clinton's statement on Wednesday made no mention of that appeal, though U.S. officials say they are still trying to help him.
The Obama administration has been criticized for a lack of focus on human rights abuses in China; on her first visit to the country in 2009, Clinton said that America will push China on human rights, but that "our pressing on those issues can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crises."
The decision to shelter Chen at all was a relatively provocative move by the U.S., but it wasn't enough for the critics who are now turning up the heat on the administration to take a stronger stance. GOP Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina released a statement late Wednesday saying he would introduce a resolution of support for Chen next week.
"I want a constructive economic and political relationship with China, but the United States must speak out against the Chinese government which tramples over individual freedom and basic human rights," he said. "The case of Mr. Chen is fast becoming a defining moment in US-China relations."
Like the Chinese - whose supposed promises of safety for Chen upon leaving the embassy were unprecedented - the Obama administration would prefer simply not to talk about Chen. The president dodged the situation at a news conference Monday, saying that "I'm aware of the press reports on the situation in China, but I'm not going to make a statement on the issue."
Clinton declined to discuss the matter but called for a "constructive relationship" in a statement on Monday, which she said "includes talking very frankly about those areas where we do not agree, including human rights." On Wednesday, she said that "[t]he United States government and the American people are committed to remaining engaged with Mr. Chen and his family in the days, weeks, and years ahead." But relatively restrained comments of that nature may not be enough in this case - and if tragedy befalls Chen or his family, the Obama administration will face withering criticism for not doing more.
Chen himself took aim at the U.S.'s human rights efforts in an interview with NPR that aired Thursday morning.
"I feel that the U.S. government is not pressing hard enough on human rights," he said. "Their willingness to protect human rights is not strong enough. But I'm not disappointed in the American people. From the point of view of values, the U.S. still respects human rights, but the government sometimes places more weight on other factors."
Both countries now locked in the difficult diplomatic dance - the rising economic power in the East and the military superpower in the West - badly want the Chen story to go away so they can focus on their strategic and economic relationship. The situation potentially forces Mr. Obama into a tough choice: Stand strong for Chen and face a potential backlash from China that could hurt the U.S. economy, or effectively ignore him and face possible reprisals from human rights advocates as well as his presumptive general election opponent, Mitt Romney.
The good news, such as it is? Both China and the U.S. have incentive to find a solution that allows them to save face, however difficult that might seem. Which means that the Obama administration - not to mention the dissident at the center of this international drama - may yet find a way to walk away relatively unscathed.