But at the same time, pressing the issue too hard may prompt a backlash from China, on which the U.S. is increasingly reliant for foreign capital and support as it seeks to lead the global economic recovery, deal with North Korea and Iran's nuclear programs and prevent a potential war between Sudan and South Sudan.
The key to resolving the situation may well rest with an aging cadre at the top of China's Communist Party, who could either promise protection for Chen and his family in China or allow him to leave the country, possibly even to Hong Kong or Macao, as they prepare for their own leadership transition later this year.
"Mr. Chen prefers to stay in China if he and his family's safety can be guaranteed. In the current environment in China that might not be possible, so a viable solution is to have him and his family come to the U.S.," said Fu. He said a face-saving option may be to let Chen and his family come to the U.S. for medical treatment.
The ouster of powerful politician Bo Xilai following a deputy's visit to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu in February has already laid bare some of the party's dirty laundry and the Chinese will be loath to lose more face over Chen, whose case was raised repeatedly by American officials, including Clinton herself, until the information blackout began last week.
Human rights has been a distasteful issue for Beijing for decades and it has criticized the U.S. approach as lecturing. Clinton made waves on her first trip abroad as secretary of state when she said human rights could not dominate the entire agenda with China at the expense of other pressing issues.
Her comments drew fire at the time, but the relationship has clearly evolved as global priorities have shifted.
While China in the 1990s was in need of foreign investment and diplomatic partners and was willing to send jailed dissidents into exile to get them, Beijing sees little need for such concessions now, with its diplomatic clout and coffers bulging with foreign exchange. As the first and second largest economies, the U.S. and China have intertwining interests, and as the reigning superpower and burgeoning world power, they are frequently jostling for advantage across the globe.
Associated Press writers Matthew Pennington in Washington and Charles Hutzler in Beijing contributed to this report.