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Lawmakers press Obama to stand ground against China as activist faces uncertain fate

Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng appears in limbo as he negotiates and weighs his next move while supposedly under U.S. protection -- but top Republicans in Washington are pressing the Obama administration to stand its ground against China.

"When repressive governments abuse human rights, we have a responsibility to condemn them,” said GOP Sen. Marco Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “When the repressed turn to us for refuge, we have an obligation to offer America’s protection.”

Chen, a blind, self-taught lawyer, fled house arrest last week from his China home where he had lived since 2010, after serving seven years in prison for exposing forced abortions and other human rights abuses under the country’s one-child rule.

What will happen next for Chen remains unclear, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Beijing on Wednesday for talks with Chinese leaders, which will almost certainly include the topic of Chen -- an issue that could become a diplomatic crisis. 

Chen has reportedly told other Chinese activists he would prefer to remain in the county where his mother, wife and 6-year-old daughter still live, though experts seem to think the best choice is for him and his family to accept U.S. asylum.

Though Chen could remain a strong voice inside China and pursue efforts to provide legal services in rural areas, experts and others fear that the reported beating and the harassment of Chen and his wife will continue.

Bob Fu, founder of Texas-based group China Aid, which on Saturday announced Chen's escape, said Tuesday that Chen is not a criminal, so the best option for him and his family is to come to the U.S. to seek medical treatment, which would allow the federal government to issue visas.

"He'll certainly lose some influence compared to engaging on the ground in China, but he's not a political figure," Fu said. "And I think the Chinese government will allow him to return to visit." 

Rubio, R-Fla., whose parents fled communist Cuba, said China "remains a repressive government" despite its economic strides and called on the Obama administration to ensure Chen's protection. 

“Chen Guangcheng has heroically endured brutality for opposing China’s ‘one-child’ policy. … The U.S. should strongly urge our Chinese counterparts to cease its brutal treatment of this man and his family," he said. 

Neither President Obama nor Clinton has commented directly on the situation, including on Chen's escape. Obama said Monday that “every time we meet with China, the issue of human rights comes up.”

Clinton, too, spoke only general about human rights issues: "A constructive relationship includes talking very frankly about those areas where we do not agree, including human rights. That is the spirit that is guiding me as I take off for Beijing ... and I can certainly guarantee that we will be discussing every matter, including human rights, that is pending between us."

Mitt Romney, the GOP presidential candidate who will likely face Obama in November, expressed concern for the Chen family as the issue emerges on the campaign trail.

“My concern at this moment is for the safety of Chen Guangcheng and his family,” he said. “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. Our country must play a strong role in urging reform in China and supporting those fighting for the freedoms we enjoy.”

In a YouTube post, Chen asked Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to protect his family from harassment by local police.