CHINA'S tightly controlled state media has remained silent over the blind human rights advocate Chen Guangcheng, who is believed to have sought sanctuary in the US embassy, despite debate raging across the nation's microblogs and Washington's urgent dispatch of a senior envoy to Beijing to avert a diplomatic crisis.
US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell arrived in Beijing on Sunday and is said to have begun high-level talks with his Chinese counterparts.
Bob Fu, of the Texas-based rights group ChinaAid, said the two countries were "eager to solve this issue" to prevent it from overshadowing the visit of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for an annual strategic and economic dialogue, beginning on Thursday.
''The Chinese top leaders are deliberating a decision to be made very soon, maybe in the next 24 to 48 hours,'' Mr Fu said, citing a source close to the US and Chinese governments.
But other analysts said the negotiations could be stalemated for a long time, with Beijing keen to assert itself in the relationship and Washington keen to avoid further complicating bilateral ties.
"This is the greatest test in bilateral relations in years, probably going back to 1989,'' said Chris Johnson, until recently a senior CIA China analyst, referring to the crackdown on student protests in Tiananmen Square.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has also weighed in, pressuring the Obama administration to protect Mr Chen and his family.
''My hope is that US officials will take every measure to ensure that Chen and his family members are protected from further persecution,'' he said. ''Our country must play a strong role in urging reform in China and supporting those fighting for the freedoms we enjoy.''
Both China and the US have refused to confirm whether Mr Chen has sought refuge in the US embassy, as supporters of the high-profile activist contend. The claim was repeated by prominent Chinese activist Hu Jia yesterday, who had met with Mr Chen last week after his escape. Mr Hu was himself only released after being detained and questioned for 24 hours.
''He is in the embassy,'' Mr Hu said. ''They asked when Chen Guangcheng met with [US] ambassador [to China] Gary Locke. So it seems very clear that he has met with the American ambassador."
Mr Chen, a self-taught lawyer who angered authorities by exposing and campaigning against forced abortions in rural China, made a dramatic escape on April 22 from his heavily-monitored home in the village of Dongshigu, in Shandong province, about an eight-hour drive from Beijing. He had been in jail for more than four years and has been confined to house arrest after his release from prison in September 2010.
Guo Yushan, another activist said to have aided Mr Chen's improbable escape, is also understood to have been released after questioning, though attempts to contact him by phone were unsuccessful.
The whereabouts of He Peirong, who helped drive Mr Chen to Beijing and later gave a detailed account of the escape on her microblog, remain unknown.
She is presumed to be in Chinese detention, as are Mr Chen's elder brother, Chen Guangfu, and nephew, Chen Kegui.
Despite Mr Chen's escape making international headlines, There has been no mention of Mr Chen's escape in mainstream Chinese media outlets, and authorities have sought to clamp down on commentary on the nation's popular Twitter-like microblogs.
Many Chinese microblog users have been using wordplay to skirt the censors and discuss Mr Chen's escape. "Letting a blind man escape despite 60 people watching - what a loss of face, of course they [Chinese authorities] are keeping quiet," one wrote.