Gibbs: U.S. has "genuine concern" for Chen's safety

Obama campaign adviser Robert Gibbs on "CBS This Morning," May 4, 2012.
CBS News

(CBS News) As the Obama administration continues attempts to smooth out an increasingly difficult diplomatic situation with China, where dissident Chen Guangcheng is seeking passage to the United States after years of imprisonment in China, top Obama campaign adviser Robert Gibbs stressed Friday that the administration has "genuine concern about [Chen's] safety and the safety of his family."

Chen, a blind activist and lawyer, escaped from house arrest last week and sought safety at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, where he stayed for six days before negotiating a deal with Chinese officials to emerge from American protection in exchange for safety assurances. After leaving the embassy, however, Chen had a change of heart and said he still had fears for his family's security. Now, he has requested safe passage to the United States with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is in China for a summit.

In a press conference in Beijing this morning, Clinton emphasized that the U.S. is "continuing to work on" its disagreements over human rights issues with China, and said she was encouraged about a statement from the Chinese government suggesting Chen would be allowed to leave the country to study. She did not suggest, however, that she would be bringing Chen with her on her return trip to the United States.

"The State Department is trying to work out a resolution that honors the wishes of Mr. Chen," Gibbs told Charlie Rose on "CBS This Morning" Friday. "It looks like some of those wishes may have changed over the past couple days."

Noting that he did not want to interject his personal opinion into "a very sensitive situation that I know is being worked on very hard on the ground in Beijing" given that he is not a member of the administration, Gibbs said only that "human rights is an enormously important part of our relationship with China."

"It's something that I know Secretary of State Clinton and others have brought up directly with their Chinese counterparts on this trip and on every interaction we have with Chinese officials," he said.

Asked to respond to criticism from Mitt Romney, who blasted the White House yesterday for its handling of the situation, Gibbs said he would "expect nothing but criticism from Mitt Romney on this or any other issue in the next almost 200 days before an election."

Still, he invited Romney to explain how he would have reacted to the situation.

"If he wants to outline exactly how he'd handle it differently, I'm sure there are people that would write it down," Gibbs told Rose. "Mitt Romney on foreign policy, Charlie, has tended to be critical of what this administration has done, whether it's in Afghanistan or dealing with Iran or here in China, without ever laying out what he would do differently."