Leading article: Tensions that expose a gaping US-China divide

The most humane outcome would be for Beijing to give up Mr Chen quietly

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There are times when silence supplies at least as eloquent a commentary as any number of public statements. And the reluctance of either Washington or Beijing in recent days to address the many questions relating to a Chinese dissident who escaped from house arrest to the sanctuary of the US embassy has spoken volumes: about the edginess of relations between the two countries, about cultural conflicts, and about the true gravity of the situation. The communications that have doubtless been flying between the two capitals can only be imagined. For this is the stand-off neither country wanted.

How much they did not want it can be judged by an incident that very nearly precipitated a similar crisis back in February. Then, so far as can be pieced together, the powerful police chief in the city of Chongqing, Wang Lijun, fled to the US consulate in Chengdu, with a story that was calculated to set all manner of alarm bells ringing. He claimed that a British businessman, Neil Heywood, had not drunk himself to death, as the official version had it, but had been murdered – on the orders of no less a figure than the wife of the local Communist chief, Bo Xilai.

The incident in Chengdu ended badly for everyone. Mr Wang was apparently persuaded to leave voluntarily and was taken away by the authorities. He has not been seen since. His boss, Mr Bo, has been purged of all his positions; his wife, Gu Kailai, is under arrest. The US authorities faced questions about why they apparently rejected Mr Wang in his hour of need. China showed its brutal face to the world.

The saving grace for US officials is that Wang Lijun was regarded as an overbearing police chief, whose asylum claim might have raised as many objections in the US as its refusal. No such qualms attend the claim of Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer and activist, who has served a prison term for campaigning against enforced sterilisations. Mr Chen appears to have been whisked to Beijing, after tricking his guards. Whether the US was in any way complicit may never be known, but many of Mr Chen's family and friends are now in custody, as the furious authorities exact their revenge.

The timing of these developments could hardly be worse. The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, along with a big delegation of US dignitaries, including the Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner, is due in Beijing this week, for a routine bilateral gathering designed to prevent the escalation of just the sort of tensions now so evident. And neither side can afford to lose face. The Chinese authorities, as the Bo Xilai affair has highlighted, are embarking on a major leadership transition, while the US is entering a presidential election campaign where no candidate can risk being seen as "soft" on China.

The best, and most humane, outcome would be for China to give up Mr Chen quietly and allow Barack Obama his small victory before China's human rights record, as well as its growing economic and military might, become a US election issue. But precedents are not encouraging – the dissident scientist, Fang Lizhi, who has just died in exile in the United States, spent a year in the US embassy in Beijing after Tiananmen Square before being allowed to leave, and the social media facilitate the spread of information – even in China – as never in the past.

For months now, the US and China have been tiptoeing around each other diplomatically – Beijing protesting that China is engaged in a uniquely peaceful rise; the US denying that a reorientation of its defence policies towards the Pacific is directed against China. The drama at present playing out at the US embassy in Beijing is a microcosm of a conflict between two powers and two world views that could very quickly become bigger and more dangerous. The crisis needs to be defused – but not at the expense of Mr Chen's new-found hope of freedom.