BEIJING (AP) — China said Friday that Chen Guangcheng can apply to study abroad in a possible step toward resolving a diplomatic standoff with the U.S. over the blind activist, who said he felt increasingly isolated and in danger at a Beijing hospital.
Chen fled an abusive house arrest in his rural town and sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy last week, but emerged under an agreement with Chinese authorities to guarantee his safety in another town.
But once out and escorted to a hospital for treatment of an injury, he had an apparent change of heart and appealed for U.S. help to leave the country altogether, creating a diplomatic predicament while US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Beijing for high-level talks with Chinese officials.
The two sides were discussing his case while he remained in the hospital under a police cordon.
"Chen Guangcheng is currently being treated in hospital, " the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its Web site. "As a Chinese citizen, if he wants to study abroad he can go through the normal channels to the relevant departments and complete the formalities in accordance with the law like other Chinese citizens," the Foreign Ministry said.
The ministry statement was the most positive response so far from the Chinese side. It was in contrast to earlier comments from the ministry, which had demanded that the U.S. apologize for giving Chen sanctuary at the embassy.
There was no immediate comment from Chen or the U.S.
The statement came shortly after Chen told The Associated Press that was concerned for his safety, and complained that American officials have been blocked from seeing him for two days and friends who have tried to visit have been beaten up.
"I can only tell you one thing. My situation right now is very dangerous," Chen said, sounding anxious as he spoke by telephone from his hospital bed. "For two days, American officials who have wanted to come and see me have not been allowed in."
Chen said he spoke to American officials by phone on Friday, twice, "but the calls keep getting cut off after two sentences." A senior U.S. official said U.S. Embassy personnel also met Chen's wife in person.
Chen's high-profile pleas for sanctuary even included him calling in Thursday to a congressional hearing in Washington, in which he told lawmakers he wanted to meet Clinton. "I hope I can get more help from her," Chen said.
Chen last week escaped his rural home where local officials had kept him under house arrest for years. He made it to the U.S. Embassy, where he stayed for six days before the U.S. and China reached a deal that would allow him to stay in China but in a new location, as he had requested. But hours after leaving the embassy Wednesday he said he and his family would not be safe unless they left the country.
A self-taught lawyer, the 40-year-old Chen became an international human rights figure and inspiration to many ordinary Chinese after running afoul of local government officials for exposing forced abortions and sterilizations carried out as part of China's one-child policy.
Until his escape last week, his nearly seven years in prison and abusive house arrest with his wife, 6-year-old daughter and mother fueled outrage and added to his stature — and in turn upped the stakes for Washington in helping him.
Chen said throughout his stay at the U.S. Embassy that his desire was to remain in China with his family, and U.S. diplomats said that was their goal in negotiations with Chinese officials.
After several days of talks, U.S. officials said they extracted a guarantee that Chen would be relocated outside his home province to a university town where he could formally study law. U.S. officials said they would periodically monitor his situation, though they did not specify how.
But hours after a gleeful Chen left the U.S. compound, he changed his mind, driven in part by his wife's tales of abuse and retribution in the days after Chen managed to escape from his rural farmhouse. Chen also said he felt abandoned by the U.S., finding no embassy staff at the hospital to assure his protection.