BEIJING – The Chinese government appears willing to allow blind activist Chen Guangcheng to travel abroad and pursue a fellowship offer from a U.S. university, the State Department said Friday.
Agency spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said she expects the Chinese government will promptly accept travel applications for Chen and his family and that the U.S. government will give “priority attention” to the visa requests, perhaps ending what has become a delicate U.S.-China diplomatic standoff.
The announcement followed a statement by the Chinese Foreign Ministry early Friday saying Chen has the same right to travel abroad as any other citizen of China.
Chen -- a blind and self-taught lawyer -- triggered the standoff after he escaped house arrest last month in his rural town and sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing last week.
He left six days later under a negotiated deal in which he and his family were to be reunited at a hospital, then safely relocated in China so he can formally study law. But he later upended the agreement by saying they wanted to go abroad.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke in Beijing shortly after the Chinese government issue the announcement, saying she was “encouraged” by the developments.
"Over the course of the day, progress has been made to help him have the future that he wants,” said Clinton, who was in Beijing for an already scheduled diplomatic visit.
The potential deal would three days of fraught, behind-the-scenes and emotional calls by Chen from a guarded hospital room.
After arriving at Chaoyang Hospital on Wednesday for treatment of an injury, Chen said he had no further direct contact with U.S. officials for nearly two days, fueling a sense of abandonment and fears about the safety of him, his wife and two children.
"I can only tell you one thing -- my situation right now is very dangerous," Chen said told The Associated Press earlier Friday.
However, Clinton said that Ambassador Gary Locke spoke with Chen on Friday and that embassy staff and a doctor met him.
"He confirms that he and his family now want to go to the United States so that he can pursue his studies," Clinton said.
Chen could not immediately be reached for his response to the latest developments.
His earlier pleas for U.S. sanctuary, delivered via conversations with The Associated Press, other foreign media and friends, have resonated around the world and even become part of Washington politics in a presidential election year.
On Thursday, he called in to a congressional hearing in Washington, telling lawmakers he wanted to meet U.S. Secretary of State Clinton, who is in Beijing for annual security talks. "I hope I can get more help from her," Chen said.
The Foreign Ministry statement that said Chen was a normal citizen who may apply to study overseas.
"Chen Guangcheng is currently being treated in hospital. 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 statement said without elaborating.
While the statement only reiterates the normal rights of a Chinese citizen, it underscored the government's openness to letting him go and gives shape to a possible solution: He goes abroad with the approval of the Chinese government, not the U.S., giving Beijing a face-saving way out.
Chen has a letter of invitation from New York University, according to Guo Yushan, a supporter who helped hide Chen in Beijing after his escape from house arrest, in a Twitter post early Friday.
At a Foreign Ministry briefing, spokesman Liu Weimin also confirmed that Chen faces no pending criminal charges, indirectly acknowledging that the house arrest he and his family endured the past 20 months in their rural home was the retribution of local officials for Chen's activism. Chen has exposed forced abortions and other abuses in his community as part of China's population controls.
"According to Chinese laws, he is a regular citizen. He can absolutely go through regular formalities by normal means," Liu said.
Obstacles remain. It isn't clear if Chen would have to return to his home province of Shandong to receive a passport, as is normal, and the statements do not mention his family. His wife was stopped in 2007 from traveling to the Philippines to pick up a humanitarian award for Chen while he was in prison.