BEIJING -- A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said Friday that Chen Guangcheng can apply to study abroad like any other Chinese national, signaling a possible solution to the diplomatic impasse with the United States over the blind human rights activist.
Liu Weimin made the remarks in response to a reporter's question at a regularly scheduled afternoon media briefing in Beijing.
The news was quickly carried on the official New China News Agency website, indicating there was some level of central coordination and credibility to the remarks. Speaking at a news conference later, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she was encouraged by the Chinese government's statement and added that the U.S. would stay in contact with Chen.
Study at a foreign university could theoretically meet Chen’s reported desire to leave China temporarily with his family. Chen, who is currently being kept at a hospital in Beijing, has been invited to study at New York University and has expressed no interest in seeking political asylum.
"This arrangement would be good because it depoliticizes the case," said Pu Zhiqiang, a lawyer who has represented dissident artist Ai Weiwei and has taken on human rights cases. "Chen Guangcheng didn't break any laws. After leaving the embassy, he should be free to apply for study abroad if he wants."
Activists and critics of Beijing remained cautious. Wang Dan, a 1989 Tiananmen Square student leader now living outside Los Angeles, said he was skeptical of a possible deal for Chen to study abroad.
"Chen is already not allowed to live like anyone else," Wang said, noting the foreign Ministry's remark about Chen being allowed to apply for foreign study like any other Chinese citizen. "We want to see Chen walk out of the hospital and have full freedom to speak and live; otherwise, whatever the Chinese government says is just nonsense."
Chen, 40, nearly hijacked Sino-U.S. relations when he escaped from extralegal house detention in his home province of Shandong 12 days ago and holed himself up in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
The self-taught lawyer, who was blinded as a child and later ran afoul of local officials for exposing forced abortions and sterilizations, left the embassy Wednesday to be reunited with his wife and two children at a local hospital under assurances he could lead a normal life in China.
But since then, Chen has changed his mind, telling foreign journalists that he feared for his and his family's safety and wanted to leave on a plane with Clinton. She is scheduled to depart China on Friday, the last day of an annual strategic and economic bilateral meeting.
Study abroad could represent a face-saving measure for Beijing, which loathes to appear as caving in to U.S. or Western pressure.
That much was in full view Friday with several local newspapers carrying scathing editorials lashing out at Washington and Chen.
"Chen has become a tool and pawn being used by Western politicians to discredit China," wrote the Beijing Daily.
"They've got to save face," said Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University. "U.S. readers should not take this seriously. It's just a show from Chinese politicians."
-- David Pierson
Photo: A Chinese woman protesting about her own grievances is taken away by police and plainclothes security personnel Friday outside the Beijing hospital where blind activist Chen Guangcheng is recuperating. Credit: Ng Han Guan / Associated Press