China: Chen Guangcheng can apply to study abroad

U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke discusses the possibility of asylum for blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng and criticism over the U.S. government's handling of the ordeal. CBS News

(CBS/AP) BEIJING - China said Friday that a blind rural activist who has pleaded for U.S. sanctuary can apply to study abroad, possibly opening the door to resolving a diplomatic standoff with the United States.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its website that Chen Guangcheng would be allowed to apply to study overseas, although it did not immediately give details.

Chen is seeking U.S. help to leave the country after he fled house arrest and sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy. He is now being treated at a hospital, under a Chinese police cordon, while the two countries discuss his case.

"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 Foreign Ministry said.

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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 he felt his situation was "dangerous," 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.

Chen sounded anxious as he spoke by telephone from his hospital bed Friday, saying he was very worried about his safety.

"I can only tell you one thing. My situation right now is very dangerous," Chen said. "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 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.

Chen explained what it was that changed his mind about staying in China in an interview he did Thursday with Asia correspondent Holly Williams of Sky News. "CBS Evening News" anchor Scott Pelley spoke with Williams about her interview. (Watch interview at left)

"Well, I was able to get hold of him on his mobile phone earlier today in Beijing," she said. "He told me he couldn't make calls on the phone -- those were being blocked, he thinks, by the authorities, but people are able to call in and reach him. On the phone he sounded worried, tired, obviously anxious for the safety of his family, but he was also very warm and very friendly."

Chen told Williams he was speaking from his hospital bed. Williams asked Chen why he told diplomats at the U.S. Embassy that he wanted to stay in China. "At that time," he said, "I didn't have all the information. I couldn't get information. Now I have it, and I sense certain things, so I've changed my mind. "

Williams asked whether any of this new information included threats from back in his home village. Chen said: "The (local officials) broke into my home armed with sticks and wanted to beat my family to death. They've installed seven video surveillance cameras in our garden, on the roof, and inside our house. And they're going to install an electric fence around my house."

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.

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