A protester is removed by police from outside the Chaoyang Hospital in Beijing where Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng is staying, on May 4, 2012. The protester had been holding a banner reading "Daqing oil management corruption. Forced redundancy, no money to eat. I want to eat, want to live." (Ed Jones/AFP)
BEIJING, May 4, 2012 (AFP) - China said Friday that blind activist Chen Guangcheng can apply to study abroad, offering a possible resolution to a crisis that erupted when he escaped house arrest and fled to the US embassy.
The apparent concession came after Chen said he was in "great danger" and urged China's government to honour guarantees on his safety, and after he phoned US lawmakers in a dramatic appeal for help to leave the country.
Chen, a campaigning lawyer who exposed forced abortions and sterilisations under the "one-child" policy, unleashed a diplomatic furore when he sought sanctuary at the embassy where he spent six days.
US officials said Chen, 40, left Wednesday after Beijing pledged he and his family would be treated "humanely", but since then he has said he feels abandoned and fears retribution by Chinese authorities.
"I am in great danger... I hope the government will respect the commitments to guarantee my rights agreed to between China and the United States," he told AFP by telephone from the hospital where he is being treated.
China has reacted angrily to the affair, demanding a US apology for "interference" in its affairs. But in an announcement that opened the door to a face-saving resolution, the foreign ministry said Chen could apply to leave.
"If he wants to study abroad, as a Chinese citizen, he can apply through normal channels in accordance with the law, just like any other Chinese citizen," foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said in a statement.
The comment came as the United States held new talks with Chen to try to establish his next move, according to a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
A US embassy staffer spoke to the activist by telephone at the Beijing hospital where he is being treated for injuries sustained in his escape, and also met his wife, the official said.
The United States has scrambled to contain the growing diplomatic row over Chen which erupted days before US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Beijing on previously scheduled talks.
In extraordinary scenes on Capitol Hill, Chen phoned in to a congressional hearing Thursday to ask lawmakers for help to travel to the United States and appealed directly to Clinton.
"I really am fearing for my family members' lives," he said, speaking through a mobile phone held up to the hearing as a friend translated from Mandarin into English.
"The thing I'm most concerned with now is the safety of my mother and my brother," he said. "I really want to know what's going on with them."
"I want to meet with Secretary Clinton. I hope I can get more help from her," Chen told Representative Chris Smith, who chaired the hearing on Chen's case, as stunned witnesses and reporters looked on.
Rights activists said Friday that Chinese police have detained Chen's supporters at the hospital where he is being treated, and have beaten two of them.
Details of how Chen gained entry to the embassy and the circumstances of his departure have been unclear, but The New York Times gave a gripping account of a flight to safety that included a car chase through Beijing.
It said that Chen, who after hauling himself over walls to escape house arrest, made his way to the capital where friends had arranged a rendezvous with US officials who had agreed to give him sanctuary.
With Chinese security closing on on them, Chen was pulled into the American vehicle which threw off the tail and headed for the embassy where the activist was secreted in a US Marine dormitory.
Chen, a self-taught lawyer, has since said he felt pressured to leave the embassy, fearing for the safety of his family who suffered repeated abuses at the hands of local officials in their hometown in eastern Shandong province.
US State Department officials have been adamant that Chen never requested asylum and strongly denied allegations that he was pressured to leave.
Chen told lawmakers he wanted his "freedom of travel guaranteed," because he wanted to "come to the United States for some time of rest," according to friend and supporter Bob Fu, who was translating the call.
Chen's flight came despite round-the-clock surveillance at his house in Shandong, where the activist has alleged that he and his family suffered severe beatings after he completed a four-year jail term in 2010.
At Thursday's opening of the two-day Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing, Clinton told her Chinese hosts that they cannot deny the "aspirations" of their citizens "for dignity and the rule of law."
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao -- considered a reformist in the opaque communist system -- on Friday asked Clinton to respect differences between the two countries.
But state media took an angrier line, blasting US diplomats for sheltering Chen who they condemned as a "pawn" of the United States.