Beijing (CNN) -- China said Friday that the Chinese activist at the center of a diplomatic storm has the right to apply to study abroad after he told U.S. lawmakers that he wants to leave his homeland for the United States.
If Chen Guangcheng wants to go overseas to study, "as a Chinese citizen, he may apply like other Chinese citizens according to the laws and normal procedures of the relevant departments," Liu Weimin, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement posted on the ministry's website.
The statement appeared to offer a possible solution to the complex crisis over the future of Chen, which has generated a flurry of negotiations between Chinese and U.S. officials and overshadowed a long-planned visit to Beijing by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for strategic and economic talks.
The diplomatic headache comes just months before a presidential election in the United States and a once-in-a-decade change of leadership in China.
The Chinese comments came as U.S. diplomats spoke by phone with Chen, who is currently in a Beijing hospital. The officials also met with Chen's wife, Yuan Weijing, in person, according to a senior State Department official who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The U.S. officials had been scheduled to visit Chen as part of the deal worked out between the United States and China under which Chen left the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, where he had taken refuge for six days after escaping from house arrest.
It appears to be the second day in a row that U.S. diplomats have been prevented from meeting with Chen in person.
Chen said earlier Friday that U.S. Embassy officials had told him that Chinese security personnel had stopped them from entering his hospital room on Thursday.
Since leaving the embassy for the hospital Wednesday, Chen has made several pleas to be allowed to leave China.
"China pledged to guarantee my constitutional rights and called me a free man," Chen said, speaking from his hospital room early Friday in Beijing to congressional commission members who listened by speakerphone in Washington, 12 times zones and thousands of miles away.
"I want them to keep their commitment by allowing me to travel abroad to recuperate," Chen said. "I want to go to the United States and rest for a while, since I haven't had a Sunday in seven years."
The 40-year-old blind, self-taught lawyer added that he wants to meet with Clinton "to thank her in person."
Clinton is due to leave China on Saturday for Bangladesh. It remains unclear whether a fresh deal over Chen's future will take shape before she departs.
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Chen said he was worried about his relatives in his hometown in the eastern province of Shandong, which he fled last month. He said he has not been able to contact some of them and blamed Chinese officials for his living situation there.
"They have installed seven surveillance cameras in my house," he said. "In addition to have the guards stay in my place, they are building an electric fence around my house. They even scoffed, 'Let's see what this blind guy can do to us.' "
He asked that Congress help him ensure his relatives' legal rights are respected. "This is what concerns me greatly right now," he said.
In a telephone interview with CNN, Chen expressed optimism that U.S. officials would act on his behalf.
"I believe they will help me," he said.
One of the hurdles Chen would face if he decides to apply to study in the United States is his need of a passport.
Asked if Chen's criminal record in China would prevent him from obtaining a passport, Liu said that since Chen had been released, he could apply for one like other citizens.
Last month, the activist escaped house arrest in Shandong and made his way to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. But he left it Wednesday for medical treatment in the hospital, where he was reunited with Yuan and their two children.
Before his escape, Chen had been forcibly confined to his home for 18 months after serving four years in prison, apparently over his legal advocacy for what he called victims of abusive practices such as forced abortions and sterilizations by China's family planning officials.
When Chen left the embassy, U.S. officials announced they had worked out a deal with China for his future and that Chen was leaving of his own free will.
The officials said the Chinese government had committed to relocate Chen to a "safe environment" away from the province where he and his family say they had suffered brutal treatment by local authorities. In addition, the officials said, China agreed to investigate those allegations of mistreatment and promised Chen would face no further legal issues.
Under the agreement, Chen was to be granted the opportunity to pursue university studies in the safe location. Gary Locke, U.S. ambassador to China, said one of the proposals "allowed for the possible transfer some day to an American college or university."
But Chen subsequently said he regretted having abandoned the embassy and began making pleas through CNN and other international news organizations to U.S. leaders to get him out of China.
His statements prompted bewildered reactions from U.S. officials who reiterated that the decision to leave the embassy was Chen's and that he had repeatedly said he wished to remain in China.
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On Friday, Chen mollified his tone compared with the comments he made a day earlier, when he said he was "very disappointed" in the U.S. government because he felt American officials had lobbied for him to leave the embassy and abandoned him at the hospital.
He expressed "deep gratitude" to American officials in Beijing for having treated him "extremely well" during his six-day stay in the embassy.
Jerome Cohen, an American law professor and friend of Chen, offered an explanation for Chen's statements after he left the embassy.
"Everything changed when he got to the hospital," said Cohen, who advised Chen by phone while he was inside the embassy. "All of a sudden, the people who had worked so hard to secure his future from our embassy and our state department, they were tired as can be and they went home to sleep."
Some of Chen's fellow Chinese human rights activists spoke with him about his plan to remain in China, Cohen told CNN's Christiane Amanpour on Thursday.
"They said: 'This is zany. Don't do this. You're just totally unrealistic, it will never work,' " Cohen said.
Chen is "in a very fragile emotional state," Cohen said. "You have to understand the enormous pressures in which he's been living and recently operating. And it got to be too much."
The United States is now working out what Chen wants and how it might be able to assist him.
Once a clear understanding of his desires emerge, "we will do what we can to help him achieve that," the senior U.S. State Department official said Thursday.
A senior Obama administration official said that "there are ongoing discussions happening in Beijing," but declined to comment further.
Cohen said he was hopeful a deal could be reached to get Chen out of China.
"They're practical people," he said, referring to China's leaders. "They're going to want to get rid of him and his family in the most humane appearance possible."
Human rights advocacy groups meanwhile have questioned whether Beijing will stick to its promises about Chen's future if he stays in the country, noting that several of his friends and family members have been detained or are unaccounted for.
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One of those friends -- the fellow activist who revealed Chen's dramatic escape to CNN last week -- reappeared Friday after going missing for a week.
He Peirong had been unreachable since she told a U.S.-based human rights organization that the Chinese security services had arrived at her home.
On Friday, she said by phone, "I just got home and I'm doing okay." She declined to comment further.
Chen's case has touched a nerve in China, where CNN International's broadcast has been blocked in recent days during the network's stories about him.
Comments from Chinese officials reported by state media have criticized what they call "interference" by Washington.
"This is totally unacceptable to China," Liu, the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said in comments reported Wednesday by Xinhua, the state-run news agency. He demanded an apology from the United States.
Nevertheless, senior officials from the two countries -- including Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner -- met Thursday and Friday in Beijing for scheduled talks about strategic and economic issues.
In public remarks at the meeting Friday, Clinton reiterated comments she had made the previous day about human rights without mentioning Chen.
"For China in particular, there is the opportunity to show that it is assuming the full responsibilities of a great nation," she said. "That means sharing the burden of solving common problems abroad and protecting the fundamental freedoms of all citizens at home."
On the Chinese side, President Hu Jintao said Thursday that Washington and Beijing "should approach our differences in a correct way, and respect and accommodate each other's interests and concerns."