China says activist Chen Guangcheng can apply to study abroad, potentially indicating a way out of the diplomatic crisis with the US over him.
A Chinese foreign ministry statement said Chen Guangcheng could “apply through normal channels in accordance with the law”.
The blind dissident fled house arrest last month and spent six days inside the US embassy. He left the embassy but now says he wants to go to the US with his family.
His case has overshadowed high-level US-China talks taking place in Beijing.
“If he wishes to study overseas, as a Chinese citizen, he can, like any other Chinese citizens, process relevant procedures with relevant departments through normal channels in accordance to the law,” Xinhua news agency quoted spokesman Liu Weimin as saying
Earlier, China had demanded an apology from the US for sheltering Chen Guangcheng in its embassy.
Despite the apparent change of heart from the government, one human rights lawyer told the Reuters news agency that Chen Guangcheng could still be delayed or prevented from leaving the country.
“This notice from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is positive news, but how it will play out we don’t know,” Tang Jitian told Reuters.
“For instance, getting the approval for the paperwork to go – there are many potential pitfalls. We can’t be 100% optimistic.”
Chen Guangcheng is currently in a Beijing hospital, sealed off by Chinese police. US officials have so far failed to see him.
The deputy head of mission at the US embassy to Beijing was seen arriving at the hospital carrying gifts. He met Chen Guangcheng’s wife Yuan Weijing but was prevented from meeting the dissident himself.
He has been trying to gain access to Chen Guangcheng’s room. The building was ringed by police who prevented as well as lawyers and diplomats, from seeing the dissident.
On Thursday, Chen Guangcheng telephoned a US Congressional hearing in Washington DC, saying he feared for the safety of his family and wanted to meet visiting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton face to face.
Speaking ahead of a meeting on Friday with President Hu Jintao, Hillary Clinton said the relationship was “stronger than it’s ever been”.
“We have developed a very open and honest relationship where we can discuss our differences, and we remain committed to bridging those differences whenever and wherever possible,” she said.
A joint US-China news conference is expected later in the day.
Chen Guangcheng said he had changed his mind about staying in China because he believed Beijing had reneged on an agreement to guarantee his safety.
There is no official confirmation of any such agreement, but media reports from the US suggest that Chen Guangcheng had been promised safety in a university town in China.
Chen Guangcheng, 40, is a lawyer who has campaigned against forced abortions and sterilizations of women under China’s policy of one child per family.
He told the Associated Press news agency his phone calls to American officials “keep getting cut off after two sentences”.
The activist also told AP his wife was being followed and filmed by unidentified men whenever she was allowed to leave the hospital. And he said one of his friends was taken away by state agents and beaten after he tried to visit Chen Guangcheng.
The case has increasing political resonance in the US, where Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney criticized the administration of President Barack Obama.
Mitt Romney said that if reports that US officials had persuaded Chen Guangcheng to leave the embassy were true, “this is a dark day for freedom and it’s a day of shame for the Obama administration”.
The Beijing Daily, one of China’s main official newspapers, said Chen Guangcheng was an American pawn and criticized US ambassador Gary Locke as a “backpack-wearing, Starbucks-sipping troublemaker”.
Gary Locke caused a stir in China last year when he was seen carrying his own backpack and ordering his own coffee at Seattle airport, in contrast to Chinese officials who usually travel with an entourage.