Updated 5:40 p.m. EST on 2012-05-04
China may allow blind activist Chen Guangcheng and his family to travel to the United States soon amid signs of possible solution to a diplomatic crisis, officials said Friday.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Washington expects Beijing to expedite travel documents for the rights campaigner, who escaped house arrest and fled to the U.S. embassy last week, fueling bilateral tensions.
"The Chinese government has indicated that it will accept Mr. Chen's applications for appropriate travel documents," Nuland said in a statement.
"The United States government expects that the Chinese government will expeditiously process his applications for these documents," Nuland said.
"The United States government would then give visa requests for him and his immediate family priority attention."
She said Chen, 40, who spent four years in jail after exposing forced abortions and sterilizations under China's draconian "one-child" policy, had been offered a fellowship from an American university, where he could be accompanied by his wife and two children.
New York University issued a statement Friday confirming that Chen was invited to that university's law school.
"Chen Guangcheng has long-established relationships with faculty at the NYU School of Law, and has an invitation to be a visiting scholar at NYU," said a statement by NYU spokesman John Beckman.
"As a visiting scholar, he would be working with our law programs and scholars."
However, officials declined to give a timetable for the Chen family's departure, or to say whether they had received firm assurances from the Chinese government that no further obstacles would be put in their way.
Nuland said the matter had been handled "in the spirit of a cooperative U.S.-China partnership."
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters earlier Friday that Chen "may apply to study abroad according to laws with relevant departments and through the same channels as other Chinese citizens," the state-run news agency Xinhua reported.
Liu told a regular news briefing in Beijing that Chen was "currently receiving treatment in hospital." But he gave no indication of whether such an application might be successful.
The crisis erupted last week when Chen sought sanctuary at the U.S. Embassy after making a dramatic escape from house arrest in his Shandong province where he and his family suffered a series of beatings and other rights abuses.
Chen stayed at the embassy for six days until Wednesday when U.S. officials took him to a Beijing hospital after a deal with the Chinese government which promised that he and his family would be reunited and receive better treatment in future.
Chen told RFA on Thursday he left the U.S. Embassy because Chinese officials had threatened to take his wife, Yuan Weijing, back to Shandong province, where the family had been captive in their home since Chen's release from jail in September 2010.
Shortly after arriving at a Beijing hospital, Chen began to fear for his and his family's safety in China, and said he and his family wanted to travel to the United States.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Friday that she was "encouraged" by statements from the Chinese foreign ministry.
"Progress has been made to help him have the future that he wants. We will be staying in touch with him as this process moves forward," Clinton said before wrapping up two days of high-level annual talks with Chinese officials.
Clinton said the U.S. ambassador to China spoke with Chen by phone Friday and that an embassy doctor visited him at the hospital where he is being treated for injuries sustained in his escape.
Chen's supporters and rights groups say they are still extremely concerned about controls around Chaoyang Hospital where he is currently staying, however.
Rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong was detained at the hospital Thursday evening by Chinese police who beat him around the head and warned him against supporting Chen, before releasing him early Friday, his wife said.
"He is a bit better now, but he still has a throbbing sound in his ears," Jiang's wife Jin Bianling, said, adding that the couple were now being held under house arrest in their Beijing home.
"There are 13, 14 police officers down there," she said. "We're not allowed to leave our home, and two friends of ours who came [to see us] were taken away."
Pang Kun, one of the two friends who was released after giving a statement to police, said he was concerned that Jiang might need medical treatment for injuries to his ears.
"We will probably go back again tomorrow," he said.
U.S.-based activist Ge Xun, who runs the Free Guangcheng website, said the authorities had turned the area around Chaoyang Hospital into "another Dongshigu," referring to the tight security cordon thrown around the Chen family's home village in the eastern province of Shandong.
"Actually all they have done is to move Dongshigu village to Chaoyang Hospital," Ge said in an interview on Friday.
"In a few days' time, no one will be paying any more attention ... and it will be very easy for the Chinese government to do whatever they want with Chen Guangcheng," Ge said.
He said that if anything happened to Chen, the U.S. Embassy would bear responsibility. "They shouldn't have limited his contact with the outside world, and they shouldn't have dealt with the matter using only hearsay and messages," Ge said.
He said U.S. Embassy staff "made these small mistakes" because they were seeking a quick resolution and to remove Chen from the embassy as soon as possible ahead of bilateral talks.
The Hong Kong-based group China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) agreed with Ge's assessment.
"It is strongly suspected that Chen, before deciding to stay in the country, may not have had access to sufficient information or key supporters that could have helped him weigh all his options," the group said in an e-mailed statement on Friday.
Deliberations over Chen's fate have put a strain on both the U.S. and China, with Beijing demanding an apology for what it called "interference" in its internal affairs, and American opposition politicians criticising U.S. President Barack Obama administration's handling of the case.
Editorials in major official Chinese newspapers hit out at Chen on Friday, calling him a "pawn of the United States."
The labeling of this so-called rights hero is an attempt by Western media to package him as a striking opposition figure," the Beijing Daily said.
"But Chen Guangcheng doesn't represent the people in all their diversity; actually he only represents the interests of his masters: Western anti-Chinese forces."
"Chen Guangcheng has become a tool and a pawn used by U.S. politicians to discredit China."
The editorial echoes a theme reported by activists who visited Chen's home village of Dongshigu during the family's incarceration in their own home.
Local residents reported last year they had been told by officials that Chen was under such close guard because of his links with "hostile overseas forces."
Journalists in Beijing have reported via Twitter and their professional association that the Chaoyang Hospital is under close police guard, with no journalists being allowed into the building.
"Reporters have had their press cards confiscated [hopefully just temporarily] and have been escorted from the premises at Chaoyang Hospital," the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China (FCCC) said in a circular e-mail to its members, quoted in a statement by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
China's Internet censors have moved to block a range of search terms linked to the unfolding drama surrounding Chen, which has overshadowed key bilateral annual strategic and economic talks in Beijing.
Searches for the names of Chen and his family were blocked on the popular microblogging service Sina Weibo this week, as were the keywords "Chaoyang Hospital," "US + embassy" and "Gary Locke + hospital."
Also blocked were the words "political asylum" and "Teng Biao," the name of Chen's lawyer, according to a regular survey of censorship by the U.S.-based China Digital Times.
However, a tweet from the account of Nanjing-based activist He Peirong, who helped Chen escape on April 22, said she had arrived safely home on Friday.
"I am back at home. Everything is fine. Thanks, everybody," the tweet said.
He's friend Chen Ye confirmed the news. "She's at home; I've just come from there," he said. "She's fine, but you should ask her. It's not convenient for me to give interviews."
Reported by Wen Yuqing and Grace Kei Lai-see for RFA's Cantonese service, and by CK for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.