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Blind lawyer Chen says Chinese officials have promised to issue passports so he can study at NYU

American diplomats apparently were not allowed to meet with blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng over the weekend, but Chinese authorities on Monday told him they will issue the documents he needs to leave the country so that he can study in the United States, Chen told McClatchy.

“Today they (Chinese officials) came over and indicated that they would do these things,” Chen said in an interview, speaking by telephone from his hospital room.. “But they didn’t say when.”

The willingness of Beijing to do so will make or break a tentative agreement that the U.S. State Department announced on Friday following several days of criticism that American diplomats erred grievously when they brokered a deal for Chen to leave their embassy with no way of guaranteeing his safety.

The case has attracted worldwide attention and threatened to become a major point of tension between the United States and China and a serious embarrassment for the American diplomats involved. As the crisis unfolded last week, it overshadowed previously scheduled meetings in Beijing between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and senior Chinese leadership.

Before Clinton left Beijing, the State Department released a statement saying that China “has indicated that it will accept Mr. Chen’s applications for appropriate travel documents.”

Chen has been offered a fellowship at New York University. He’s repeatedly asserted that he would not seek asylum after entering the United States and plans to return to China at some point.

On Monday, Chen said that he, his wife and their two children do not have valid passports, but he had been told by Chinese officials that they would be issued.

“Since they have promised they would process them, I’ll just wait . . . I’ll believe it first, and then see if they will do it or not,” said Chen, 40.

He later added: “On some level I am somewhat concerned, because, after all, currently things are still just in the phase of talking . . . I think that only when concrete actions start can we really rest assured.”

It was not clear from Chen’s account how many times U.S. diplomats had visited the hospital over the weekend. Equally uncertain was whether they'd sought to meet with Chen personally or, now that he has assurances of travel, relied on meeting with his family and speaking with him by phone rather than confront the government over access to his hospital room. American diplomats were allowed to talk to him in person on Friday and met with his wife on Saturday.

“People from the American Embassy come here every day, and they are outside of my hospital ward, but they cannot come in,” he said.

When reached for comment, a U.S. official familiar with the situation said, “We met with his wife once on Saturday and spoke with Chen several times daily by phone throughout the weekend and as recently as today.” The official gave the interview on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Chen previously served about four years in prison after his advocacy on behalf of women subjected to forced abortions and sterilizations as part of local enforcement of China’s one-child policy. The charges against him, of destroying property and gathering a crowd to block traffic, were widely seen as fabricated.

Upon his release in September 2010, Chen was placed under extra-judicial house arrest and later said that both he and his wife were badly beaten by police and local officials during the 19 months that followed.

Chen escaped from that detention in the eastern province of Shandong on April 22 and made a daring dash to Beijing, where he took refuge in the U.S. Embassy four days later. Chen decided to leave the embassy for a hospital in Beijing on Wednesday, in part to receive treatment for foot injuries sustained during his escape, after receiving assurances in a deal worked out between Chinese and U.S. officials. That agreement quickly fell apart when Chen gave public interviews saying he left American protection only because he feared for his family’s safety otherwise.

Three people involved in his escape or who met him later in Beijing were taken in for questioning by police, but all have since been released. A nephew of Chen fled his home village after confronting what he described as club-wielding plainclothes security who’d taken his father – Chen’s brother – away. There were conflicting reports about the status of the two men on Monday.

Researcher Joyce Zhang contributed to this report.

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