BEIJING - China said on Friday that blind dissident Chen Guangcheng could apply to study abroad, a move praised by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and suggesting an end may be near to a diplomatic standoff between Beijing and Washington.

But rights activists sounded a note of caution, saying Beijing could move slowly on granting Chen permission to leave out of fear that appearing soft might embolden other challengers to Communist Party rule before a power handover late this year.

An announcement by the Chinese Foreign Ministry followed a dramatic and very public appeal by Chen, who spoke by phone to a US congressional hearing on his case and asked to be allowed to spend time in the United States after fleeing 19 months of extra-judicial captivity in his home village.

"If he wants to study abroad, he can apply through normal channels to the relevant departments in accordance with the law, just like any other Chinese citizen," ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said in a brief statement, adding that Chen was still being treated in hospital.

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