Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese dissident whose escape from house arrest has become a major international diplomatic issue, may be allowed to leave China to study in the US.

On Friday, the Chinese foreign ministry released a statement saying Chen could "apply through normal channels in accordance with the law", although he is unlikely to be allowed back meaning he faces effective exile.

Guangcheng fled last month to the US embassy in Bejing after spending 19 months confined to house arrest.

He had been ready to spend "many years" under US protection at the embassy but had expressed his desire to return home to his wife and two children.

Subsequent assurances from Chinese officials guaranteeing his safety and freedom prompted him to leave, however, he quickly changed his mind when he learnt the extent of threats that had been made to his family.

They are now back together although the family is currently under heavy guard in a Bejing hospital, where Chinese government officials are keen to keep them away from international media.

Guangchen managed to speak to the Associated Press and told them that he was surrounded by police, his phone calls were being cut off, and US officials attempting to deliver supplies and a mobile phone had been blocked from seeing him.

US state department spokesman Mark Toner said on Thursday: "It's our desire to meet with him tomorrow or in the coming days, but I can't speak as to whether we'll have access to him.

"I just don't know."

US officials at the highest level have become involved with a visit to China from US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton threatening to be overshadowed by unfolding events.

Guangchen has requested to speak to Clinton directly saying that he wants to leave China with his family on her plane.

Before 2005, Guangchen was well regarded in China as a defender of the rights of the disabled. However, after exposing the forced sterilisations and abortions performed on people under China's one-child policy by the authorites in Shandong, Guangchen became the victim of forced detentions and beatings.

Guangchen increased international coverage of the scandal by talking to foreign reporters but in doing so incurred the wrath the Chinese authorities. He was arrested and after a trial in which his three lawyers were denied access to the courtroom, he was sentenced to four years and three months for 'damaging property organising a mob to disturb traffic'.

Upon being released in 2010, Guangchen was placed under house arrest until his escape last month.

The incident comes at a sensitive time for China after the alleged murder of British Businessman Neil Heywood exposed power rifts at the highest echelons of the ruling Politiburo.

The news that Beijing may allow Guangchen to study abroad could be seen as a tactic that allows the authorities to save as much face as possible whilst ridding themselves of someone who they view as a political nuisance.

Harriet Garland, of Amnesty International, told the Huffington Post UK that this could be a watershed moment for China.

She said: "This situation is an indictment of China's ability to apply the rule of law within it's own borders.

"It has put the spotlight on people who are prepared stand up for human rights and it is becoming increasingly difficult for China to use 'old-school' methods of keeping them quiet.

"China can no longer control the information that gets out."

Asked about the wider implications of the Guangcheng case in China, Garland believes that a high profile dissident who only feels safe in the US says much about conditions inside China.

She said: "The only way to avoid this issue again is to address the human rights issues.

"We are treating the symptoms not the cause."