WASHINGTON — Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese human-rights activist, whose plight has grabbed the attention of the world, can now apply to study outside of China, says the country’s foreign ministry.

The New York Times reported this morning that the development may provide a breakthrough in the crisis, which led to an emergency hearing on Capitol Hill yesterday.

Chen himself called in to that hearing, which was led by Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who leads the Congressional-Executive Commission on the People’s Republic of China, a congressionally mandated, bipartisan panel.

In his phone call from a hospital in Beijing, Chen repeated his request for asylum.

Speaking through a translator to a hushed audience of House and Senate members, human-rights activists and media, Chen said he feared for the lives of his family members.

According to his translator, former Chinese prisoner Bob Fu, the founder and president of China Aid Association, Chen said, “I want to meet with Secretary Clinton. I hope I can get more help from her. I also want to thank her face-to-face. I really feared for my other family members’ lives.”

Chen, who got into trouble with authorities after documenting brutalities in enforcing China’s one-child-per-family restriction, reported that a profusion of video cameras and an electric fence had been established at his rural home in Shandong Province, some 400 miles to the southeast. He said he wanted “to make the request to have my freedom of travel guaranteed,” and he told Smith that he wanted to come to the United States with his family.

Smith held a similar hearing in November to address Chen’s struggles while under house arrest at his remote farmhouse, where he was reportedly tortured.

The New Jersey congressman, who also heads the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, convened yesterday’s hearing, “Recent Developments and History of the Chen Guangcheng Case.” Chen said he had not seen close relatives since leaving the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and traveling to a hospital, where he was reunited with his wife and children.

“The thing of most concern right now is the safety of my mother and brother; I really want to know what’s going on with them,” Chen said.

Smith told Chen: “You have a panel of people who have just testified on your behalf, all of whom deeply, deeply care about you and your family, as well as those who helped you. I think the word is getting out — and there are members of national and international press here — that your case is the test, the test, of Chinese commitment to protect you, which they’ve given — we’re very dubious about those assurances — but also the test of the United States as to whether or not human rights really do matter."

Smith informed Chen that the actor Christian Bale wished to “convey his solidarity and concern for your well-being and that of the rest of your family.”

At the hearing, Bob Fu of China Aid stated: “The developments in this Chen Guangcheng incident have shown the world that the Chinese communist government is above the law, wantonly abusing an honest and law-abiding citizen.”

“At the same time, everyone has seen the inestimable conscience of Chen Guangcheng, his courageous fight for justice and human rights, and his indestructible hope. These events have also shown the world that this authoritarian regime, which has engaged in a protracted struggle for the conscience of a blind man, has been defeated,” said Fu. Click here to read Fu’s statement.

The hearing drew a slew of experts and activists, including Sophie Richardson, the China director for Human Rights Watch; T. Kumar, director of International Advocacy for Amnesty International; Wang Xuezhen, a human-rights advocate; Yaxue Cao, a human-rights advocate and blogger; Michael Horowitz, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a Washington, D.C. research center; and Reggie Littlejohn, president of the Women’s Rights Without Frontiers.

Said Smith, “It was with great relief that I — and millions around the world — learned of his escape and his reaching safety at the American Embassy in Beijing on Friday morning. Yet it is with equally great concern that I convene this hearing. Having been handed over to Chinese officials by American diplomats yesterday, Chen, his wife, Yuan, and the rest of his family and friends appear to be in significant danger. The eyes of the world are watching.”