While the blind Chinese rights activist Chen Guangcheng on Sunday enjoyed his first hours in New York after years of jail and detention, relatives and supporters back home remained locked down by security authorities.
Chen’s escape last month from 19 months of detention in his home village in eastern China and his six-day stay in the US embassy in Beijing exposed embarrassing gaps in the web of security that the ruling Communist Party uses to stifle dissent.
He plans a break from that pressure after his arrival in the United States to take up a fellowship at New York University.
But the continued pressure on Chen’s family in Shandong province and on activists who supported him shows that his flight does not mean China will relax its grip on dissent.
“There won’t be any big changes for us now that Chen Guangcheng has left. There are still many reasons to keep up control and stability preservation,” Jiang Tianyong, a Beijing human rights lawyer, said in a telephone interview, referring to the Communist Party’s terms for controlling dissidents.
Jiang, a long-time campaigner for Chen’s freedom, said he remained under house arrest, despite police officers’ earlier promises that he would be released after Chen left.
“I still don’t know when they’re going to let up,” Jiang said of the police restrictions. “This is no way forward, but especially with the 18th party congress, the high pressure will probably only grow, not decrease.”
The Communist Party will anoint a new leadership at its congress this year, one of a series of dates on China’s political calendar when authorities tighten security against activists to portray an image of stability and unity.
The Foreign Ministry has said that Chen was a “free citizen” after his release from jail in 2010. But the walls, security cameras and guards that penned him inside his home and kept supporters out reflect the pervasive informal controls used to bottle up dissent.
Chen’s nephew, Chen Kegui, remains in police detention in Shandong, facing charges of attempted homicide after a struggle with guards following the dissident’s escape. He has not been allowed to meet lawyers appointed by his family.
Before his departure on Saturday, Chen said his elder brother, Chen Guangfu, was “under restrictions”. Shandong officials, he said, had said they would increase Chen Kegui’s sentence if Chen Guangfu takes interviews.
He said his brother had been beaten “around the 27th or 28th of April. They hooded him, slapped him and used shoes to slap his feet.” He also said the number of guards had been increased in his village.
A supporter in Shandong who campaigned for the dissident’s release said officials there were unlikely to ease restrictions.
“The Communist Party doesn’t want to set a precedent over this case by easing up after a dissident has escaped detention,” said Sun Wenguang, a retired professor.
Sun, who lives in the provincial capital Jinan and spoke to Reuters by phone, said he was being followed and monitored 24 hours a day by security police and receiving harassing phone calls deep in the night.
Other supporters remain out of reach, including Guo Yushan, a researcher in Beijing who helped Chen flee from Shandong to Beijing. He has been told not to speak to reporters.
Chen (40) taught himself law and was a leading figure in China’s “rights defence” movement, which has sought to use litigation and publicity to expand citizens’ rights and freedoms. He was jailed for four years from 2006 on what he and his supporters said were false charges.
Although Chen is more popular than most other dissidents, tight media controls have ensured that few in China know of him.
China has blocked search results of Chen’s name on Sina Weibo, a popular microblogging platform, and censors rapidly delete any references to him in postings.