BEIJING – Even if China makes a rare concession and allows legal activist Chen Guangcheng to leave the country with his family, other dissidents say they don't expect a broader easing of controls. Authorities might even tighten the screws on prominent critics to prevent them from taking encouragement from Chen's case to challenge the leadership.
The blind activist's escape from house arrest and flight to safety in the U.S. Embassy has provided a much-needed morale boost for a dissident community that over the last year has been debilitated by a massive government security crackdown aimed at preventing an Arab-style democratic uprising. Dozens of activists, rights lawyers, intellectuals and others have been detained, questioned and in some cases, even tortured.
Chen, a symbol in China's civil rights movement, may be able to leave to study in the United States under still-evolving arrangements announced Friday by Washington and Beijing to end a weeklong diplomatic standoff over his case.
On Saturday, Chen was still in a hospital where he was taken to receive medical care, joined by his wife and two children. U.S. Embassy officials met with his wife, although Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in Beijing this past week for annual talks, left Beijing without visiting him.
The Foreign Ministry said Friday that Chen could submit an application to go abroad. His wife told Hong Kong broadcaster TVB on Saturday that applications for travel documents had not yet been started and no date has been set for them to leave.
The turn of events for Chen, while welcomed by most activists and dissidents, is seen as an individual victory that is not likely to pave the way for improvements in the government's attitude toward its critics.
"I think that after the Chen Guangcheng incident, the situation for us will just become worse and worse, because in today's society government power has no limits," said Liu Yi, an artist and Chen supporter who was assaulted Thursday by men he thinks were plainclothes police while he attempted to visit Chen in the hospital.
Liu Feiyue, a veteran activist who runs a rights monitoring network in the central province of Hubei, noted the importance of U.S. involvement in Chen's case. "This is only an individual case. Because it turned into a China-U.S. incident, the U.S. put a lot of pressure on China, which is why the authorities made a concession to allow Chen Guangcheng to study overseas," he said.
"Not all dissident cases can become international issues," Liu Feiyue said.
Chen, a self-taught legal activist, is best known for exposing forced abortions and sterilizations in his community in a scandal that prompted the central government to punish some local officials. His activism earned him the wrath of local authorities, who punished him with nearly seven years of prison and house arrest.
He made an improbable escape from his farmhouse in eastern China two weeks ago and sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. After negotiations between U.S. and Chinese officials, Chen left the embassy under arrangements to stay in China that were supposed to guarantee his and his family's safety. But he then changed his mind, prompting more talks that resulted in Friday's tentative deal that would let him travel to the U.S. with his family for a university fellowship.
All this played out as Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and a slew of senior U.S. officials arrived for meetings on trade tensions and global economic and political trouble spots. It also occurred as Chinese President Hu Jintao and most of his senior leadership prepare to step aside for a younger generation of leaders — a time the Communist Party is acutely wary of challenges to its authority and usually reins-in critics.
Activists said that while Chen, his wife and children are likely to find sanctuary in the United States, it is unclear what will happen to his other relatives. Authorities have already detained Chen's elder brother, and his nephew is on the run after attacking local officials who raided his house apparently in search of Chen after his escape. Chen's mother, who lived with the couple, has been under constant surveillance.
If Chen leaves, the officials who mistreated him and his family will likely not be held accountable — something Chen asked for in a video statement he made while in hiding in Beijing before entering the U.S. Embassy.
"Chen's story is not a triumph for China's human rights, unfortunately," said Wang Songlian, a Hong Kong-based researcher with Chinese Human Rights Defenders. "Although Chen and his immediate family might gain freedom, his extended family is likely to be retaliated against. ... None of those whose violence Chen exposed, or those who beat and detained Chen and his family, have been punished."
There are concerns China will exact retribution on Chen's supporters who aided his escape, as well as friends who later tried to get the message out about his fears for his safety or publicly urged him to flee to the United States. Two supporters who helped him escape were detained, then released, but placed under gag orders and close monitoring.
Others like Chen's friend Zeng Jinyan, who — at great risk to herself — publicized Chen's worries about leaving the embassy Wednesday, have since been barred from speaking to the media and placed under house arrest. Also under similar restrictions is Teng Biao, a rights lawyer who repeatedly called Chen imploring him to flee the country, then published a transcript of their phone conversations online.
"They (the authorities) will certainly settle scores with them later," Teng told Chen, referring to the two supporters who aided Chen's escape.
Some activists say local officials who have been watching dissidents in their own jurisdictions might beef up monitoring and restrictions on them to prevent them from attempting copycat escapes into diplomatic compounds.
"One guess is that they will learn a lesson from this experience and be stricter in guarding and monitoring similar key figures and take even harder measures against them," said Mo Zhixu, a liberal-minded author and Chen supporter.
Follow Gillian Wong on Twitter at http://twitter.com/gillianwong