But nearly all of those who got picked up in an initial sweep, including He Peirong, a female activist who helped transport Chen to Beijing, have been released, with warnings to watch their step. That suggests that authorities have perhaps stepped back from, or at least deferred, a full-scale campaign of retribution. He, also known as “Pearl,” was detained in Nanjing, where she lives, on April 27, and she sent a text message a week later saying she had been allowed to return home.
“The autumn harvest is not finished yet, so the settling of accounts hasn’t really started,” said Bob Fu, an exiled Chinese activist who runs a group called ChinaAid. From his base in Texas, Fu helped engineer Chen’s flight from Shandong, a heavily rural and acutely conservative province in eastern China.
Chen had been under house arrest there since 2010, an extra-legal detention ordered by local officials infuriated by his efforts to challenge their use of forced abortions and other measures through the courts. Chen’s escape, and his ability to evade authorities in Beijing as he moved between safe houses before taking refuge with U.S. diplomats, was a major embarrassment to China’s vast security apparatus, which, according to official budget figures, gets more funding each year than China’s military.
American officials have come under withering criticism, particularly from political foes of President Obama, for their handling of the Chen saga. Under a tentative deal struck Friday during a visit to Beijing by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, U.S. diplomats say they believe Chinese authorities will allow the self-taught lawyer to study law in New York. Chen, however, has voiced growing alarm about the fate of his family and those who assisted him.
“He is most worried about my safety, He Peirong’s safety and that of other friends who helped him escape from illegal detention in Shandong,” read a Twitter-like message posted by Guo Yushan, a friend who was involved in Chen’s flight and was seized by police late on April 27 for several days of questioning. He, too, is now free.
Appeal for a nephew
Chen, meanwhile, has pleaded for security forces to leave family members still in Shandong alone, including his mother and brothers. A nephew, Chen Kegui, is missing and thought to have been arrested. He reportedly attacked and injured security officers who rushed into his father’s house and started beating those inside on the night of April 26. A Shandong lawyer, Liu Weiguo, was threatened by local security agents after he offered to defend the nephew, according to Chen.