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China dissidents fear things will get 'worse and worse' after Chen case

Carlos Barria / Reuters

Men guarding building G of Chaoyang Hospital, where blind rights activist Chen Guangcheng was reported to be staying, eat ice-cream at the entrance of the hospital in Beijing Saturday.

No matter whether China makes a rare concession to allow legal activist Chen Guangcheng to leave the country with his family, other dissidents say they don't expect a broader easing of controls.

Authorities may choose to tighten the screws on prominent critics to prevent them from taking encouragement from Chen's case to challenge the leadership. 

On Saturday, Chen, who fled house arrest and took refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, was believed to be still in the hospital, where he was taken to get medical care joined by his wife and two children.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton -- in Beijing this past week for annual talks -- left China Saturday, leaving Chen behind despite his reported comments that he wanted to leave the country on her plane. She apparently did not meet him in person.

A symbol in China's civil rights movement, Chen may be able to leave to study in the United States in the coming days or weeks under still-evolving arrangements announced Friday by Washington and Beijing to end a weeklong diplomatic standoff over his case. 

If negotiations are successful, Chen Guangcheng's family will come to the U.S. on a student visa where he would study at NYU. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

It was unclear if the Chens submitted passport applications, as the Chinese Foreign Ministry said they could Friday, to enable them to travel. His cell phone constantly rang unanswered. 

The blind activist's flight to safety in the embassy has provided a much-needed morale boost for a dissident community that over the last year has been debilitated by the government's massive security crackdown aimed at preventing Arab-style democratic uprisings. Dozens of activists, rights lawyers, intellectuals and others have been detained, questioned and even in some cases, tortured. 

Blind activist: What did he do to rile Beijing? 

The turn of events for Chen, while welcomed by most activists and dissidents, is seen only as an individual victory and not likely to pave the way for improvements in China'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 hospital. 

Carlos Barria / Reuters

A woman argues with a police officer outside Chaoyang Hospital Saturday.

Blind China activist offered US fellowship

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. 

Bill Richardson, former New Mexico governor and former United Nations ambassador, talks with Rachel Maddow about the diplomatic challenge the Obama administration faces with dissident Chen Guangcheng, and why Mitt Romney should cease politicizing the situation.

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 the 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." 

Blind dissident’s case a ‘hot potato’ for US-China

There are concerns China would 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. 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. 

Activist: I want to leave China 'on Clinton’s plane'

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. 

Meanwhile, Clinton faced a fresh test on Saturday as she moved on to Bangladesh where the disappearance of an opposition leader has fueled growing tensions. 

Clinton will meet Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her opposition rival, Begum Khaleda Zia, and will also pay a call on Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, whose removal from the pioneering micro-lender Grameen Bank has been criticized by Washington. 

A senior State Department official said Clinton's visit would highlight growing cooperation between Washington and Dhaka on everything from counter-terrorism and U.N. peacekeeping to global health and food security. 

"Her visit is an opportunity to show Bangladesh's government and 160 million citizens that America is truly Bangladesh's partner," the official said. 

But the trip will also likely put fresh focus on the Obama administration's commitment to human rights after the standoff in Beijing over Chen.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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