HONG KONG — As the diplomatic storm around Chen Guangcheng calms, supporters and relatives of the blind activist now fear a tempest of retribution, a frequent feature of Communist Party crisis management known as "settling accounts after the autumn harvest."
The ruling party, which has had a monopoly on power since 1949, has a long history of punishing not just those who challenge or embarrass it but also their families and friends.
At least half a dozen people have already been detained for questioning over their role in Chen's escape from house arrest in Shandong province on April 22 and his six-day stay at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
In addition, a Chinese lawyer who tried last week to visit Chen at a Beijing hospital said he was severely beaten by police and is now under constant surveillance. Others have been visited by security agents and ordered to keep quiet and to stay away from Chen's hospital ward.
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 now been released, with warnings to watch their step. This 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 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 China Aid. 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 through the courts their use of forced abortions and other measures.
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.
American officials have come under withering criticism, particularly from political foes of President Barack 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 believe Chinese authorities will allow the self-taught lawyer to study law in New York. Chen himself, 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 taken away by police late at night on April 27 for several days of questioning. He, too, is again free .
Chen, meanwhile, has pleaded for security forces to lay off family members still in Shandong, including his mother and brothers. A nephew, Chen Kegui, is missing and thought to have been arrested.