Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng speaks to the media through a translator, while standing beside Professor Jerome Cohen at New York University. Photograph: Andy Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Supporters of Chen Guangcheng have warned that his family and friends inChina are still at risk after the blind activist arrived in New York to begin a new life in the United States.
Chen — whose daring escape from house arrest last month prompted a diplomatic crisis — arrived on Saturday night to cheering crowds, and used his first speech to press for greater rule of law in the country he left behind.
"I hope everybody works for me to promote justice and fairness in China," Chen said through an interpreter, ahead of his enrolment for a fellowship in the US-Asia Law Institute at New York University School of Law.
He was also careful to thank the Chinese government, knowing the wellbeing of relatives and associates could be influenced by an upcoming shift in the Communist party leadership. Instead, he criticised the provincial authorities in Shandong for years of persecution, including 18 months of house arrest, beatings and harassment of his relatives.
Chen said "acts of retribution may not have abated" in his village of Dongshigu, which was still under lockdown. "We hope to see a thorough investigation into these events," he said.
The figurehead of the rights movement suggested his own role will temporarily diminish. "I am requesting leave of absence and I hope they will understand," he said. "For the past seven years, I have never had a day's rest so I have come here for a bit of recuperation for body and spirit."
He Peirong – who played a key role in the escape by driving Chen from Shandong to Beijing – said she sympathised, even though the reverberations of Chen's flight remain unclear. "I support any decision made by Chen, but it's too early to say whether his departure is a good thing for China's rights movement. Things are not settled. Problems are not solved. His family is still in China. The people who helped him escape are still in China."
He – who was detained for several days after Chen's escape and remains under surveillance – spoke of her admiration for Chen.
"He has done more than you could expect from any individual … Although he has experienced so much injustice and so many threats, he sticks to his beliefs. He is like a piece of jade: always smooth and warm."
Others supporters, relatives and lawyers, including Guo Yushan and Liu Weiguo, were not answering their phones. Several have been told not to speak to the foreign media. Zeng Jinyan, who met Chen before he took refuge at the US embassy, said her computer had been hacked and infected with a virus that made it difficult to communicate.
Chen's nephew has been arrested and charged with attempted murder after using a kitchen knife to fight off local officials who intruded into his home.
The activist's brother has described how he was chained to a chair and beaten for three days. His lawyer and friend, Jiang Tianyong, was punched so powerfully by state security officials that he lost his hearing. He said police continued to impose tight restrictions on rights activists and he expected the pressure to intensify ahead of a key party congress this autumn.
"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 told Reuters.
A supporter in Shandong told the news agency the authorities were unlikely to ease pressure any time soon. "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, who is monitored 24 hours a day by security officers.
Although supporters in the US say Chen is now free to "speak truth to power'" it is far from clear that his voice will be any easier to hear in his homeland. In the past, Chinese dissidents who sought exile in the US have found their influence muted by distance and Beijing's "Great Firewall" – which filters internet content from overseas.
Few are allowed to return. Last week, Wu'er Kaixi – the student leader during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests – was refused permission to return to China to see his ailing parents.
Nonetheless, Chen's escape could make a difference in China because of the timing. The ability of a blind man to evade dozens of guards raises awkward questions for party hardman Zhou Yongkang, who has a bigger budget for internal security than the People's Liberation Army has to protect China's borders. Zhou is due to step down this autumn.
Chen's arrival in New York could also play in US politics and diplomatic strategy. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney had criticised the Obama administration's handling of the case when it was unclear whether Chen would leave China.
But the Democrat former House speaker Nancy Pelosi described Chen's flight to the US as "a milestone in the cause for human rights in China".
"The courage of Chen Guangcheng to risk his life and livelihood to advocate for disadvantaged people in China is an inspiration to freedom-seeking people around the world," she said.
Human rights campaigners warned against complacency.
"Chen's departure for the US does not and should not in any way mark a 'mission accomplished' moment for the US government or any other government which values human rights and rule of law in China. The fact is that getting Chen Guangcheng and his family on a plane is the easiest part of this saga. The harder, longer term part is ensuring his right under international law to return to China when he sees fit," said Phelim Kine, senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.