But a secretly made video of Chen released Thursday was smuggled out of his home and given to a U.S.-based rights group. The group's founder said they received it from an "anonymous government friend inside China" who was upset about the way Chen and his family are being treated.
The video is the first word from Chen, one of China's best-known activists, since his release from prison. His case was one of the few mentioned by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in a speech shortly before Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to Washington last month.
The hour-long video gives a look inside a ring of security that officials meant to be impenetrable. Chen, a blind self-taught lawyer, stands inside his family's modest home and describes what he says the central government has directed: A 22-person team that watches his house around the clock. Gadgets placed in neighboring houses to block cell phone calls. A ban on leaving the home that allows only his 76-year-old mother to buy food.
"I have come out of a small jail and walked into a bigger jail," Chen says in the video. "No one is allowed to enter my home. Whenever fellow villagers try to help us, they are called accomplices and national traitors and counterrevolutionaries."
The video opens with an unsettling shot of an unidentified man peering over a pile of cornstalks the family had put by a window to try to limit the surveillance. He seems to look right into the hidden camera.
Later in the video, Chen's wife Yuan Weijing sits by a bookcase in near-darkness, talking softly about her concerns for their two young children and dissolving into tears. "I don't dare speak loudly," she says. Sometimes, a rooster crows.
Amid the tension, the video shows one of the children in the dusty courtyard making mud pies and leading the smiling Chen around indoors.
The U.S.-based China Aid Association, a Christian rights group, said it received the video early Wednesday and posted it on YouTube. Chen says in the video it was shot about 10 weeks after his prison release in September.
"He said he knows that by releasing this video there are risks, but he is ready," Bob Fu, president of the group, said from Washington. "He said somebody has to fight for justice. He was very direct. One thing that really surprised me was his spirit of boldness, bravery, defiance to the regime itself."
"Soft detention" is a common tactic used by the Chinese government to intimidate activists, with some essentially put under house arrest for years. One of the most recent cases is of Liu Xia, the wife of last year's Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. She has been unreachable since shortly after her husband won the prize in mid-October.
Chen's detention has been notably harsh. Associated Press reporters in September were chased away by stick-carrying men who threatened to smash their car if they didn't leave.
The lawyer, now in his late 30s, angered authorities after documenting forced late-term abortions and sterilizations and other abuses in his rural community and was sent to prison in 2006.
In the video, Chen and his wife say security officials seem to be trying to push the family into doing something that could get Chen arrested again.
An official from the public security bureau of Yinan County, which oversees the village in Shandong province where Chen lives, said Thursday that she had no knowledge of Chen. She gave only her surname, Gao.
The Communist Party propaganda department's head for Yinan, Xue Jie, said he was in a meeting and declined to comment on the video.
"The first word that comes to mind after watching this is accountability," said Joshua Rosenzweig, the Hong Kong-based senior research manager for the Duihua Foundation, which works on behalf of political and religious prisoners in China. "Chen and other rights defenders, what they do is demand that officials at all levels conduct themselves in accordance with the law and the constitution in order for society to run properly and for people's rights to be protected. Unfortunately, their demands are treated like threats to political stability."