By Chris Buckley and Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING (Reuters) - China has eased some restrictions on a blind legal activist whose smothering, secretive detention in his village has become the focus of protests at home and condemnation abroad, sources close to his family said.
Activists said the government of Linyi in eastern Shandong province in October allowed Chen Guangcheng's 77-year-old mother to leave Chen's home village to buy supplies for the family -- a hint that officials have softened some of the harshest restrictions on him and his family, all of whom have been under house arrest for nearly 15 months.
The fate of Chen, a charismatic, self-schooled advocate who has campaigned against forced abortions, has become a test of wills, pitting the ruling Communist Party's crackdown on dissent against rights activists who have rallied around his cause and that of the artist Ai Weiwei.
He Peirong, an activist based in the east Chinese city of Nanjing, told Reuters the Shandong provincial government had responded to some of the requests of Chen's supporters. Those included allowing Chen to receive medicine sent by supporters and to allow his six-year-old daughter to go to school.
"He is at a delicate crossroads now," said He, a Chen family friend. "The three conditions that we've requested the government for have basically been met."
"Except the issue about seeking medical treatment -- they haven't allowed him to go to the hospital for a full check-up."
County and town officials near Chen's home who Reuters called about his case either hung up their phones when asked about him or said they could not speak to reporters.
Chen remains under heavy guard, but has been allowed to receive ulcer medicine, easing fears of supporters that he could be near death, said one Chinese activist closely involved in the campaign to free Chen.
"His health has improved, and his family members are being given more opportunities to go out, buy food, send their daughter to school, but I'm not hopeful that this means Chen Guangcheng will win his freedom," said the activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the threat of punishment for discussing the case.
Another source close to Chen's family said: "The government officials said they will keep him under guard for the rest of his life, until he dies."
Chen's daughter, Chen Kesi, who was previously prevented from attending school, was allowed to go to school in mid-September, marking what some said might have been the beginning of a fundamental shift in the treatment of Chen.
But the daughter remains under constant guard, even at school, said a source close to Chen's family.
"Several senior officials, including from the central government, have visited Yinan recently, and it's clear that they're trying to work out what's behind the protests and criticism over Chen," said the other anonymous source, referring to the area of Chen's home village.
A village official involved in beating up Chen last month visited the family and offered compensation, which Chen rejected, said the activist. Someone else close to the family -- who also spoke on condition of anonymity -- said a police officer had raised the idea of compensation.
Chen angered Shandong officials in 2005 by exposing a program of forced abortions as part of China's one-child policy. He was formally released in September 2010 after four years in jail on a charge of "blocking traffic."
He, the Nanjing-based activist, said sources had told her local government officials have conflicting views about how to treat Chen.
Some of them "believe that they went overboard with this matter," said He, who has travelled to Shandong four times and says he has been beaten on each trip.
Chen and his wife endured a "brutal four-hour beating" by local authorities in July, the U.S. advocacy group ChinaAid has said.
In recent months, dozens of supporters have been blocked from visiting Chen. Many of them were beaten by men in plain clothes.
(Editing by Ken Wills)