Two Beijing activists said they had recently succeeded in visiting Liu Xia, the wife of jailed Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, under house arrest at her Beijing home in recent days, sparking concerns over possible retaliation from the authorities.
Hu Jia, rights activist and close friend of the couple, said he had visited Liu on Friday in her apartment where she has been held under police guard since October 2010, when the Nobel committee first announced her husband's award.
Hu's visit came after an international signature campaign to free both Lius gathered momentum in the wake of an open letter from more than 130 former Nobel laureates across all disciplines.
"When I told her that Aung San Suu Kyi wished her and her husband well, and that 135 Nobel prize-winners had called for their release, Liu Xia was very happy," Hu said, referring to the Burmese opposition leader who herself was under house arrest for years before her release in November 2010.
"She thanked everybody for their concern, but very soon she fell into despair again."
"Personally, I think it's because she doesn't really believe that she or her husband will be freed."
Hu has previously tried without success to visit Liu Xia at her apartment, and called her continued detention there "inhumane."
More than 40,000 people worldwide have signed an online petition to free the Lius to date.
Hu said online activism had played an important part in drawing attention to Liu Xia's plight.
"But what's even more important is for people to get out of their houses and offer some help to those whose human rights have been ignored," he said.
But Hu said he and academic Xu Youyu had cut short their visit because of the obvious distress it caused Liu Xia.
Video taken of a visit to Liu Xia's apartment showed her anxious and tearful, whispering into Xu's ear.
"You can see [on the video] how happy Liu Xia was to see us, hugging Xu Youyu," Hu said. "We managed to stay three or four minutes in Liu Xia's home, but you could also see how frightened she is feeling."
"She told him that her family would have to bear the aftermath of such visits, and that the authorities had continued to keep up the pressure on members of her family," he said.
"That's why Xu Youyu decided we should leave quickly."
The video was widely passed around on the Chinese Internet, with many netizens expressing concern that the authorities would retaliate against the family over the visit.
Beijing-based writer Liu Di said the activists had probably managed to get into the apartment building because of the extreme cold, rather than because of any change in official policy.
"The weather is so cold right now, so there aren't many people around," she said. "I don't think there's any reason to assume that this is because the authorities are loosening restrictions [on Liu Xia]."
Liu Di said it was hard to predict how the authorities would react.
"But things might get better if we apply a bit of extra pressure," she said. "But regardless of Liu Xiaobo's situation, Liu Xia is an innocent citizen, and it's wrong to put her under house arrest."
The renewed visit came days after a crying and trembling Liu Xia gave her first media interview in 26 months, speaking out for the first time about her ill-health and extreme isolation.
"We live in such an absurd place," she told a journalist from the Associated Press, who managed to get to her front door while her guards were on their lunch break.
"It is so absurd," she said, in the brief interview during which she said she has lost count of the days she has been confined, and feels as if her situation is "almost" the same as her husband's.
Liu Xia said that apart from an escorted monthly visit to see Liu Xiaobo in prison, she hasn't left the couple's apartment since October 2010.
Earlier this month, Nobel laureates across all disciplines called on Chinese leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping to release Liu Xiaobo, who has served four years of an 11-year jail term for subversion, and to free Liu Xia from house arrest.
Winners of Nobel prizes for peace, but also for physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and economics, signed an open letter to Xi, who will be sworn in as China's new president in March, calling for the immediate and unconditional release of the couple.
"No government can restrict freedom of thought and association without having a negative effect on ... important human innovation," said the letter, which was signed by Nobel peace laureates Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, as well as by authors Mario Vargas Llosa and Toni
"Across all disciplines, the distinguishing feature which led to our recognition as Nobel Laureates is that we have embraced the power of our intellectual freedom and creative inspiration to do our part to advance the human condition," said the letter.
Reported by Xin Yu for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Wei Ling for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.