Zhong Jinhua, a former judge at the Wenzhou Intermediate People's Court in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang who became a lawyer to escape political interference, arrived last month in the United States along with his family.
His arrival on Sept. 4 coincided with a nationwide police operation targeting human rights lawyers across China that has seen hundreds detained and many held in secret locations since the detention of top Beijing rights attorney Wang Yu and her colleagues at the Fengrui law firm on the night of July 9.
Zhong told RFA that the crackdown hasn't only affected lawyers who take politically sensitive cases, however, but the entire legal profession.
"The majority of lawyers are now living in fear of forced 'chats' with authorities, since they have detained between 200 and 300 lawyers," he said. "Such a thing is unprecedented."
"Under such circumstances, many voices right across Chinese society have been silenced, as well as human rights defenders," said Zhong, who originally planned to board a flight to the U.S. on Aug. 11 with his wife and two young children, before being turned back by border guards at Shanghai's Pudong International Airport and forced to undergo a strip and body search.
According to the Hong Kong-based Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, at least 288 lawyers, law firm staff, human right activists and family members have been detained, questioned by police, forbidden to leave the country, held under residential surveillance, or are simply missing.
While 255 have since been released, the rest remain under some form of surveillance or criminal detention, the group said in a statement on its website on Friday.
According to Zhong, many lawyers are continuing to fight for their rights, and for those of their clients, however.
"It's really not an easy thing to do, as they could be detained, beaten up, or sent to prison at any time," he said.
Zhong said he left China because he doesn't see any let-up in the crackdown.
"This isn't going to stop in one year or two," he said.
Zhong, who in 2012 threatened publicly to resign from the ruling Chinese Communist Party if it didn't implement political reforms, said he witnessed continual political and personal interference in cases he presided over during his time as a judge.
"So-called sensitive cases would have to ... be passed by a sentencing committee and then again by the party's politics and legal affairs committee," Zhong said.
"This was interference by the executive arm of government, and also by vested interests," he said.
He said that in recent years, the judiciary in China has been used as mostly as a tool to maintain the party's grip on power.
"This means that there is little oversight, as the police, prosecution and the courts all play along," Zhong said.
Zhong said he never envisioned leaving China, and is now in the U.S. as a tourist, unsure what to do next.
But friends are warning him not to return, for fear of immediate arrest.
Zhong said the lack of judicial independence had prompted him to leave the bench and become a lawyer, before becoming embroiled in the latest crackdown.
"In China, you can't really take a stance on anything, because you have to think about your family," he told RFA.
"There's always that fear there, particularly since this huge operation against lawyers starting on July 9, when even people who had just tweeted a couple of things were getting hauled in for compulsory chats with the state security police," he said.
"The state security police came knocking on my door on July 14."
Reported by Ka Pa and Ho Shan for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.