Speaking on CNN’s "Starting Point," Smith said that while Beijing had allowed Chen to exit the country with his wife and children, his “extended family” in China was still at "grave risk."
“They are being retaliated against, they've shifted — ‘they’ being the Chinese government — from going after him and beating him routinely to beating his family, especially his nephew and his brother,” said Smith, who described the situation for Chen’s relatives and supporters in China as “very, very bad.”
Smith also warned that Chinese agents posed a threat to Chen’s life even in the United States.
He said dissidents often find themselves under Chinese surveillance overseas. "They are tracked, they are followed, they are harassed, so he will have to be watched, there will have to be an extra layer of protection here in New York,” Smith said.
“I think security at New York University might on the short term be sufficient, but I think he needs to be watched very carefully, because they do things like car crashes, or something happens that is made to look like an accident, so we need to keep a very sharp focus."
The New Jersey lawmaker, who has been a strong defender of Chen’s pro-human rights work in China, met the activist on his arrival in New York City on Saturday. Smith said Chen looked "good, but very weak. His ankle obviously was broken, which was why he was on crutches."
“He's going to have some time to heal because he has been through a trauma both physically and emotionally as well as his wife and children,” he added. Chen, a prominent human-rights activist, caused a diplomatic incident last month after he escaped from house arrest and sought refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing.
After leaving the embassy to return to a Chinese hospital, Chen said he feared retribution from the government and sought to live abroad in the United States.
After negotiations with the Obama administration, Chinese officials said Chen could apply for a visa to study overseas, a path taken by many Chinese citizens to leave the country. Chen, a self-taught lawyer, will continue his studies at New York University.
While Chen has expressed interest in returning to China someday to further his human rights work, Smith believes it would be too dangerous for him to do so.
“If he goes back, he and his family will be put in the cross hairs, retaliation will shift toward him,” said Smith.
Smith called the China's government a "brutal dictatorship" and suggested that Chen’s ordeal would awaken Americans to the true nature of that government.
"Most Americans I think get happy pictures of Beijing and Shanghai and maybe even if they go there and vacation, they come away with a Potemkin village impression," he said.