He Peirong is a petite woman with a spine of steel. I know her because she spearheaded the movement to free Chen Guangcheng inside China, while I have played a similar role in the U.S. and Europe. That’s where the similarity ends. I have advocated for Chen in complete safety. Peirong, however, has been beaten and detained repeatedly for this extremely dangerous undertaking. Now, she is detained again, for rescuing Chen.
How did Chen escape? The Chinese Communist Party clamped down on him as hard as it could. His house was surrounded by 66 guards working in three shifts – 22 guards every eight hours. His village was sealed off by yet more guards. His phone, computer and television were confiscated. He was completely shut off from the outside world. Plus he was sick and injured from all the beatings.
According to Peirong, Chen spent months on his back, pretending to be near death, so that his guards would relax their vigilance. Then on April 22, with exquisite timing, he scaled a wall and ran for his life, taking several wrong turns and falling into a river because of his blindness. Peirong drove 20 hours to meet Chen and fooled the village guards into letting her in. She disguised herself as a courier. Then she drove Chen another eight hours – still wet from his fall in the river – to safety in Beijing. Their plan was so masterfully executed that the authorities did not realize Chen was gone for four days.
Once authorities discovered that Chen was missing, the reprisals began. The Chinese Communist Party violently detained Chen’s older brother and nephew, and his wife, children and mother are at risk as well.
As news of Chen’s escape was breaking, I skyped with Peirong on and off all Thursday night from Dublin, where I had testified about Chen at the Irish Parliament. Peirong was alone and worried – about Chen and his family, and about her own safety. Peirong knew that the price of securing Chen’s freedom might be her own.
At about 5:00 a.m. Dublin time, I skyped Peirong one last time and she did not answer. She had been detained, and no one has heard from her since. We don’t know if Peirong is being tortured or whether her detention will last days, months or years.
In pressing for Chen’s freedom, let us also press for the freedom of his rescuer, He Peirong, a hero in her own right. She stood up for Chen during his time of greatest need. The least we can do is stand by her as she pays a terrible price for her courage.
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