'Heroine' in Chen escape speaks
He Peirong, who helped blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng escape from house arrest last month, has found her sudden fame hard to cope with.
These days, journalists ring her phone non-stop, and she is overwhelmed by the attention from international media, which have portrayed her as a fearless heroine.
Having risen to fame from anonymity, the blogger - known online as Pearl - who rescued Chen from his captors in Linyi, Shandong province, has never thought of herself as a rights campaigner.
'I was just an accidental activist,' she told The South China Morning Post by phone yesterday.
Chen, a self-taught legal advocate who exposed forced abortions and sterilisations in Shandong , fled from house arrest on the night of April 21, sneaking out of his village, where he had been under detention with his family for the past 19 months.
He spent nearly 20 hours fumbling his way out of the heavily guarded Dongshigu village, breaking a foot scaling a wall and crossing ditches and a river in the dark. The activist, who lost his eyesight as a child, went without food and water the whole time and fell 'at least 200 times', he later told friends.
It wasn't until after he got out of the village that he got in touch with Pearl. She said Chen was helped to safety, and hidden, by many people - most of them Good Samaritans who had never met him before. Strangers, for instance, helped him to make the phone call to her, she said.
Pearl, who happened to be in Beijing at the time, did not hesitate and drove six hours to pick him up. It took another few hours to find him. 'He was already out of Linyi, in a relatively safe place. Someone was hiding him,' Pearl said. 'He was helped by many people - many were afraid, but no one reported him.
'When we met, he squeezed my hands and said 'Is that you, Pearl?''
That was their first meeting.
Pearl drove Chen from Shandong to Beijing, a journey of over 400 kilometres. Along the way there were minor hiccups, including a burst tyre, which forced them to stop for help.
In Beijing, Pearl saw him into the hands of his associates there, then went home to Nanjing Jiangsu province . Chen was taken to the US embassy to seek shelter a few days later. The next day, Pearl was detained by police. She was held for seven days and released on Friday.
She said she was repeatedly asked by state security officers whether she had helped plot Chen's escape, but insisted she was only responding to his request for help. Pearl also refused to say whether she was the only person who drove Chen, but said at least six were involved in the rescue. She refused to give more details or name the others. Beijing-based activist Guo Yushan is known to have been involved.
After Chen had stayed at the US embassy for six days, China and the United States hastily reached an agreement to provide assurances that Chen and his family would be able live in safety on the mainland. But within just a few hours of leaving the embassy, he had a change of heart. He said he feared for his safety and wanted to leave for the US. Chen is now recovering in a Beijing hospital and awaiting documents to allow him to go to the US to study law.
Chen, who was jailed in 2006 for more than four years and, upon his release, immediately imprisoned in his own house, only came to know about Pearl after one of her many attempts to visit him last year. Like others who tried to visit him, she was roughed up, beaten by thugs and detained by police. She said she was bound with a rope, bundled into a car, driven miles and thrown into country fields more than once.
In one of her visits in January last year, she drove to Chen's village and thugs who were in charge of guarding him smashed her car's windscreen. Chen learned about the incident the day after from his relatives, and it made an impression on him.
Asked why a 40-year-old former English teacher was compelled to risk her safety to help Chen, Pearl said she could not stand to see an innocent man like him suffer.
She said she was particularly moved when she saw him appealing for help in a video that was smuggled out of his house and posted on the internet in February last year.
'I was very moved, and I decided I couldn't let someone like him suffer,' she said. She had tried, she added, to visit Chen six times since January 2011, and that the kidnappings and beatings had put strain on her physical and mental health.
'I know that place [Dongshigu village] is very dangerous,' she said. 'The more dangerous it was, the more I realised how horrendous it was for him.' But she stressed she is not a dissident and refrained from criticising the government.
Now, she said, she needed to rest and think about her future. She said she was interested in working for an NGO or doing voluntary work.
'I hope, in time, people will forget about me,' she said. 'When people forget about me, then I can start doing what I want to do.'
She said she hoped more people would take risks to help others in society. 'The quality of society depends on the quality of the people in it - I hope everyone can speak out, then the world will be a better place.'