He Peirong: The heroine behind the dissident Chen Guangcheng

Teacher He Peirong played a key part in the remarkable escape of Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng. But, she tells Clifford Coonan, their victory cost her a heavy price

When He Peirong helped Chen Guangcheng to make his daring escape from house arrest last month, she knew that securing the blind lawyer's freedom put her own at risk.

As Mr Chen turned up at the American embassy in Beijing his case transformed into a major diplomatic incident between the US and China, grabbing media attention across the world. Back in Nanjing, Ms He disappeared.

The Chinese activist, who also goes by the name of Pearl, is a relatively recent convert to Mr Chen's cause.

Having angered local Chinese authorities by exposing brutal rural enforcement of China's one-child policy, Mr Chen was jailed for four years. On his release, he and his family were placed under house arrest in September 2010.

But it was only around a year ago, when Ms He heard of how he and his family were being mistreated at the hands of the guards that kept watch over their home, that she signed up to help him.

Braving several beatings and regular intimidation, she has been at the forefront of the campaign to free Mr Chen ever since.

Ms He first came to major prominence in the Chen campaign in October last year, when she criticised the Hollywood studio Relativity Media, when it reported its close contacts to the Communist Party in Linyi – the village where Mr Chen was being held under illegal house arrest.

In a statement announcing the start of shooting for the movie 21 and Over, the studio quoted the party secretary of Linyi municipal committee, Zhang Shajun, as saying he was a friend of Relativity's chief executive Ryan Kavanaugh. Ms He said that by co-operating with the local party on the project, they were ignoring Mr Chen's case.

It was a risky path for Ms He, an English teacher, to follow. Some of those who merely attempted to visit Mr Chen since he was placed under house arrest in 2010 are known to have been run off the road, beaten, strip-searched, and had their phones, money and documents taken by the guards paid to watch the activist by local authorities.

When Ms He was told Mr Chen had escaped, she drove for 20 hours to meet him, convincing the guards around Linji to let her past.

Having picked him up, she drove him the eight-hour, 450km journey to a safe haven in Beijing.

After Mr Chen surfaced at the US embassy days later, it was the details of this escape that security officers sought when they came calling at Ms He's home in Nanjing.

Refusing to cooperate, she was detained on 25 April interrogated by police for a week before she was allowed to return home.

"The police wanted to know how Chen escaped from his home, and who helped him escape," Ms He told The Independent. "But I refused to answer some of the questions."

Though Ms He says she was treated well during her time in detention, and was "allowed to have food and sleep normally during the seven days", she continues to face calls to reveal the details of Mr Chen's escape.

"They have been polite to me, but I am still facing huge pressure from police," she said.

Ms He has been widely praised for her role in Mr He's escape, with one commentator on China's microblog service Weibo even comparing her to Spiderman, "bravely going to dangerous places. She has been beaten and insulted in [Dongshigu]. She keeps her faith and courage".

But she has refused to discuss the escape further, only adding praise for Mr Chen's efforts. It is believed Mr Chen feigned serious illness for months before his escape, so that the guards would relax their watch over him and his home.

"When I got a call from him in the early morning of 23 April, he was already out of Linyi. Then I drove him to Beijing, and I left," Ms He said.

"I cannot tell you too many details, but I think at least six people were involved. I have to say that Chen is a very smart man and he has a clear mind. Any help given to him by others was limited. The main effort to escape came from him," she said.

Mr Chen remained in Chaoyang Hospital yesterday, where he is being treated for a broken leg sustained during his escape, as US diplomats tried to work out the details of how and when he will leave the country to go and study in America, after an apparent concession by the Chinese government.

He has been offered a fellowship by New York University, where his family can join him.

Last week, it appeared that the US embassy had struck a deal that would allow Mr Chen to stay in China and study in Tianjin. However, he started to fear for his family's safety and changed his mind, asking instead to be allowed leave and study in the US.

"The offer from the foreign ministry is a good choice for him," said Ms He. "He has the will to study, to have a normal life like anyone else, with his family. What we have done so far has hopefully helped him to win his basic rights, and I think with his force of will he will make the right decision [for his future].

"I don't want to comment on his position or try to influence his final decision," she added.

Safety in the US may be on the cards for Mr Chen, but those dissidents who would be left behind have expressed concern that little will change for them after his departure.

Even since Mr Chen moved to hospital from the US embassy, the crackdown on dissidents has been thorough.

Li Fangping, a human rights lawyer who once tried to represent Mr Chen in a court case, has been questioned by state security. Jiang Tianyong, also a human rights lawyer, said he was recovering from ear injuries after security agents struck him following an attempt to visit Mr Chen in hospital last week.

About a dozen overseas journalists in the hospital grounds were summoned by the public security office for violating regulations and told their visas could be revoked, according to the Foreign Correspondents Club of China.

The Chinese government still needs to grant Mr Chen and his family passports and exit visas in order for them to leave China for the US. Under Chinese regulations, that could involve a terrifying journey back to the village where they were kept prisoner.

Ms He did not want to comment on what might happen if the dissident stays in China.

"I think we need to wait for the result. He has had a difficult five years, what we have read from him is that he has always had hope and a belief in freedom and a good outcome.

"We can see his wisdom and his strength," she said.

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