He Peirong, better known by her screen name Pearl, is a petite woman with a spine of steel. I know her because she spearheaded the movement to free dissident 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. Pearl, however, has been beaten and detained repeatedly for this extremely dangerous undertaking. When news of Chen’s escape from house arrest broke April 27, Pearl disappeared.
Pearl reached out to me about six months ago, suggesting that we collaborate her domestic Chinese efforts with my international efforts to free Chen. We have been friends, sisters in the battle, since then. Pearl has always been warm, signing her emails “love.” Other than that, she remains shrouded in mystery to me. She has never told me where she works or anything about her personal life. Our friendship is one-dimensional: we are both passionately committed to 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 Pearl, 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. Pearl 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, still wet from his fall in the river, another eight hours to safety in Beijing. Their plan was so masterfully executed that the authorities did not realize Chen was gone for four days.
Knowing Pearl, she would endure anything rather than disclose information that would get others in trouble.
Once authorities discovered that he was missing, the reprisals began. The Chinese Communist Party violently detained his older brother and nephew and beat his wife for two days, threatening to kill her.
As news of Chen’s escape was breaking, I Skyped with Pearl on and off all Thursday night from Dublin, where I had testified about Chen at the Irish Parliament. Pearl was alone and worried—about Chen, his family, and her own safety. Pearl knew that the price of securing Chen’s freedom might be her own.
At about 5 a.m. Dublin time, I Skyped Pearl one last time, and she did not answer. I soon learned that she had been detained, and no one heard from her after that. We didn’t know if Pearl was being tortured or whether her detention would last days, months, or years. No doubt, the Chinese Communist Party is eager to learn who her collaborators are. Knowing Pearl, she would endure anything rather than disclose information that would get others in trouble.
Pearl once asked me, if she ever were detained, would I work to get her out? I promised her I would do this, and I jumped on a plane to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday night to make good on this promise. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) agreed to raise Pearl’s case strongly and asked me to testify about her at a congressional hearing Thursday.
A young woman who worked with Pearl, Wang Xuezhen, also testified. She had accompanied Pearl on an attempt to visit Chen. Wang was beaten and strip-searched, yet she says others were treated far more brutally than she.
We don’t yet know the circumstances of Pearl’s release. On Friday, she wrote in an Internet post that she was safe at home. Let’s hope that this woman, who stood up for Chen during his time of greatest need, won’t be forced to pay a further price for all her courage.