Great escape ... an activist holds a portrait of He Peirong. Photo: Reuters
The woman who drove blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng to Beijing after his dramatic escape from house arrest in eastern China told how she sat down with security officers afterwards to watch the jailbreak movie, The Shawshank Redemption.
He Peirong said that five days after picking up Chen, she was taken from her home in Nanjing by state security officers "to assist with investigations". The officers interrogated her about whether she helped plan Chen's escape.
They couldn't believe it was true. They kept on asking me: did this really happen?
"They asked me every day: How did you move him out? How many people went? Was there any advance planning? How did you plan it? What were your roles?" He, pronounced "her", said, adding that the officers were very polite and did not accuse her of breaking any laws.
Blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng. Photo: Reuters
"They thought more than one hundred people were watching a blind man and they could let the blind man escape? They felt it was inconceivable," He said. "They couldn't believe it was true. They kept on asking me: did this really happen?"
In an odd twist, He said, The Shawshank Redemption was showing on television in the hotel room where three security officers questioned her and Guo Yushan, a Beijing-based researcher and rights activist.
The five of them sat together on the bed to watch.
Inspiration ... The Shawshank Redemption.
"After we finished watching the movie, I told the police officers: I want to tell you a story that is more exciting than this movie," she said, before recounting Chen's flight.
The Shawshank Redemption, a 1994 movie starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, tells the story of a prisoner wrongly accused of murder, his fight to clear his name and his eventual jailbreak.
It is now blocked as a search term on Chinese microblogs.
After taking refuge in the US embassy in Beijing, Chen became the centre of a diplomatic crisis just as top US officials arrived in the capital for previously scheduled talks.
The tale of his escape underscores his power to galvanise human rights advocates. Blind at an early age, Chen had campaigned against forced abortions and sterilisations used to enforce family planning goals.
He is now in a Beijing hospital, seeking medical treatment and awaiting permission to leave for the United States.
He Peirong said she had received a surprise email from a source which read: "The bird has left the cage. What do we do?"
"I understand. I'm in Beijing," He replied. She was in the capital, meeting friends.
By midnight the next day she had driven for six hours by car and arrived at the outskirts of Linyi city in Shandong. She was accompanied by Guo, but declined to give details on how many other people were in the car.
She was adamant that Chen planned the escape all himself, although it is difficult to conceive how a blind man could plan such a complicated sequence of events alone.
The account by He, who was released from seven days of detention last Friday, laid bare Chen's haphazard journey from Shandong to Beijing. There was no predetermined pickup point in Shandong, according to He, and when she and the others arrived, they searched for him for two hours.
Six people were involved in helping Chen after they learnt he had escaped, He said, declining to name who had decided she would pick Chen up. She said more than one car took part.
He, 40, also known as "Pearl", had campaigned for Chen's release on Twitter nearly every day for more than a year since she first learned that he was confined to his home after being released from jail in September 2010.
She tried to visit Chen in his dusty village six times since January 2011. Each time, she was blocked and thrown out of Shandong. Last June, she said, she was kidnapped and robbed twice by unidentified plainclothes guards in Shandong.
When He picked Chen up after midnight, it was the first time she had met him. By that time, the combative, self-taught legal activist had scaled walls and made his way through fields and farmland without water or food for 17 hours, she said. In between, he had slept in pig pens and fields.
At some point after his escape from his home, Chen was given assistance, He said, declining to name by whom. Chen understood that a woman named Pearl would pick him up, but Chen and He made no phone contact.
Chen was neatly dressed and appeared well rested, He said, suggesting that someone had taken him in for a short period of time. Chen had broken a foot from jumping over walls.
"Is that you, Pearl?" Chen said, when he got into the car. "Thank you. Thank you so much."
He Peirong said she alerted U.S-based activists that they may need to seek help from the U.S. State Department and members of Congress in Chen's case, and stayed in touch with them throughout. But He stressed that she had played a minimal role in the escape.
"I feel now my work is complete," she said. "Everything we've done has made him famous, very, very famous, and has attracted U.S. attention.
"Chen Guangcheng is now a free man. He has the ability to negotiate with the government now and to make his choices," she said. "I support any decision of his, and I wish him well."