BEIJING – He Peirong’s voice was last heard on Friday morning, when she was talking to Bob Fu, the head of the U.S.-based nonprofit group China Aid. Fu said he was communicating with He via Skype when she said that state security agents had arrived at her home. Nobody has been able to contact her since then.
He, an activist, is one of the many people who assisted Chen Guangcheng’s daring escape from a year and a half of house arrest last week. The blind lawyer and human rights activist is now allegedly under the protection of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
But his family members and friends are still subject to police detention and harassment, a contradiction to claims by some people that his brutal persecution was only a single case by the local government in Shandong province, where Chen is from.
U.S. relations with China are being put to the test over the fate of Chen Guangcheng, a blind Chinese dissident who escaped from house arrest in China and is believed to be in the U.S. embassy or another safe site. NBC's Ian Williams reports.
Among those who have disappeared is another helper, Guo Yushan, a Beijing-based human rights advocate.
Guo was taken away by police on April 26, but released Monday night. Shortly after he was let go, Guo answered a phone call from the Hong Kong paper Apply Daily, claiming he was one of the organizers of Chen’s escape. He also confirmed to Apple Daily that some of the local villagers were also arrested for assisting the breakout.
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However, when NBC News tried to reach him by phone multiple times Tuesday, his phone went silent again. He allegedly had a conversation with police Tuesday morning.
At least three of Chen’s relatives have been detained by police, including his brother and uncle. Chen’s mother, wife and 6-year-old daughter are still under siege at their home in Linyi in eastern Shandong province by dozens of thugs, who stopped journalists’ attempts to enter their home after his escape.
Chen Kegui, a nephew of Chen, is also on the run now after he stabbed two unidentified men who broke into his home Thursday night when they took his father.
According to a report from the British newspaper The Guardian, Chen Kegui’s wife wouldn’t even tell their lawyer Liu Weiguo where she was hiding herself, too frightened of being dragged away like her relatives. But even the lawyer wasn’t exempt from the pressure from the authorities.
Chen Wuquan, another Guangdong-based lawyer, told NBC News that Liu sent him a text message early Tuesday morning, saying he had been summoned by police and was under heavy surveillance. NBC News tried to contact Liu many times, but his cell phone remains off.
Cat and mouse between censored and censors
Meanwhile, the Chinese government is enforcing its strong will to hide the news from the public.
On China’s most popular Twitter-like service, Weibo, searching for names like "Chen Guangcheng" or "He Peirong" only leads you to some unrelated posts of funny videos, a predictable result.
But in the past few days, tweets with other words that netizens have been using as code words to avoid censorship, including "blind man," "sightless," "sunglass man" and "Shawshank Redemption," have all miraculously disappeared.
Threads guiding users to foreign media reports also have been deleted -- hours or sometimes minutes after they are added to Weibo. The wrestling between the censors and the censored is turning into a cat-and-mouse game and a test of imagination.