When we buy pistachio nuts from the store, their shells are always open. Pick one up with the opening facing you, and you’ll see a smile. That’s why Chinese people call pistachio nuts “happy nuts” and make it a tradition to eat them during the Chinese New Year. The processing of the food before it is sold, however, isn’t that joyful. In unfavorable weather or when the tree is infected with fungi in the Alternaria genus, pistachio nuts will be harvested with their “mouths” shut. When that happens, the tears of many people create that smile.
William Huang is one of the people who spent their youth cutting open the nut shells with pliers. During an interview he told me that he had to work at least sixteen hours a day. The work was done in Cell No. 27 of Zhuhai 2nd Detention Center, which according to Huang was less than twenty square meters big and was home to over twenty people. The room was full of products and the raw materials that they are made out of. To attend to natural calls one had to climb through these materials to reach the latrine pit in a corner which was not separated from the rest of the room. The room was never cleaned and the air was turbid. Huang witnessed a prisoner dying, not because he was beaten, but because he couldn’t stand the environment.
Huang recalls the bed that he shared with all the other detainees as a single piece of big wooden board, which, during day time, became the table on which they processed pistachio nuts and other goods such as ornamental flowers and Christmas lights. Huang has shockingly seen these exact same products on the shelves of the grocery stores that he is now shopping at in the United States.
Huang goes on to say that the nuts came from a factory nearby. When they arrived at the prison, each detainee was given a pair of pliers. From 6am to 10pm—sometimes until midnight and even overnight—every day, they were made to create slits on the nut shells. I was stressed by Huang’s description of the work: Hold the tiny nut in one hand, and the pliers in the other. Carefully, press on the pliers and cut the shell—not too hard, not too soft. You have to do it slowly and with strength. Yes, that is hard, and over time it leads to blisters forming on your hand, or old blisters breaking and thus releasing pus and blood, which then might drip onto the nuts. But remember, it is not acceptable to make the slit too big or too small, nor to break the shell even a bit. Doing that to too many nuts would result in less profit for the factory and the prison guards, which meant punishment of all prisoners in the cell.
What kind of punishment? The ones that were imposed on Huang include being forced to squat for three days consecutively, being deprived of sleep for a month, and being shocked with high voltage electric batons. But don’t be too careful either, because those two fierce eyes of the prison guard are constantly staring at you. How dare you do the work so slowly? Huang said that if the prison guard is in a good mood, maybe he will just have you stay up all night to finish the required amount of work, but if he is not happy at the moment, then you might be subjected to violence. What’s more, don’t breathe hard no matter how stressed and tired you are.
According to a prison guard, right before they were sent to the detention center, the pistachio nuts were fumigated with industrial bleach to expel borers and to make their color brighter. Because of the poor environment, the nutrition deficiency, and the lack of sunlight and exercise, most of the detainees were sick, and Huang has seen some of them faint while cutting open the nut shells because the bleach was concentrated.
So what crime did Huang commit to be treated that way? “Subverting the political power of the state,” in other words, not agreeing to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) atheistic ideas and exposing its crimes against humanity.
Huang’s story began in 1998, when he was a student in Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University majoring in precision instruments and mechanics. At that time, the traditional Chinese cultivation practice Falun Gong was very popular in China. It consists of exercises and meditation but also requires its practitioners to improve their character.
According to government estimates, within seven years since its introduction to the public, 70-100 million people were practicing Falun Gong, and its central book, Zhuan Falun, was listed as a bestseller by the Beijing Daily, the Beijing Youth Daily, and the Beijing Evening Daily. Huang recalls that there were Falun Gong practice sites in almost all the parks in China, and in Tsinghua’s campus alone, there were ten of them.
Since its teachings on morality attracted him, Huang started doing the practice that is based on truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance in the beginning of that year. As a university student, Huang had to spend a lot of time studying, and if he sat for too long, his legs would get cold. However, within a month after he started practicing Falun Gong, this problem disappeared. He became more energetic and was able to concentrate on his studies more.
Besides, Zhuan Falun answered his question about the purpose of life, and guided (and is still guiding) him to be a better person. He found that after following Falun Gong’s teaching, he was also able to resolve problems better. As a result, in the Moral and Intelligence Assessment that year, he came in first in his class for both aspects, and later he was accepted into a PhD program in Tsinghua without testing.
Huang’s story was just one of many. In 1998, the Chinese government did a health survey on 12,731 Falun Gong practitioners, and found that their overall rate of health improvement through practicing Falun Gong was 99.1 percent. Of the 80.3 percent of the practitioners who had obvious health improvement, 58.5 percent experienced complete recovery of sickness. Besides, 96.5 percent of the practitioners felt a significant improvement of their mental well-being.
An overseas example could be Sterling Campbell, drummer of the B-52’s, who no longer had the desire for smoking, drinking, and taking drugs within a month after he started practicing Falun Gong, or Retired computer programmer Jane Chen, who after reading Zhuan Falun, accepted the fact that her son is mentally retarded, and began to find her happiness.
But despite the benefits that Falun Gong has brought to the society, the Chinese government’s suppression of Falun Gong began. The CCP saw Falun Gong’s popularity the same way it did with religions like Christianity, Buddhism, and Muslim. Since there were more Falun Gong practitioners than CCP members, the CCP, especially the then president Jiang Zemin, felt that Falun Gong was threatening the people’s loyalty to the Party and the president.
Huang’s copy of Zhuan Falun was a pirated edition, because since 1996, Falun Gong books have been banned from publishing. Since then the police had been interfering with the Falun Gong practice sites all over the country. Some broadcast unpleasant noises with loudspeakers, some drove tractors next to the practice sites, and some even used high-pressure hoses to shoot water at Falun Gong practitioners to force them to leave the practice sites. Huang mentioned that he and other Tsinghua students were forbidden to put up Falun Gong banners, and Tsinghua’s secretary of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party told them not to be involved in Falun Gong affairs.
On April 11, 1999, Teenager Expo, a magazine in Tianjin, published an article comparing Falun Gong to the Boxer Rebellion, a violent movement at the end of the Qing dynasty, or late 19th century, that was anti-foreign and anti-Christian. Since the article was full of fabrication, many Falun Gong practitioners went to the editorial office of the magazine to tell the editors their own experiences and to ask them to retract that article.
On April 22 and 23, armed policemen beat Falun Gong practitioners in front of the magazine’s office and detained 45 of them. Then they suggested Falun Gong practitioners at the scene to go to the central government in Beijing to address their grievance because the Public Security Bureau was involved in this matter, and they could not release the practitioners without the authorization from the central government.
So on April 25, over 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners gathered outside the State Council Appeal Office, which is near Zhongnanhai, the Chinese leadership compound, to request the release of the detained practitioners and the lifting of the ban on Falun Gong books. Soon after the petition began, the police told the practitioners to follow them to Zhongnanhai. They divided the practitioners into two columns, and instructed one column to match from south to north, and the other from north to south. As a result, the two columns met at the gate of Zhongnanhai, encircling the compound.
Although representatives from the practitioners were able to talk to the then premier Zhu Rongji and the detained practitioners were released, Huang heard that some plainclothesmen took some practitioners from foreign provinces to an unknown place, and Falun Gong was later incriminated for “besieging the central government”.
Then, just a few days later, Huang said, some Chinese Communist Party (CCP) agents spread the rumor that some Falun Gong practitioners planned to go to Xiangshan (Fragrance Hill), a park in Beijing, to set themselves on fire on May 1. And more was yet to come. On June 10, the CCP formed the 610 Office specifically to persecute Falun Gong. This agency has absolute power over each level of administration in the CCP and all other political and judiciary systems.
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