When three dozen Westerners suddenly and peacefully appeared on Tiananmen Square with a simple message nine years ago, the story made media headlines worldwide. But it also carried hope to the dark corners of China’s slave labor camps, and shook up the plush offices of Chinese consulates around the globe.
The regime’s web of control was breached in broad daylight right in the symbolic heart of Beijing on Nov. 20, 2001 by 36 practitioners of Falun Gong.
They quietly converged from Europe, Australia, and North America at a pre-arranged point, at 2:00 p.m. on a sunny Tuesday. They posed, chatting and laughing, as if for a class reunion photo. Then, on signal, most sat down and crossed their legs to meditate, while a few stood tall to hold up a large, golden banner reading “Truth Compassion Tolerance” in English and Chinese.
For a moment, the principles of Falun Gong were displayed openly, while behind them the Chinese words written on Tiananmen (the “Gate of Heavenly Peace”) formed a backdrop that has seldom been more accurate: “Long live all the peoples of the world united together.”
Twenty seconds later police vans surrounded them, and the world witnessed a microcosm of the persecution of Falun Gong in China: police dragging away peaceful people while tearing down the words “Truth, Compassion, Tolerance.”
“Such an act scared the Chinese authorities,” Chen Yonglin, a former diplomat at Sydney’s Chinese Consulate, said in an email. “[They feared] a massive assembly which would lead to the collapse of the communist government.”
The consequences of such peaceful actions had been dire for Chinese practitioners of Falun Gong: At least five had been beaten to death for doing the same thing that year.
By November 2001, more than 300 Chinese practitioners were confirmed to have been killed by the regime. The actual numbers tortured and killed for their belief today are still unknown, but are likely in the tens of thousands, according to the Falun Dafa Information Center.
Before the persecution campaign began in July 1999, Chinese authorities estimated that between 70 and 100 million people practiced Falun Gong in China. The U.S. Congressional-Executive Committee on China cites foreign observers in reporting that as many as one-half of those in China’s labor camps are Falun Gong. This would be a number in the hundreds of thousands.
Lemish said he was sitting in the Falun Gong meditation position with his eyes closed when the police swarmed over.
“I heard car doors slamming and the sound of boots on concrete running, more and more cars, and doors, and policemen yelling—there seemed to be a lot of commotion all around us,” he said. “But at that moment, I felt my heart was smiling. In spite of fears and hesitations and obstacles—we had done it.”
Canadian Zenon Dolynyckyj, reflecting on his decision to join the group, said, “There was something much larger than me, that went beyond me, my personal life, and the scope of one individual.”
Dolnyckyj had a second banner strapped to his leg in case the main banner didn’t make it to its place on the square. While the others were getting pushed, pulled, and dragged into the circle of police vans, he broke free, pulling the banner out and yelling “Falun Dafa Hao!” (“Falun Dafa is Good!”).
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