Grandmother Gao was 54 years old when she was first arrested.
It was mid-1999 in China and the communist party was running scared over the popularity of Falun Gong—a spiritual practice whose numbers outgrew the total communist party membership within seven years.
Ms. Gao Jinying, a Falun Gong practitioner, was incarcerated for a year, including three months in a small cell with no window and a metal door. There was a small hole in the door where food was shoved through. Her toilet was a bowl in the corner. Each day, the guard would bring in a pile cardboard for her to make boxes, which were then sold full of Chinese goods.
“They forced me to watch videos and read articles that slandered Falun Gong,” said Ms. Gao through a translator. “If they had gotten me to stop practicing they would have been promoted, [but] every day I recited the teachings of Falun Gong. I never wanted to give up.”
Falun Gong practitioners make up 66 percent of torture victims in China and there are an estimated 3 to 6 million Chinese detained in forced labor camps, as reported by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, Dr Manfred Nowak, in 2006.
Ms. Gao was among them.
Arrest and subsequent torture were almost inevitable for Ms. Gao, who had endured police entering her home each day without warrant for months before her arrest—sometimes they even stayed overnight. Her grandson would tremble at the sight of police officers or a knock at the door. Eventually the police took away their house permit, effectively assuming ownership.
Then-president Jiang Zemin led a campaign of ransacking practitioner's homes, burning piles of Falun Gong books in the streets, and harassing Falun Gong practitioners in their workplaces.
An extra-judicial organization, employing one million was formed under Jiang's explicit direction—with the sole purpose to eradicate Falun Gong.
It was under these circumstances that grandmother Gao spent a year of her retirement in a detention center. The former grade school teacher was hauled off in front of her family one evening by six to seven police officers.
“In China the police are very evil. If they want to arrest you they will,” Mrs. Gao said.
There was no arrest warrant and they claimed her crime was “illegally organizing practitioners to attack Zhongnanhai” (the Chinese Communist Party’s central compound) in Beijing.
Protesting in Silence
Two months earlier, Ms. Gao had been one of 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners who had silently appealed for a day near Zhongnanhai. The appeal was spurred by the beating and arrest of 45 practitioners in the city of Tianjin.
“The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) always persecutes the good,” said Ms. Gao. “Falun Gong is so good. So many people in China are practicing Falun Gong, so the CCP tried to eliminate it because the CCP is so evil.”
A six-year period of homelessness began with Mrs. Gao's arrest. After being released from the detention center on a suspended sentence, Ms. Gao returned home, grabbed her husband, and they went on the run.
“We needed to avoid being arrested,” she said.
The next few years were difficult. Ms. Gao stayed in more than 80 locations to avoid persecution. The length of her stay in these locations was short, ranging from a few hours to a few months at most.
But, she said, "No difficulty could change my resolve to practice Falun Gong."
In 2002 police traveled 2,000 miles from Ms. Gao's hometown in Handan City to Shenzhen City and arrested her and her husband. It was the last time they would see each other for four years. They were detained in separate rooms in a small hotel that had been transformed into a brainwashing center.
The police divided into three teams and took turns interrogating Ms. Gao, not allowing her to sleep. This lasted nearly a month before the police tried to transfer her to a detention center. The center refused to take her as she was on the verge of death. She was then taken to a hospital. At 2 a.m., while the guards were sleeping, Mrs. Gao managed to escape and took a taxi out of the city.
Her husband, meanwhile, was handcuffed to a bed for more than two months.
The difference in methods used by the regime in persecuting Falun Gong practitioners between 1999 and 2002 was vast, said Ms. Gao. “In 1999 they just wanted to get information from us and make us give up our belief. In 2002, it was huge mental and physical torture.”
It wasn't until 2006 that Ms. Gao and her husband were reunited. Both had escaped to Thailand on separate occasions. After being accepted for United Nations refugee status, Ms. Gao and her husband finally found freedom in the United States at the end of 2007.
"During this period, more than ten Falun Gong practitioners who were close to me were tortured to death,” Ms. Gao said. “More practitioners were arrested, sent to forced labor camps, and sentenced to prison.”
Ms. Gao considers herself “one of the lucky ones” and now makes an effort to tell people about Falun Gong and the persecution in China.