The story of a prisoner of conscience in a Beijing labor camp
In an image that so rarely escapes from China, Zhang Lianying is telling her story of horror. She stands in front of a home video camera operated by her husband in a makeshift studio. She’s wearing a plain, dark green skivvy, and speaking quietly with a characteristic Beijing accent.
Zhang and her husband were among the over 8,000 Falun Gong practitioners who had their houses broken into and were arrested and detained by police as part of the regime’s Olympics preparations. For Zhang, it was her second time in a labor camp.
A follower of Falun Gong, the spiritual discipline persecuted in China since 1999, Zhang has gone through indescribable suffering. Arrested eight times, sentenced to forced labor three times, and nearly died 14 times, she persists in telling her story of survival.
“If I did not have firm belief in truthfulness, compassion and forbearance, solid conviction in the goodness of life, determination to live and the thought that I must not die, perhaps I would have died long ago, countless times, and left the human world forever,” wrote the 46-year-old late last year in a letter to a human rights hearing at the European Parliament. The part of her letter detailing her ordeal she called “Experiences Too Sad to Recall.”
There was a time when Zhang's life was untroubled. A university graduate, she was an official of the Guangda Group Ltd and a chartered CPA. She made a good living, and was afforded all the privileges of a modern, professional Chinese. In 1997 she and her husband, Niu Jingping, both started to practice Falun Gong. They gained health and a deep sense of inner peace.
When the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) launched a full-scale persecution of Falun Gong in 1999, everything changed.
Several explanations for the persecution have gained currency in media and academia. The CCP was paranoid at the popularity and cross-social strata appeal of the practice, and the then leader of the Communist Party, Jiang Zemin, saw it as an afront. Just as in previous political campaigns, where groups with their own ideologies and networks are attacked, Falun Gong became the new target.
“It was as if the sky had suddenly fallen and everything around me had changed. My work was suspended and I was asked to write self-criticisms and hand in my Falun Gong books. I could not understand. I was the same person, only having gained the understanding of life’s significance and meaning, and was trying to be better than a good person. I was receiving praise a day before, but the next day I was made never to raise my head again,” Zhang wrote in her autobiography.
As third party investigative reports and witness statements like Zhang’s indicate, in dealing with Falun Gong practitioners the regime demands absolute submission. Officials are sanctioned to use extreme physical and psychological methods to break the will. Victims say the more they refuse to submit, the harsher, crueler, and more brutal the torment.
Zhang's account is one among the over 60,000 documented cases of torture and mistreatment of Falun Gong practitioners in China. There are over 3,000 documented cases of deaths. The number for which there is no evidence is expected to be much higher. Witness accounts, photos, and video evidence like Zhang’s paint a harrowing picture.
In 2005 ten police from the Xiangheyuan Police Station in Beijing raided Zhang’s house and arrested her the first time, while she was feeding her one-year-old daughter. She refused to renounce Falun Gong, so police tortured her in the dispatch centre and locked her in an isolated cell in a women’s forced labor camp.
“The cell was about three square meters; the wall was high but there was no ventilation. The window was blocked and the cracks around the door were thickly covered, so there was no light even during the day,” Zhang said, looking into the grainy video camera as she told her story. “A loudspeaker pierced my ears. This was the beginning of a most painful two years of my life in labor camps.”
Zhang refused to wear a prisoner's uniform so was stripped of her own clothing and left in the freezing cell wearing only underwear. When the guards discovered that she did the Falun Gong exercises they poured water into the cell, filling it past her ankles.
To protest the treatment she went on hunger strike. Because the room was pitch dark she only knew the passage of time through the periodic, violent force-feedings administered by guards. Force-feeding is among the top causes of death of Falun Gong practitioners in custody, and has itself become an extremely painful torture method.
A number of government departments were involved in her persecution, including the 610 office—the agency set up specifically to persecute Falun Gong—police departments, neighbourhood watch groups, custodial stations, forced labor camps, and hospitals. At no time was Zhang given access to a lawyer or subject to legal proceedings.
During her time in custody she wrote letters to the courts, the Procuratorate, the Beijing City Forced Labor Camp Bureau, the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Justice, and the Dispatch Department, to tell them about what she was experiencing. She received no replies to her letters. One official from the Beijing Municipal Bureau came, and after learning that she had been strangled close to death nine times, asked to be taken to the small cell she was being kept in. He looked into her eyes and said firmly: "You must preserve your life! You must preserve your life." This was all a conscientious prosecutor could do against the persecution of Falun Gong, Zhang says.
In her cell, the screeching loud speaker the police had rigged up included the sound of a small girl crying out to her mother. Zhang said it pierced her ears day and night. “They knew I had a one-year old child, so they tormented me with this… it was extremely painful to hear the child’s crying.” She became peaceful when remembering the countless others like her, mothers included, who had safeguarded their beliefs in the face of such treatment, for the cause of the good of the universe, as they understood it.
She was kept in darkness in the cell for over a month. “When they removed the window cover and I could see light, I saw maggots crawling on the floor and around the toilet.” Her feet were rotten from standing in water, and her legs festered.
She did not see much light after the confinement, however, because she refused to renounce Falun Gong. “They tied up my hands and feet, lifted my feet and tied them to a chair, and used a rope from strips of bed-sheets to tie my neck to the back of the chair—so tight that I could not move. They put a cover over my head and made it tight with a rope.” She was tied like this for 50 days, left to defecate in her underwear. Later, they removed her soiled underwear from around her legs and put them over her head.
Falun Gong practitioners are often not tortured by police officers and officials alone. Criminals and drug addicts, called baojia, detained in the labor camps or prisons alongside practitioners, are encouraged to participate in the persecution, and rewarded for doing so. They act as informers and helpers for the guards and receive benefits like better meals and lighter treatment.
She was slapped, kicked, beaten, strangled, abused, deprived of sleep, had her breasts and vagina attacked. She was beaten or strangled into a coma 14 times. She says all parts of her body were violated and injured. Once, coming out of coma after being suffocated, she heard a chilling conversation between baojia:
The hesitant question “Will she die and never come back to life?” was answered immediately by another voice: “If she dies, we’ll say she died from a heart attack. We have quotas for this. Don’t be afraid. It doesn't matter. She will not die easily. If she is only suffocated for a few minutes, she will not die. We surely want her to have a taste of wanting to die but can't, and wanting to live but can't.”
In the long letter Zhang wrote to the Hearing on Human Rights in China held by the European Parliament in 2007, she listed over 50 torture methods used on her. “The pain I experienced was beyond description. One would rather die than experience such pain. In the intentionally-prolonged suffocation before death, time was extended endlessly and space was totally isolated. At such moments, the pain itself was not dreadful. What was dreadful was that you were not able to see the end of the pain. That was a dreadful experience of a life without hope. The dreadful despair could destroy one’s will to live. At such moments death was no longer a fearful experience but a release.”
She did not receive any sympathy in the labor camp, even from perpetrators who explained to her afterwards that they did not have a choice. Other guards, she said, were antagonistic. After witnessing the process of prisoners stuffing her mouth with wet towels to suffocate her, seeing her convulse, lose control of her bladder and bowels, and finally pass out, on the monitoring screen, repeatedly, a policeman by the surname of Wang who was sent to the camp by the Beijing City Forced Labor Camp Bureau, laughed and asked, "How was it? Felt great?"
During her two and half years in the labor camp her husband Niu Jingping was often refused visits; he once did not get to see her for 8 months. After seeing her condition he did his best to seek justice.
He carried their daughter, Qingqing, with him to more than 20 government departments, including the court, the Procuratorate, the Political and Legislative Committee, the Women's Association, the Police Department, the Judicial Bureau, the Forced Labor Camp Bureau, the 610 Office in Beijing, and a number of law offices. He was turned down everywhere. Some showed sympathy but none dared step forward. Lawyers said that since there was no legal evidence for putting Zhang in the labor camp there was no case for them to accept.
Once, when Niu and his daughter were refused a visit to see Zhang at the labor camp he demanded to see the person in charge and began to shout loudly at the gates: "Falun Dafa is good! Falun Dafa is wronged. Zhang Lianying is wronged.” A group of policemen came out with electric batons firing blue sparks into the air and hurried them away.
With no recourse Niu posted a statement about his wife’s persecution on his dilapidated motorbike. People came to look, but later he and the three-year-old Qingqing were arrested for it.
On May 21, 2006, Niu had the opportunity to meet with the Vice President of the European Parliament, Edward McMillan-Scott, who was visiting China. He told the story of Zhang’s torture, and her case was made known to the world. Niu was then put under surveillance.
Zhang and her husband were sentenced to two and half years in forced labor on May 13, 2008, according to the Falun Dafa Information Center. In July, she was secretly transferred from Beijing Women’s Labor Camp to Masanjia Labor Camp in Shenyang City of Liaoning Province, in what activists say was part of the process of ‘cleaning up’ for foreign journalists. For Falun Gong practitioners, the name Masanjia is bone-chilling, and is infamous for the reports which have emerged telling of especially cruel torture methods.
After police broke into the family home and took away both Zhang and Niu, their 4-year old daughter was left to be cared for by grandparents. It happened on April 20, the day of Zhang’s birthday.