TORONTO—It was six months living in Canada before Zhen Dong stopped looking over her shoulder, stopped wondering if the person walking behind her might work for the security forces or have ill intentions.
That was 2009. On Oct. 10, six years later, she is marching through the streets of downtown Toronto with hundreds like her, showing their support for the over 180,000 people in China and some 27 other countries who have filed lawsuits against former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin.
Most of those lawsuits were filed by people who still live in China. It is a bold challenge to the man who sent so many like them to their deaths.
For Zhen, today is a happy day. She is free and doing what she believes. Her story begins with a love of her traditional culture
‘Truthfulness, Compassion, and Tolerance’
Zhen had a passion for traditional Chinese philosophy, and had studied Buddhism and Daoism looking for insight into life.
“The books of Falun Gong explained further from what I was seeking, regarding the ancient wisdom of Chinese culture,” she explained.
“Falun Gong is based on truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. I do think these are the universal values for people all over the world.”
Like some 100 million others, she eventually took up Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa. Introduced in China in 1992, it is a practice of meditation and self-improvement that rapidly gained popularity through word of mouth due to its benefits to physical and mental health.
Every weekend at a large stadium near South China Normal University in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, where Zhen attended school, some 6,000 would gather to practice.
“The practice of Falun Gong really made them experience being a healthy person. I think that’s the main reason people spend time, one hour or two hours in the morning, to practice,” she said.
“I was just one of them.”
Zhen was one of three people who used to bring the music player used for the exercise music. For this reason, police would later label her a key organizer—a label that came with a heavy burden within the Chinese labour camp system.
In 1999, former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin banned Falun Gong and began an intense effort to vilify the practice. There were sporadic arrests before that, but overnight a massive campaign of persecution was launched.
‘It’s a Good Practice’ That Benefits People
Zhen said that at first she was naive. She thought it was all a misunderstanding, and made several attempts to appeal to the government.
“I really wished to let the government know that from my personal experience, it’s a good practice. It is something benefitting people and the government should allow it to go on.”
It would take being kidnapped four times and being tortured in a labour camp before she finally understood that it did not matter if Falun Gong was innocent, and it was not a misunderstanding. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), acting under Jiang, simply wanted the practice extinguished, at any cost to the Chinese people or the nation.
Zhen’s first arrest was on July 22 in 1999, two days after the persecution began. She tried to fly directly to Beijing to appeal. But police had already identified her as a so-called organizer, as undercover security forces had been taking photographs and documenting Falun Gong practitioners for months before the persecution was officially launched.
“At the airport, I was not able to get onto the airplane. I was actually kidnapped to a small room and kept there. Then I saw many others kept in that room.”
Police tried to force them to watch CCTV, the state broadcaster, and newscasts vilifying the practice, but to the people locked in that room it was just so much nonsense.
“It didn’t tell the truth. From our own personal experience, together with thousands of people who practiced every week, we knew very well it was a good practice, so it is not something the government can turn over from white to black overnight.”
She was 23 at the time, in her last year of her post-graduate studies in English literature. She found the idea of the government trying to force her and others to give up the practice ridiculous.
“But this is not the way the Chinese government likes the young people to think. I was going to get into big trouble.”
Arrests and Detentions
Zhen’s repeated attempts to appeal and the fact that she helped bring the music to the practice site would turn her into a target.
Each detention would get more severe. In total she would spend nearly two years in detention centres and labour camps.
Her last arrest came one night when she was visiting friends, fellow Falun Gong practitioners. They were five people, about to have dinner. Police called it an “illegal gathering.”
“You can be put in jail because of this. You get together. You speak to people who practice Falun Gong. After so many years, looking back, it is totally absurd that if you speak to a fellow practitioner, that can put you in jail.”
There was no trial. They were just taken away, first to a detention centre, then to a labour camp. When Zhen was given a reason for her incarceration, she was incredulous. She was accused of disturbing the social order.
“That was funny because I was visiting my friends, and we were talking inside the house. And that is how they regarded me as disturbing the social order. That happened in 1999.”
That was the last time Zhen saw many of her friends. They were put into different detention centres, then different labour camps, and given different sentences. Some of those friends lost their lives. Zhen keeps herself composed telling the story, but she begins to swallow more frequently, and the lighthearted smile that is her normal expression fades away. One of those who passed was a very dear friend.
“He was put into a male labour camp and lost his life. It was 2002 or 2003, I can’t remember exactly. I heard later he was beaten very severely with the electric baton because he continued to practice, even when he was in jail.”
She knows of too many tales like this. Her own story could have easily ended the same way. She was also beaten severely, and tortured in ways that she didn’t think were possible. She said she never imagined there could be so many ways to torture a person.
“I just cannot believe, if I did not experience it myself, that there were so many kinds of torture. They actually give them names like flying the airplane.”
This torture requires the victim to bend over with the arms extended and to stand that way for hours. “And then they will kick you with big boots.”
It is excruciating. And unlike other forms of torture, it does not exhaust the guards. As bizarre as it may sound, beatings and other forms of torture can be physically taxing. That is the reason one of Zhen’s torture sessions ended.
A police woman had taken her to a private cell and then beat her with heavy shoes.
“She beat every part with the shoes, [using them] like weapons, until she became tired. It was not me that became tired, she beat and beat until she became tired.”
Zhen was then put into a private cell, where others would not see her wounds. This is one of the methods used to keep torture secret.
“At that time, I was kind of scared, because I thought if I died there my family would never know where I died and why I died,” she recalls. She says she was lucky, as many others did not survive, and for many the story of their deaths remains hidden from the world.
But even then, Zhen still had some hope the Chinese regime would realize the goodness of Falun Gong. She still had hope that the efforts of detained practitioners to tell the guards and prison officials about the peaceful practice would help them realize these were just people who wanted to follow their belief, to try to achieve truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance in their everyday lives. These are the ideals that guide Falun Gong practitioners in their pursuit of spiritual enlightenment.
Looking back, Zhen thinks maybe she was too naive. When asked what made her change her mind about the regime, what made her give up hope that the communist regime would come to a better understanding of Falun Gong, she said it was after she had experienced too much torture.
Life in a Labour Camp
For much of the nearly two years she spent in detention, Zhen was at a labour camp on a lake island in Guangzhou. It took a ferry trip to get there.
Her days consisted of 16 hours of making plastic flowers for export. She knew they were for export by the English packaging and from comments from staff at the labour camp.
“Very bad food, very little sleep, very long hours of labour—that is the life of the labour camp,” she said.
One memory that sticks with her is when the relative of a practitioner smuggled a copy of Zhuan Falun into the prison. This book is the main text of Falun Gong.
“That was very important to us,” Zhen said.
The book was eventually seized by a prison guard. This prompted about 10 practitioners to go on a hunger strike. About a week in, Zhen gave in because there were threats of force feeding, a violent procedure that often results in internal wounds.
“I have a fellow practitioner, and he was the first person who died in Guangzhou and it was because of the force feeding. His name was Gao Xianmin.”
“I was afraid some disaster may happen so I gave up the hunger strike, but three of my friends did not give up.”
After the force feeding, they were covered in blood. That’s when Zhen saw something she didn’t believe was possible: The hair of one of her friends turned white overnight.
“Now I believe a person’s hair can turn white overnight because of the pressure, the torture. This is something I cannot forget.”
Zhen was released when her family members signed a contract with the prison that they would monitor her outside the labour camp and prevent her from practicing Falun Gong. Often families are charged severe fines as well, but Zhen’s family escaped that injustice.
Escape to Canada
That was 2001. Zhen then tried to resume her studies. But when she applied to the Ph.D. program, she was told she would not be able to pass the political exam due to her history of practicing Falun Gong.
“At that time I realized I would never get any chance in China, not in my study or future career.”
There is a policy in China that all government-related departments and offices cannot employ Falun Gong practitioners.
Zhen found one job though; she managed to attend a private university to become a teacher. She then planned her exit from China, to immigrate to Canada.
By then she was married. This was after an engagement that had been stretched to eight years, as both she and her fiance completed various sentences in prison and labour camps for practicing Falun Gong.
She chose Canada as her new homeland and made her way here in 2009.
The day she left China, she was scared. She wondered if the guards at the airport would arrest her like they did that first time she had tried to fly to Beijing from Guangzhou. They didn’t.
“I just felt like a bird flying in the sky, the moment I left China. Of course, I felt sad at the same time because it is the country I was born and grew up in. And I knew I would not be back for a long time.”
Zhen remembers crying the first time she attended a group study site in Canada. It was 10 years after the last such study group she had attended in China.
Since then she has joined many activities and worked to raise awareness of the persecution still ongoing in China. She shares a deep appreciation for her life in Canada.
“I believe all people deserve this freedom, including all the people in China,” she says.
“Freedom and democracy are just like the air for everyone. We all need it, but it is unfortunate that in China, they don’t have it.”
Zhen said she didn’t immediately realize how different Canada was. For the first six months she was here, she still felt the phantom pressure that haunts Chinese people.
“I think I was still under the pressure and fear, looking around to see whether there was some suspicious people around me. It is just something very deeply instilled in your mind.”
But step by step the fear melted away. Zhen said it is like something in your blood that has to be purified. Time helps.
“I don’t have such fear anymore. I can feel and breathe and think just like any person in a free world. I am just enjoying the best state of being a person, being a human.”
Suing Jiang Zemin
Zhen is among those filing lawsuits against Jiang. She is still writing out all the details of her persecution. The imprisonment, the torture, the things she saw inflicted on her friends.
She said some people in China don’t yet realize the nature of the Chinese Communist Party, the regime that rules the country. For others, it is just too hard to speak out. They are afraid. The CCP has the police, the courts, and a massive security force. For those who realize the sinister nature of this regime, speaking out is a terrifying prospect.
“I do believe that a lot of Chinese people live in fear all their lives. Even they might be wealthy, they might be better off than before, but such fear will never go away. So this kind of mentality will haunt them all their lives.”
The result is this: They live their lives avoiding the wrath of the regime, obeying whatever the government says, trying to act the way they are supposed to act, think the way they are supposed to think.
Jiang is now facing more than 180,000 criminal lawsuits for his central role in orchestrating the violent persecution of Falun Gong. Under the current climate in China, many of Jiang’s allies are being imprisoned on corruption charges by CCP leader Xi Jinping.
Many of those marching in Toronto on Oct. 10 believe it is just a matter of time before Jiang is among those being purged in China.