CHICAGO—Remaining true to one’s beliefs—we all wonder whether, if tested, we could do that. At a demonstration opposite the Chinese Consulate in Chicago on Friday evening, three Falun Gong practitioners who recently fled mainland China talked about keeping faith amid persecution and the meaning for them of the date April 25.
Early in the morning of April 25, 1999 over 10,000 practitioners of the spiritual discipline Falun Gong suddenly appeared on the streets of Beijing seeking the Central Appeals Office, the place where all Chinese have the right to bring complaints about the authorities.
Police directed them to stand several rows deep on the sidewalks of the streets surrounding the compound housing the offices and residence of the Chinese Communist Party’s top leadership, a place called Zhongnanhai. The practitioners stood silently the whole day, and, when they left, picked up the policemen’s cigarette butts and other trash off the streets.
The resulting pictures of the practitioners “surrounding” Zhongnanhai made news around the world and would be used later in the Party’s propaganda, which sought to portray the practitioners as threatening.
Two days before, some forty Falun Gong practitioners had been beaten and arrested in the nearby city of Tianjin. Concerned that this marked a dramatic escalation in official harassment endured for the past few years by practitioners throughout China, the 10,000 gathered to ask the regime to release those arrested in Tianjin and to guarantee Falun Gong practitioners a safe and legal environment in China.
Among the ten thousand were Yu Chao and his wife Tonnia Chu, both now in their early 40s. Trained as engineers at China’s elite Tsinghua University, Yu Chao worked for a company that set up computer networks, and his wife was a lecturer at the university.
Recalling the decision to go to appeal 15 years ago, Yu Chao said, “The night before I told my wife, once we step out our door, we will turn our lives over to what is totally unknown to us. But we have to do it.”
“When some power forces you to speak 2 + 2 = 5, people should speak out that 2 + 2 = 4,” Yu Chao said. “If we can’t do that, what kind of world will we leave to our descendants?”
While Yu Chao speaks passionately, his wife speaks slowly and gently. Her words seem to leave an eddy of calm in the noise of Chicago’s busy streets.
“At that time I didn’t think much about the result,” Tonnia Chu said. “I thought we were peaceful and had only a small request. I thought the leaders of China would agree.”
After China’s premier, Zhu Rongji, met with three practitioners appointed on the spot to represent the group, the leadership did appear to agree, as all requests were granted.
The regime’s paramount leader, Jiang Zemin, had other ideas. In a letter he sent to the Politburo the night of April 25, Jiang expressed alarm at how many people were practicing Falun Gong—official estimates were over 70 million—and at how the growing numbers included members of the security forces and the Party.
Jiang also saw Falun Gong’s teachings, based on the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance, as a threat to the Party’s official atheist and materialist ideology.
Three months later, on July 20, the state’s full fury was unleashed in a campaign to eradicate the practice of Falun Gong.
Vivian Jiang (Jiang Wei), an English teacher in China, and her husband, Sun Yi, a salesman, got married in July 2013. In November they traveled to the United States for their honeymoon, where they have since stayed.
When Vivian is asked what April 25 means to her, the words come tumbling out, but she doesn’t speak directly about April 25. She needs to tell her family’s story.
When Vivian was 13 years old, her mother, Sun Xiaohui, was introduced to Falun Gong by Vivian’s former grammar school math teacher, a very kind and thoughtful woman named Liu Guihua. Sun learned the practice’s meditative exercises and began studying its teachings.
Vivian’s mother changed. She began treating Vivian more kindly. She stopped quarrelling with her husband. She took better care of her mother.
Vivian and her father were amazed. In January 1999, Vivian began reading the basic text of Falun Gong, the book “Zhuan Falun,” as did her father.
When the persecution began, Sun Xiaohui, the school teacher Liu Guihua, and others from their practice group made the trip from their homes in the far northeast of China to Beijing, where they protested on Tiananmen Square.
Vivian’s mother was arrested and spent 10 days in a labor camp. When she returned home, she and her husband were both fired from their jobs because she refused to give up Falun Gong.
Liu Guihua spent more time in labor camps and on August 3, 2002, she died in one, killed by torture and abuse.
Liu’s death shocked Sun Xiaohui and Vivian. The mother and daughter discussed it and decided that such things would happen until more people in China understood what Falun Gong is and how it was being persecuted. They had to do more.
“We told one another the teachings of Falun Gong are so important, we should never give them up,” Vivian said. “We should remain true to our beliefs.”
In July 2006, Vivian set up a computer and printer for her mother and taught her how to use them. The two of them began printing out articles from the Falun Gong website Minghui and distributing them in the area.
On April 15, 2007 policeman broke down the door of the family’s home. Sun Xiaohui, without even stopping to put on her shoes, stepped away from the computer, slid out the window, and began running, barefoot, away from her home.
Sun is still running. Homeless, she moves from place to place to stay one step ahead of the police. According to her mother’s neighbors and family, the police, 7 years later, still stop by looking for her.
Vivian said she and her husband are using the freedom they enjoy in the United States to try to tell more people about Falun Gong and the persecution.
Yu Chao and Tonnia Chu moved to the United States with their son in May 2013. On Aug. 13, 2002, the two of them stepped out of the gate of their subdivision in Beijing and were arrested by a squad of police. Each of them served ten years in prison, suffering torture and brainwashing. Their young son grew up without his parents.
Tonnia Chu has no doubts about the practitioners going to appeal on April 25, 1999, or about the efforts since then by millions of practitioners, including her and Yu Chao, to try to peacefully change things.
“My family was hurt very badly during these years,” she said. “But this was the right thing to do.”
“The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has always handled things with struggle and violence,” she said. “On April 25 over 10,000 people used peaceful means to express their feelings and make their appeal. This will be remembered in history.”
Yu Chao sees the events that have unfolded since April 25, 1999 as a miracle.
“April 25 shows me that compassion will conquer evil,” Yu Chao said. “After April 25, 1999 Jiang Zemin boasted he would eliminate Falun Gong in 3 months. 15 years later, Falun Gong has spread all over the world.”
“Our practitioners have endured so much killing and torture, but they strive for fundamental human rights with completely peaceful behavior. I think this is a miracle.”
Each morning Vivian Jiang gets up, turns on her computer, and surfs the Internet, looking for any news of her mother. “No news is good news,” she said. “So long as I don’t hear anything about her, I believe she is safe.”
Vivian longs for the day that her mother and father can be reunited, and they can visit her home here in the United States.
Yu Chao believes that day is not far off. “The CCP’s days are numbered,” he said with a smile. “I think this dark night will not last long.”