With no plans for the future, an experienced airline pilot suddenly made a surprising decision to leave his wife, 12-year-old daughter, and a successful career in China to seek asylum. Mr. Yuan Sheng, a veteran pilot of 18 years at China Eastern Airlines based in Shanghai, flew into Los Angeles International Airport at noon on August 8 with 313 passengers on board.
Yuan, 39, spoke about his experience and painful decision to leave China, at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. on August 11. Through a translator, Yuan patiently told his story in detail and then answered questions.
"In the last 18 years, I have never had any accidents and won a silver medal for safe flying," he said. He has been making the equivalent of U.S.$3,600 per month in China—a very high salary for the mainland. "Overall, my work and family life are both quite good," he said.
Yuan looked clear and calm, although it also seemed that the reality and gravity of his situation was still sinking in. "I had never thought about leaving China before. I have a good life there ... But on the plane [to Los Angeles] the more I thought about my situation, the more uncomfortable I became. The thought to stay in America came so suddenly it even shocked me," said Yuan, still looking a bit shocked standing at the podium in the National Press Club, wearing his captain's uniform.
According to Yuan, his life completely changed soon after talking with a young man in charge of a ground safety check, just before the flight from Shanghai was scheduled to depart for Los Angeles.
From the young man's accent, Yuan thought the man was from his home town in Shandong Province. Yuan began chatting with him about the "Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party," a book-length editorial series published by the Epoch Times that gives an uncensored history of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). He suggested that the young man quit the CCP and also talked to him about the persecution of Falun Gong in China.
"The most serious incident policemen deal with now [in China] is the 'Nine Commentaries.' Having one copy of the 'Nine Commentaries' amounts to a four year prison sentence," he explained.
According to Yuan, soon after that conversation, the young man returned with four uniformed airport police. Later, two more police arrived, and one of them said "You definitely can't leave today! This issue concerns state security. It's too serious."
However, the crew of the flight argued with the police saying that it was too late to find a replacement pilot for Yuan and they could not leave without him. By that time over 300 passengers had boarded the plane, and the police were also concerned about assuming the responsibility for delaying a plane with over 300 passengers.
Life and Death Decision
Yuan was not very emotional as he recounted what happened. Only a few times did his voice shake, as when he said that his wife told him on the phone that she may be implicated and sent to a forced labor camp, even though she does not practice Falun Gong.
He also winced when speaking about his experiences in 1999 when the persecution first began in China. All the Falun Gong practitioners in his work unit were forced to write letters guaranteeing that they would quit practicing Falun Gong. He wrote one after many long brainwashing sessions and under intense pressure.
He says that letter is probably why he was not persecuted severely and why his family has been able to enjoy a good life at a time when so many of his fellow Falun Gong practitioners suffer. And yet he said that the day he signed that letter was the first time he had ever cried as a grown man. It is a decision he regrets to this day.
According to Yuan, he started to practice Falun Gong at the end of 1997. A former colleague who had immigrated to Los Angeles introduced him to the practice. At that time, Yuan's health was deteriorating, and his health improved dramatically due to his practice of Falun Gong.
"My wife knows that there is no legal justice for Falun Gong in China … If I go back, they would not be able to see me, and I might be tortured in prison just like other [Falun Gong] practitioners. She prefers that we be separated for a period of time, so we still have hope," said Sheng.
Why Risk Everything?
Yuan explained that if no one told the truth about the CCP, it would persecute people without restraint. He said that we can reduce the persecution by letting the international community know about it, since the CCP still fears outside pressure.
At the press conference, Yuan was asked if he is also a party member. Yuan replied, "In China, you need to be a party member in order to have a good job and a good life. So, under that circumstance, I also joined the party in 1999."
Yuan read the "Nine Commentaries" while in France in March 2005. "[It] helped me to realize the nature of the Communist Party and what it has done to the Chinese people in the past decades. So, I was determined to quit this party," he said.
Yuan said, "The Chinese media don't mention it at all. So, I feel it's necessary to let other Chinese people know the truth about the Chinese Communist Party. Only by letting more and more Chinese people know the truth, can the situation in China be changed gradually."
Jared Pearman, Washington, D.C. staff, contributed to this report.