When three Australians decided to go to China and appeal for an end to a newly launched persecution by the communist regime, they did not know that their actions would spur international attention.
Twin brothers, Nick and Simon Vereshaka, and Ana Caterina (Kati), were among the first foreigners who practice the Falun Gong spiritual practice to travel to China and appeal the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) persecution of their faith.
They have not regretted that moment since, the trio told The Epoch Times.
“We just had the calling—that we had to tell the people around the world that Falun Dafa is good, and that it is being wrongly persecuted in China,” Nick Vereshaka said.
Weeks before their trip to China, the Australians had also visited Hong Kong to appeal persecution of Falun Gong—in hopes that the persecution would stop.
“We discussed it and I felt that it was worth the sacrifice because I thought that the Hong Kong rally would stop the persecution,” Kati said.
While doing the Falun Gong meditation exercises, Nick and Simon were photographed and their faces were later published by Hong Kong media.
“At the start of December 1999, they took a picture of us—me and my twin brother—on the front of the newspaper doing meditation in Hong Kong,” Nick recounted after finding out that his photo had been splashed across the front page news.
Nick had started practicing Falun Gong just months before July 20, 1999—the date when then-Chinese leader, Jiang Zemin, issued the order to ban Falun Gong, which according to official CCP estimates was being practiced by around 70 million Chinese—from factory workers to high-level CCP officials.
His brother, Simon had begun practicing a year prior, after which he said he experienced many positive changes in his life.
Upon returning to Australia after their appeal in Hong Kong, another Falun Gong practitioner, Kati, who later became Nick’s wife, told the brothers she also had others plans to appeal against the persecution—but not in Hong Kong.
“I told [Nick and Simon] about my intention to go to China and to appeal,” she said. “On hearing of my plan, they told me that they also wanted to come.”
Going to Beijing
The trio planned a two-week trip during which they planned to better understand the situation of Falun Gong practitioners’ in China and do some sightseeing before approaching the government to deliver a letter asking the leadership to stop the persecution and restore people’s right to practice Falun Gong.
“I thought that the worst thing that could happen to a Westerner was to be quickly and quietly deported, whereas the Chinese practitioners were putting their lives on the line, and only resorted to appealing on Tiananmen Square because all avenues of appeal to the Chinese government were blocked,” Kati said.
“They were given no other choice. I saw their actions as truly magnificent and brave.”
According to the Falun Dafa Information Center, the persecution of Falun Gong in China is one of the largest campaigns of religious persecution happening in the world today—where millions of innocent people have been fired, expelled, jailed, tortured, or killed simply for practicing Falun Gong. At any given time, 450,000 to 1 million adherents are incarcerated, according to estimates by the center.
Upon arriving in China, the trio could sense that the environment was vastly different to the freedom of belief they enjoyed in Australia. Hearing stories of other practitioners being locked up, beaten, and persecuted in the communist regime’s prisons, the trio said there was some fear.
“We did not know what would happen when going to China. It was terrifying,” Simon said.
On their first day in Beijing, they met with another practitioner from Australia, as well as a local practitioner. When asked where they wanted to go, the trio said they would like to see Tiananmen Square.
After they arrived, they were met with a scene that was packed with police officers and vans. The group decided to continue on ahead and walked through to the middle of the square, chatting among each other.
“We talked and wanted to get our bearings what to do next,” Kati added.
A few days later, the group went back to Tiananmen Square again where they came across another practitioner from Australia who happened to be a famous Chinese painter.
“She recognized us because we went to a lot of Sydney activities and she used the opportunity to give us the business card of the Australian Ambassador to China,” Kati said.
While they were trying understand what the Chinese painter was saying, they noticed a growing police presence surround them.
“So we gave back the card and left because we thought that she was putting herself in danger and we couldn’t really understand what she was telling us.”
The Chinese painter frantically gave Simon her number and they then parted ways.
“When we went away, I turned back and saw four guards standing around her and questioning her. Policemen then started following us,” Simon said.
“I turned around because they followed us … I smiled at them and they stopped.”
Now some distance away from Tiananmen Square, Simon’s phone kept ringing and he suspected that the police were calling him.
“Later, we heard that she [the painter] was put in jail and we realized that she wanted us to speak to the Australian Ambassador to help her,” Kati added.
The ensuing days of their trip would see the trio meet other practitioners as well as hear of first-hand experiences of persecution.
A memorable event was when the trio toured Xi’an in central China. They entered a restaurant where they were later approached by two people who asked them if they were Falun Dafa practitioners.
Not knowing whether they were going to be reported on but trusting that he could sense no ill intentions, Simon admitted to the pair that they were practitioners. Surprisingly, the people who approached them were also Falun Gong practitioners. They had recognised Nick and Simon from a photo they saw on Minghui.org, a U.S.-based website that serves as a clearinghouse for information about the persecution of the practice in China. The photo was off their appeal in Hong Kong.
“I think about the practitioners that we met. How brave they came to tell us their stories because the cameras were everywhere, and we were walking along the street to talk to them.”
Hand-Delivering Their Letter
Towards the final days of their trip, Nick, Simon, and Kati prepared themselves to present their letter to the Ministry of Cultural Exchange in Beijing.
However, as they weren’t sure how best to achieve this, Simon called a friend who lived in China to seek his advice. His friend told them that going to the state-run newspaper Xinhua news agency would be better as “at least they had an official role of distributing information,” Kati said.
Simon’s friend also suggested that they contact a few foreign media correspondents in Beijing that he had access to.
“In a matter of minutes, we had a good plan as well as being able to photocopy the letter on his personal fax.
“We signed each copy and headed for a department store to fax the letter to the different news agencies, informing that at 10 a.m. [the next day], we would be going to Xinhua to give the letter,” Kati said.
The trio were told that after the news agencies received their fax, the Chinese regime had gone and banned all unauthorised faxes.
The following morning, they went to Xinhua news agency. Waiting at the front was an Australian reporter from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), as well as an accompanying cameraman from The Associated Press.
The reporter asked who they were, took their details, and said that he would wait outside to make sure that they were safe, after which he wished them all “good luck.”
Simon, Nick, and Kati then entered Xinhua’s reception building not knowing that they would disappear for some time behind the doors.
“No one spoke English and the person on duty looked at us with annoyance,” Kati said. “I thought he must think that we are some bothersome lost tourists.”
The trio wanted to give their letter to someone in charge rather than the gatekeeper, but due the language barrier, they had no choice but to hand over the letter to reception. The letter had already been translated into Chinese.
“As soon as we said the words ‘Falun Gong’ and handed him the letter, his hand fell on the telephone like lead,” Kati said. “He started calling people.
“Soon, the reception room was filled with all sorts of people questioning us. One team would leave and another would come in.
“Finally, a team of uniformed public security officers came in. The person in charge of questioning us spoke English very well. He took our passports and tickets, and asked us to tell him who we met in China, and if we knew where they lived, what we did with them, and where else we went.”
The trio told the officers what they did but they did not disclose any names.
After a couple hours of questioning, the trio were told that they were being transported to another office “to answer more questions.”
To make matters worse, the Australians had not been allowed any phone calls to let the reporters, friends, and family know that they were being held for questioning and did not know what would happen next or where they would be taken.
When the trio failed to come back out of Xinhua news agency, it was reported that they had gone missing.
Kati then recalled that fortunately for the three Australians, as they were being transported, they were able to breathe a sign of relief when the public security officer “turned around and told us that since we don’t have too much time before our departure, they are taking us to their office at the airport,” Kati recalled.
Sure enough at the airport, they were asked the same questions all over again.
“They wrote statements that they wanted us to sign. Because it was in Chinese, we didn’t sign. I pointed out that legally, we couldn’t sign anything we cannot understand,” Kati continued. “They all became irritated but knew that they couldn’t do anything about it.
“Again, we explained that we didn’t do anything illegal but merely wished to communicate to the government in the hope of clearing the misunderstanding.”
The officers stayed with the trio until they boarded their plane where their passports were handed back.
Media Attention Back Home
Upon arriving back in Melbourne, Australia, a media frenzy ensued.
Nick and Simon’s father, who was waiting at the airport, held a newspaper in his hand where the front page had a photograph of the trio entering the Xinhua news agency in Beijing.
“[We were] the first Westerners, Australians,” Nick said, “but there were a lot of Chinese Australians going to China, and we heard that they were arrested.”
Reminiscing Their Time in Beijing
The trio’s appeal to the Chinese regime garnered support from those both inside and outside of China.
One Falun Gong practitioner in Melbourne, who had visited relatives in China at the time, told them that practitioners in China all were aware that three foreigners had visited China to give the government a letter in support of Falun Dafa.
Later, another Australian Kate, who would later become Simon’s wife, was one of 36 Falun Gong practitioners from overseas who went to Tiananmen Square to appeal against the persecution.
The group were also taken in by the police and held for questioning after they unfurled a large banner with the three words “Truth, Compassion, Tolerance”—the core tenets of Falun Gong’s teachings—written in Chinese and English. The practitioners, who had traveled from across Australia, Europe, and North America, were all later deported back to their respective countries.
Despite reports from the German embassy that police had also detained a German journalist who witnessed the protest, the incident eventually made media headlines worldwide.
When asked if their actions had inspired the 36 foreigners to go to Tiananmen Square to appeal to the Chinese regime, the trio said it was highly possible.
“When we went, nobody was thinking of going. It was only something we just thought that we needed to go then—it wasn’t timed,” Simon said. “So I felt that they were encouraged by us.”
The trio said that their appeal to the Chinese regime stemmed from a growing concern for Falun Gong practitioners in China in the face of persecution. Now, 20 years later, they continue to call for the persecution to end soon and for the persecutors to be brought to justice.
“My deep concern is yes, the practitioners are going through too much suffering. They truly are, and they will not give up their beliefs.
“It’s a human right to tell people the truth.”
Epoch Times reporters Beatrice Lee and Henry Jom contributed to this report.