Thirty-six Westerners from 12 countries quietly appeared in Tiananmen Square—the symbolic heart of China—with a simple message that shocked all those at the square the fateful day of Nov. 20, 2001. Their unprecedented protest soon made international headlines.
After group photos, most of the 36 Westerners from Europe, Australia, and North America sat down to meditate. Surprisingly, this was the courageous action that astounded many Chinese onlookers on that day, and it was their only crime that led to their arrest.
They unfurled a golden banner that read, “Truth Compassion Tolerance,” before the backdrop of a communist slogan that ironically reads, “Long Live the Great Unity of the World’s Peoples.”
Twenty seconds later, police arrived in vans, honking their horns like crazy. The next moment, police vans surrounded the 36 Westerners. Police began blowing their whistles all over the square, pushing away tourists and grabbing cameras from anyone caught holding one.
As the police made hasty attempts to tear down their huge banner, Canadian Falun Gong practitioner Zenon Dolnyckyj unfurled a smaller banner strapped to his leg, which read, “Falun Dafa is good.”
“America knows, the world knows, that Falun Gong is good!” Dolnyckyj cried out in Chinese while running across the square, prominently displaying the banner.
Falun Gong, also called Falun Dafa, is a self-improvement cultivation practice of mind and body that is based on the values of Truthfulness, Compassion, and Tolerance.
By 1999, there were approximately 70 million to 100 million Falun Gong practitioners in China alone, according to a state survey. Despite the practice’s much-acclaimed physical and mental health benefits, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) began a brutal persecution campaign to eradicate the peaceful practice on July 20, 1999.
Three police knocked Dolnyckyj to the ground, and one brawny man punched him in the face, fracturing his nose. Another young man from Sweden lay on the ground unconscious after being beaten.
“A young lady from France was grabbed by the throat and choked,” according to Dolnyckyj. And a man from Australia was beaten even worse than he, resulting in his hand being broken.
One by one, these peaceful protesters were pulled, dragged away, and thrown into police vans.
During a time when the entire world was fed fabricated lies about Falun Gong by the Chinese Communist Party’s enormous propaganda machine, why did these Western practitioners gather in Tiananmen Square despite knowing the danger ahead?
Here’s what they have to say:
Zenon Dolnyckyj, fitness coach, Canada
Dolnyckyj said: “I know Falun Gong is good because I have been practising for three and a half years. Because of practising Falun Gong I have been able to get over drinking, smoking, doing drugs and many other bad habits which only helped to pollute my heart, mind and body.”
“With the deepest respect I have come to your country to stand up for the truth for you. Please don’t believe the lies [of the Chinese regime],” Dolnyckyj added.
Read his full statement here.
Helene Tong, sales director, Taste of Life Magazine, France
Tong reasoned she went to China in response to the Chinese regime’s extreme vilification campaign against the spiritual practice, which has convinced Chinese people through misinformation that “nobody outside of China practices Falun Gong.”
“It’s more about the Chinese citizens, who were deceived by the Chinese regime into thinking that we were a cult, and that was so unfair. I really want to talk to them, to have them see, look, we are white, we are from so many countries and we practice Falun Gong, do you know that?” Tong said.
Lilian Staf, graphic designer, Sweden
Staf said: “Since the persecution started, more than 50,000 practitioners have been arbitrarily detained and more than 10,000 have been sent to labour camps without trial. In the labour camps rape and torture is rampantly used to try to force the practitioners to stop practising Falun Gong. As a result a lot of Falun Gong practitioners already died.
“Only through raising the awareness of the atrocities can we stop them.”
Read Staf’s full statement here.
Kay Rubacek, artist, Australia
“I’ve had so many health benefits, so many spiritual benefits, improvements in my relationships with my family and friends,” testifies Rubacek.
The Australian artist also mentioned that if anyone tried to force her to stop practicing Falun Gong, like what’s happening in present-day China, she absolutely wouldn’t comply.
“So I could understand why the practitioners in China wouldn’t either, and why they would go and appeal, and even risk their lives.”
Monika Weiss, retired film editor, Germany
“I’ve been working as a film editor for many years. And very often, I had interviews with Jewish people, and they were speaking about the Nazi regime,” Weiss said.
“I understood it so deeply how much manipulation comes out from [the] media, and how the Chinese government is limiting its own people.”
What Happened to Them After the Arrest?
They were put in a tiny cell in the Tiananmen Square Police Station. There, they came face to face with the dark side of China—one that is hidden from foreign investors and tourists.
“I started to look around the walls of the cell. I could see marks that looked like someone’s fingers had run their hands down, and there was some dirty kind of bloody stains there,” said Kate Vereshaka, from Australia, in the documentary The Journey to Tiananmen.
One Falun Gong practitioner from Israel, Leeshai Lemish, was beaten by the police in a small room.
The police later took them to a hotel, where they were given food and water so as to film them being “treated humanely.”
“What looks like a hotel, but is actually a public security facility. It’s all you know—two-way mirrors and rooms, and it’s just crawling with police,” recalled Adam Leining, an entrepreneur from the United States.
The police tried to force them to sign a statement wholly written in Chinese. They refused to sign, and hence some of them were violently struck in the face and stomped in the stomach.
Fearing the arrest would draw worldwide attention to this unlawful persecution, Chinese authorities eventually released the group after keeping them detained for 24 to 28 hours.
Sixteen years later, a documentary titled “The Journey to Tiananmen” was made about this remarkable story.
However, that’s not the case for the many Falun Gong practitioners in China who don’t hold foreign passports.
According to the Falun Dafa Information Center, over 300 Chinese practitioners were estimated to be tortured to death at the hands of the regime by November 2001. As of December 2020, at least 4,363 practitioners are confirmed to have died in the persecution (name list).
Moreover, per a 2016 report, tens of thousands of practitioners are believed to have been killed for their organs to fuel China’s lucrative transplant industry.