NEW YORK—Every year, hundreds of people donning bright yellow shirts would convene around this date, holding candles in hand while meditating to soothing music.
As the last rays of the sun laced the horizon with a myriad of hues, practitioners of the spiritual discipline Falun Dafa would gather in silence as the bustling rhythm of the surrounding metropolis carried on.
This year, owing to the current pandemic that has kept people around the world hunkered down in their homes, Falun Dafa practitioners decided to mark the occasion with an online vigil.
On April 23, more than 1,000 practitioners from across a dozen regions in the United States, along with those from as far as the UK, Taiwan, and Malaysia, joined an online platform to commemorate the 21st anniversary of April 25, 1999, when roughly 10,000 adherents gathered in Beijing to appeal to the central government for an environment to freely practice their faith.
Also known as Falun Gong, the ancient spiritual practice, which features meditative exercises and teachings based on truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance, received wide acceptance among the Chinese public in the 1990s. By the late 1990s, an estimated 70 million to 100 million people were practicing in China.
The Chinese regime ultimately didn’t grant the appeal. The atheist Chinese Communist Party (CCP) deemed the vast number of practitioners a threat to its rule and unleashed a nationwide campaign to eradicate the practice in July 1999, arresting and detaining hundreds of thousands of adherents, according to the Falun Dafa Information Center. Thousands are confirmed to have died as a result of the persecution, though the true number is likely higher.
This year was the first virtual vigil event. At 8 p.m., screens lit up with candlelight, as practitioners hoped to draw attention to the CCP’s ongoing human rights abuses during a time of social distancing.
The day is meant to commemorate the unwavering faith of practitioners in China, said Yi Rong, event organizer and president of the New York-based nonprofit Tuidang Center.
“We don’t want this day to pass in obscurity,” she told The Epoch Times.
Among those who attended was Tang, a native of the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, who took up the practice in 1996. He was a new college graduate with a lucrative job offer on hand when the persecution began in 1999. Having experienced firsthand the practice’s health benefits, he recalled the moment of shock he experienced when he found himself the target of a nationwide persecution, despite having done no harm.
He felt compelled to tell people the truth. He decided to travel to Beijing and unfold a banner declaring the truth about the practice, knowing that he risked never returning. It led to his first experience of incarceration inside a detention center. On the first day, guards physically assaulted him, dealing blows to his waist. Every hit would make him shriek in pain.
Over the years until he fled China in 2015, Tang was arrested eight times, spending more than six years in total behind bars for refusing to give up his faith. At a forced labor camp, he had to cut and polish glass pieces that were to be assembled into chandeliers for export overseas. His meals consisted of mushy food that “more resembled pig feed,” he said.
He was tortured with force-feeding three times, each time after staging a hunger strike over the right to meditate and to study Falun Dafa’s teachings. In one of his harrowing experiences, four or five prisoners pinned him down to a wooden board as a thick tube was inserted into his nose and down to his stomach and liquid was forced through. The prisoners repeatedly pulled the tube out and reinserted it, causing blood to stream out of his nose continuously.
Tang said some substance in the liquid also caused a burning pain in his stomach.
Since the persecution began in China, Han Yi, then only in primary school, said she probably spent less than two years with her mother, Wu Shunzhen, who was in and out of jail for roughly a decade, often with only a few months in between.
Han recalled a period of four months in 2004 when guards denied the family’s requests to visit Wu in jail. When Han was finally allowed to see her mother, she noticed patches of hair missing from her scalp. She eventually learned that her mother had been pulled into an abandoned building on the prison grounds with the curtains drawn, where guards tortured her. They deprived Wu of sleep, slapped her when she closed her eyelids ever so slightly, poured water over her body, and left her shivering in the cold.
During periods when Wu wasn’t detained, police officers visited Han at school and pressed her for the whereabouts of her mother or other local practitioners, threatening that Han’s own future was on the line.
Faced with mounting pressure, each practitioner made a conscious decision to persevere.
During the worst moments, when every minute felt like a year, Tang held fast to one thought: “Truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance are not wrong.”
“As challenging as it may get, I still have [these values] to guide my life,” he said.
He managed to escape to New York in 2015. Not long after, he joined the Tuidang Center, making daily phone calls to mainlanders explaining why they needed to sever ties with the CCP.
The grassroots “Tuidang” (“quit the Party”) movement has led nearly 355 million Chinese people to renounce their Party affiliations over the past 16 years.
While the current pandemic, what’s scarier is a regime that has been willing to endanger people’s lives in order to maintain its power, Tang said, citing the CCP’s history of outbreak coverups.
Wu was smuggled through Thailand and eventually sought refuge in the United States, where mother and daughter were reunited.
Now studying at Baruch College, Han said that reflecting on what happened inwardly has helped her to appreciate her mother’s tenacity while in China.
“Life is more than living in comfort,” she said. “An outside power won’t change what you have gained deep inside.”
Shao Changyong, who back in 1999 was an aspiring military officer, knew he was likely forgoing his career and all the associated privileges when he joined the 10,000-strong appeal in front of the Party headquarters in Beijing 21 years ago.
“As I look back on the past 21 years, it’s still the most honorable deed in my life,” he said.
A previous version of this article misstated the name of Han Yi ‘s school. She is studying at Baruch College. The Epoch Times regrets the error.