Li Shanshan barely knew Zhou Xiangyang before he was arrested and sentenced to nine years in prison, a victim of the Chinese regime’s brutal suppression of the Falun Gong spiritual practice.
Still, she had no doubts about marrying him.
“We actually only met three times before he was sent to prison. We did not hold hands even once. I first heard about him through his family, friends, and letters. He touched my heart, so I agreed to be his wife and start my extraordinary life with him,” she wrote in an open letter published on Minghui.org.
Li soon learned that most of Zhou’s relatives had also been imprisoned for practicing Falun Gong—except for his brother-in-law, who took on the task of visiting them in prison.
Li wanted to see Zhou again and also help out, so on a cold winter’s day she set out to visit him at Gangbei Prison in Tianjin. Upon arriving there, however, she was told that only relatives could visit prisoners and was turned away.
But she didn’t want to give up. As she stood outside in the snow wondering what to do, she had an idea: she would ask a prison official to marry her and Zhou—that way she would be a relative and could visit him.
Her request stunned the prison officials. They had never been asked to perform a marriage before; what they did get were many requests for divorce due to couples breaking up as a result of the pressure of the nationwide persecution campaign launched against Falun Gong adherents by the Chinese regime in July 1999.
It was a valiant try, but Li didn’t get her wish to be married that day and neither did she get to see Zhou. But she persisted, and five months later prison officials finally agreed to let her visit him.
That was in December 2004. However, seven years would pass before he was released and the two were finally able to get married. Meanwhile, they both endured much suffering as the persecution campaign against Falun Gong practitioners raged on.
Appealing for Zhou’s Release
When Li first met Zhou in 2003, he had just been released from 18-months’ detention in various labor camps for going to Beijing to appeal for people to have the right to freely practice Falun Gong, a traditional meditation practice also called Falun Dafa based on the tenets of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance.
Due to the persecution, Li was forced to drop out of college because she refused to give up practicing Falun Gong, and Zhou lost his job as an engineer.
After Zhou was arrested again in 2004 and given the nine-year sentence, Li began appealing on his behalf in any way she could—despite a tremendous amount of pressure along with the risk of being arrested herself. She wrote letters of complaint to expose the torture and mistreatment meted out on Zhou and regularly called the prison director. She also continued trying to visit Zhou in jail, without much success.
The harassment and intimidation began in January 2006. Li was threatened for appealing for Zhou and followed by National Security officers. Then her home was ransacked and she was jailed for a month. Upon being released she was monitored at home, and then rearrested and sent to a labor camp for 15 months.
“I was only 25 years old at that time. I suffered forced labor and unbearable loneliness at the camp, but I do not regret appealing for Xiangyang,” she said in her open letter, titled “A Young Couple’s Tragic Journey: Zhou Xiangyang’s Fiancée Appeals Seven Years for His Release”
“The day before my term ended, a National Security leader came to the camp to talk to me. He tried to make me give up my appeals for Xiangyang. I told him solemnly that I would help any friend in need, and even more so my fiancé.”
When detained, Li almost suffered a mental collapse. After she was released, her family barely recognized her because she was so emaciated.
‘Anchor Torture’ and Other Abuses
Meanwhile, Zhou was going through hell in Gangbei Prison. He was repeatedly shocked by high-voltage electric batons, constantly subjected to vicious beatings, held in solitary confinement for long periods, and denied bathroom use, according to Minghui, which serves as a clearinghouse for information about the Falun Gong persecution.
As part of brainwashing tactics, he was forced to watch videos that slandered Falun Gong. He was also forced to perform grueling slave labor—despite being injured from the relentless torture.
He was once shocked with electric batons for an entire night, resulting in burns, wounds, and bruises all over his body. Another time, he was deprived of sleep for 30 consecutive days.
But one of the nastiest kinds of abuse Zhou was subjected to was the so-called “anchor torture.” In this torture method, the victim’s hands and feet are anchored to metal rings in the floor. The legs are split apart at a 130-degree angle, and both hands are pinned to another ring next to one of the feet. This position causes the victim to be in constant pain. The victim could be tortured in this way around the clock for several weeks or even several months. Some Falun Gong practitioners have died from the anchor torture, according to Minghui.
Zhou endured the anchor torture several times. After he undertook a hunger strike to protest the Falun Gong persecution, he was put in solitary confinement and “anchored” on the floor 24 hours a day for almost a month.
After a year on a hunger strike as well as being tortured, Zhou was in critical condition many times. He was made an “Urgent Action” case by Amnesty International and his case was also submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Commission.
On July 28, 2009, Zhou was released on medical bail before his prison term ended.
“When Xiangyang first came back from Gangbei Prison, he was very weak,” said Li. “He was 5′ 9” in height but only weighed 86 lbs. He could hardly walk by himself and he could only eat liquid food. Due to the anchor torture he couldn’t stand up straight and was not able to straighten his back for several months.”
But as soon as Zhou got back to practicing Falun Gong and regularly doing the slow-moving exercises, his body began to heal. The couple finally married on Oct. 26, 2009.
“Because of 11 years persecution, Xiangyang’s family lived a very difficult life, so we did not intend to hold a wedding ceremony. But Xiangyang had a very good reputation among family and friends, so many people offered to help us and organized a feast,” Li said.
“Finally, I could put on the white wedding dress that I had dreamed of for so long.”
Release and Re-Arrest
Their life together as a married couple, however, was short-lived. They were both arrested again on March 5, 2011.
After Li was released 20 days later, she began another round of appeals, writing letters to the prison where Zhou was held, the Domestic Security Division, and the procuratorate. A petition seeking Zhou’s release accompanying her open letter was signed by 2,300 residents of his hometown in Changli County.
For her efforts, however, Shanshan was arrested and sentenced to two years at the Hebei Women’s Forced Labor Camp. There, she was kept in solitary confinement for an extended period because she would not renounce Falun Gong and also forced to do slave labor. She wasn’t allowed to have any visitors for a year.
But the petition helped to gain Zhou’s release in April 2012. Now it was his turn to appeal for Li, and he immediately began efforts to rescue her.
He wrote an open letter to authorities titled “Pure Truthfulness and Pure Compassion, Being Wronged, and Placed in Danger.” He and his mother stood in front of the labor camp gates, telling passersby how Li had helped rescued him, and now she was imprisoned. Over 5,200 people signed a petition accompanying his letter to show their support.
Zhou wrote: “Do we really have to exhaust our youth and spend all of our prime years appealing and petitioning in order to uphold our belief and protect the basic right to religious freedom in this society?”
Li was released in November 2013 after completing her sentence. Just when it seemed they could finally have a peaceful married life together, on March 2, 2015, they were both again arrested.
This time, Zhou was given seven years at Binhai Prison, and Li six years at Tianjin Women’s Prison.
Li’s mother hasn’t been allowed to visit her because she, too, practices Falun Gong. When her father, who doesn’t practice, was granted a visit, Li was flanked by two inmates who admitted she had been tortured by being forced to stand for extended periods of time.
After Li told her father she was only given meager amounts of food every day, one of the inmates snatched the phone from her and no longer allowed her to talk.
According to Minghui, Zhou has been on a hunger strike for more than three and a half years, and every day he is wheeled to the prison hospital to be force-fed—a form of torture in itself.
“The long-term hunger strike and physical torment from force-feeding have left this 45-year-old man debilitated and shattered,” the report says.
According to the Falun Dafa Information Center, since the launch of the persecution campaign in 1999, millions of people who practice Falun Gong have suffered similar injustices as Li and Zhou.
“Millions of people have been subjected to wrongful imprisonment, “brainwashing” sessions, and torture, with thousands of deaths confirmed in custody” FDIC says.
“For the tens of millions of people who practice Falun Gong today in China, each day they live at risk of being taken away by Chinese authorities to be jailed, tortured—or worse.”