NEW YORK—At the end of the No. 7 subway line going into Queens is Flushing, the birthplace of religious freedom in America. It’s a place where the colorful banners of Chinese signs decorate the buildings, and where whole cooked geese hang in window displays. It’s a place where history is repeating itself.
In the 17th century Quakers fled Europe, where they faced fines, imprisonment, and execution for their beliefs. Yet their hopes to practice their religion freely in the United States soon vanished, as they were banished from colonies and faced death if they returned.
Yet in Flushing, then the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam where it was illegal to even house a Quaker, a group of 30 people took a stand for the freedom of all religions. In 1657, they signed the Flushing Remonstrance, a precursor to the Bill of Rights.
A similar situation is again playing out in Flushing. Immigrants who fled China hoping to practice their religions freely are facing discrimination on U.S. soil. While the Quakers faced the same discrimination against their beliefs as they faced in Europe, the Falun Gong practitioners in Flushing are facing the persecutory arm of the Chinese regime extending into the Chinese community in America. It is a persecution wrought by propaganda and the instigation of hatred.
Like the people in the original colony in Flushing, the people in Flushing today are taking a stand for freedom of belief despite opposition from the Chinese regime.
Ms. Zhang Weidi helps pass out materials exposing the CCP’s persecution against Falun Gong, and sometimes volunteers at a table for the Global Service Center for Quitting the Chinese Communist Party—which helps Chinese people withdraw from the CCP and its affiliated organizations.
Following a series of organized attacks against Falun Gong practitioners in Flushing, another table was set up in the community, where a group posts photographs of local Falun Gong practitioners and pass out materials that spread the CCP’s propaganda against the practice.
“It’s really heartbreaking to see this propaganda here,” said Ms. Zhang Weidi through a Chinese interpreter. “Basically, the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] has exported its persecution here.”
An Exported Persecution
Falun Gong was introduced to the public in 1992 by Li Hongzhi. With its free teachings and profound health benefits, it quickly became the most popular qigong practice in China, according to the Falun Dafa Information Center (FDIC), the official press office of the group.
The Chinese government estimated there were 70 million people practicing Falun Gong in 1999, the same year the regime set out to crush it. According to sources inside the CCP, then-leader of the Chinese regime, Jiang Zemin, gave directives to “destroy them physically, bankrupt them financially, and ruin their reputations.” Thus started a wave of propaganda, arrests, torture, and killing.
While the CCP had misled many people abroad through its propaganda—which was often repeated verbatim by foreign media writing about Falun Gong—it extended its campaign ahead of the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
At that time, hundreds of people on the streets in Flushing attacked Falun Gong practitioners, throwing eggs at them, spitting on them, grabbing and thrashing them about, most attached by cursing and threatening the practitioners.
Similar attacks were launched in Chinese communities around the United States and the world—including in San Francisco, France, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
Many involved in the attacks were members of Chinese organizations with ties to the CCP. They included the Northeast Hometown Association, the Overseas Chinese Ethnic Foundation, the Council of Chinese-American Associations, and the Fujian Consolidated Benevolent Association.
Chen Yonglin, a former political consul of the Chinese Consulate-General in Sydney, Australia, who defected from the CCP in May, 2005, explained the role played by Chinese associations influenced by the CCP.
“The CCP uses these community groups as front organizations to influence western government officials,” Chen said. “The purpose is to discredit and intimidate the five target groups: Tibetan exiles, Taiwanese, Uighur Muslims, democracy activists, and most of all Falun Gong practitioners.”
“Controlling the Chinese community is the CCP’s consistent foreign policy,” he said.
The head of Chinese consulate in New York, Peng Keyu was caught in an audio recording admitting he met with and encouraged the people involved in the attacks. In the recording from May 21, he states, “They came over after they fought with Falun Gong and I shook hands with them one by one and thanked them.”
“I went there the day before yesterday, and also three days ago,” said Peng. “I usually park my car far from the scene because I must avoid being seen.”
New York attorney Robert Gottlieb, who has been following the case in Flushing, told the Epoch Times, “That tape, which is a vicious signal by a foreign national of conspiring with other individuals to gather together to incite them to go out to beat people up merely for expressing their beliefs … really leaves no doubt of his complicity and certainly would be enough to have him expelled if the government chooses to do so.”
Ms. Zhang Weidi escaped China through Hong Kong with her mother on December 3, 2011. “I feel very fortunate that this is a free country where I can freely practice and follow my faith,” she said.
Yet the extension of the CCP’s propaganda in Flushing is opening old wounds. “To this day, in the evening when I hear a noise outside, it reminds me of my time in Masanjia,” she said. “I think, ‘which practitioner is going to get pulled out and tortured? Which one is going to die?’”
Back in China, Ms. Zhang Weidi spent three-and-a-half years in Masanjia, one of the CCP’s most notorious labor camps. It became known internationally after a note begging for help was found in a Halloween decoration box at a Kmart store in Oregon. The note, written on a sheet of onionskin paper, told of the Masanjia labor camp in northeastern China where prisoners of conscience do slave labor and are brutally tortured by guards.
At Masanjia, Ms. Zhang Weidi said screams from her fellow inmates kept her up at night. She was injected with nerve damaging drugs and tortured regularly. When she and others weren’t being beaten, they were sent to do slave labor while speakers broadcasted audio defaming her beliefs.
“I really don’t want to look back on those experiences,” she said. Tears welled up in her eyes. Her voice broke. “In order for more people to know what happened, what the persecution is like, I feel like it’s my responsibility to stand up and talk about it, to tell people.”
She was under the watch of a special team of a few dozen male guards assigned to break practitioners who refused to denounce their faith. She was held in a 300-square-foot room stuffed with about 20 women. “All of the windows were sealed with newspapers so there was no light,” she said.
One of her fellow inmates, she recalls, was a woman named Qui Qui Fang, who tried protesting against the orders of the guards. “She said why should I follow your orders? I committed no crime,” Ms. Zhang Weidi said. “So they pulled her into a small room next to the bathroom and beat her to death.”
She choked up as she held back tears. “Then the guards pulled her back to her bed, tied a rope around her neck, then made up the story that she committed suicide,” she said.
A woman named Xiu Shuhua was there during both of Ms. Zhang Weidi’s sentences. “Every day she was beaten, until her whole body was black. Even her bones were exposed,” she said.
Another woman, Ms. Zhong Shijuan, was from Dalian and had a 10-year-old daughter. The police had ransacked her homes so many times that the little girl went mad from fear. Ms. Zhang Weidi said the prison guards raped Ms. Zhong Shijuan with a broomstick until she became all swollen and bloody.
“At night she would scream a real miserable scream. It would wake the whole camp,” Zhang said.
Through a Child’s Eyes
Zhang Lianyin is a Falun Gong practitioner who also passes out materials in Flushing calling for an end to the persecution of her faith. In China, she and her husband were sent to labor camps many times.
In 2008, when Zhang Lianyin was walking on the street with her four-year-old daughter, a man suddenly pulled a black cover over her head. Zhang’s daughter watched helplessly as her mother was taken away in a van to the Masanjia Labor Camp. “She was crying and calling for ‘mama,’” Zhang said through a Chinese interpreter.
A neighbor picked up her daughter and sent her to live with an aunt, she said, but “From then on, my daughter no longer knew how to smile.”
She said the way she was abducted was a common sight in China, when Falun Gong practitioners were rounded up ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
It wouldn’t be the first time she was sent to a Chinese labor camp. When her daughter was one-and-a-half years old, Ms. Zhang Lianyin was put in a labor camp in Beijing. “They would beat me every day,” she said. “They would cover my face with plastic, with only my nose and eyes exposed, then beat my face with a fly swatter.”
“They were trying to force me to sign away my belief in Falun Gong. When I refused they would continue torturing me,” she said. “Those who refused to denounce Falun Gong, every day, every night they are beaten and tortured like that.”
“It was really a state where you wanted to die, but could not,” she said.
Yet, even her time at the Beijing labor camp couldn’t prepare her for what she faced at Masanjia.
She recalls when the prison truck arrived at the gates. Guards armed with assault rifles stood watch. After Ms. Zhang Lianyin called out “Falun Dafa is good,” a male police officer grabbed her face and dragged her inside a building. His fingers tore into her cheeks. “It was all bloody,” she said.
In the room, a group of guards beat her and kicked her. Later they handcuffed her to a bed and used handcuffs to beat her in the face. One of them was a female officer, Ms. Zhang Jun, the wife of the official who oversees Masanjia, Mr. Ma Jishan.
“In the middle of this beating, Ma Jishan came and used a rope to scratch against my mouth. The rope was totally covered in blood,” she said, adding that he then tried forcing her to ingest nerve-damaging drugs. “When he put it in, they asked me ‘are your hands numb? Are your arms numb?’ They were trying to totally destroy me,” she said.
Zhang Lianyin was also subjected to the “dagua” torture method. She was chained to a bed with arms and legs spread, as prison guards would pull her limps and beat her with clubs.
“It felt like they would pull me apart,” Ms. Zhang Lianyin said, noting that the torture would often last around 13 hours.
“For about half a year, my fingers, I couldn’t stretch them. I couldn’t do the buttons on my clothes,” she said. “Other people had to help me eat.”
Ms. Zhang Lianyin found out later that on Chinese New Year, her aunt found her daughter late at night crying in the bathroom. With her mother and father in labor camps, “She would say it’s Chinese New Year and I’m not sure if they have something nice to eat,” Ms. Zhang Lianyin said.
“We are very lucky we came to America,” Ms. Zhang Lianyin said. “When we were in China she was very scared. When I tried talking to her she would say we couldn’t speak because there were monitors.”
She recalls telling her daughter that when they would be in the United States, “nobody would take her father and mother away,” she said. “So when our flight was approaching Kennedy Airport, I was telling my daughter we were arriving in the United States, then my daughter, smiled for the first time.”
Living in Flushing has dampened Zhang Lianyin and her family’s hope of being free from persecution. At the same time it has heightened their resolve to call for an end to the CCP’s persecution against Falun Gong in China.
She said when her daughter first saw the people in Flushing who were cursing at Falun Gong practitioners, “my child went over to me and asked ‘why are they cursing?’ The child could not understand why someone in America would curse like this.”
“I experienced the Tiananmen Square massacre. I witnessed the killing and guns and everything. The CCP on the media and on the TV, they say they never shot at anything. They have always lied,” Ms. Zhang Lianyin said. “They killed so many Falun Gong practitioners, and then here they say we did something wrong. The CCP has always lied to and cheated people, and now they are cheating people here.”
Yet, in the face of persecution back home, and the regime’s attempts to slander practitioners abroad, Ms. Zhang and many other practitioners have hope. And that hope has led her and others to take to the streets where they pass out leaflets and speak to people about the nature of the persecution.
The approach Falun Gong practitioners take to stand against oppression is one of nonviolence—a belief that the greatest defense against lies is truth, and the greatest defense against malice is kindness.
Thus, the spirit of religious freedom that Flushing stands for lives on. Their stance is with the people of Flushing famously wrote in the Flushing Remonstrance in 1657, “We desire therefore in this case not to judge least we be judged, neither to condemn least we be condemned, but rather let every man stand and fall to his own Master.”