“I told the truth about Falun Gong to customers and managers in our company, to friends in other workplaces, and sometimes I would talk to passengers on the buses or people shopping in the stores. Sometimes I would say: ‘Falun Gong is good! A friend of mine practices Falun Gong and he’s a very good person. He went to Nankai University and works as a lawyer at the Bank of Communications. Everyone knows that university and everyone knows that good boys and girls can go to this Nankai University.’
“The CCP is so bad because they would persecute such good people. When I told this story to the passengers or my friends, they agreed with me.”
This is a common scene in China today. The speaker is a 40 year old Falun Gong practitioner named Yanwei. Since 1999 she and others who practice the discipline have been “clarifying the truth” across China.
They talk to people directly about their positive experiences with the set of five exercises and moral teachings known as Falun Gong, once massively popular in China. And they talk about the terrible consequences for those who persist in practicing, even though the practice has been outlawed by China’s repressive communist regime.
She tells stories like the above to colleagues, friends, and strangers, as a way of counteracting the intense propaganda campaign waged against Falun Gong since July 20, 1999. Before then, tens of millions of Chinese would greet dawn every morning across the country, in public parks, squares, and on the side of the street, with the set of five slow-moving exercises and meditation.
“You know, in our city there were more than 20,000 practitioners doing the exercises at that time,” Yanwei explains.
Ten years ago she took up the Falun Gong practice. Her mother, father, and several family members all regularly practiced the exercises and studied the texts before the persecution.
Falun Gong was introduced to the public in 1992 by Li Hongzhi. It was one of the many “qigong” practices spread widely during the 80’s and 90’s that attracted hundreds of millions of Chinese from all walks of life.
Qigong refers to a variety of traditional practices that involve slow movement aimed at regulating “qi,” or “energy.” Falun Gong was different from other forms of qigong that focused mainly on healing and fitness. It emphasized a central doctrine of “truthfulness, compassion, forbearance,” spoke of not being overly concerned about wealth or reputation, and taught to look at one’s own conduct when encountering hardships. It rapidly gained in popularity, and in 1998 the official Chinese Sports Administration estimated there were 70 million practitioners.
Falun Gong’s growth inside China was cut short in mid 1999, however, when then-leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Jiang Zemin outlawed the practice and demanded it be eradicated. He is said to have instructed that “no measures are too excessive” in eliminating the practice.
Explanations for Jiang’s campaign include jealousy of the group’s founder, Falun Gong’s immense popularity, and a crisis of legitimacy for an unelected autocracy, disconnected from the common people.
Now, people like Yanwei have gone underground in China, practicing at home and distributing material about the discipline and its persecution anonymously in letterboxes or bicycle baskets. Yanwei says she persists in this because Falun Gong has taught her that the true meaning of life does not lie in worldly gain, but in purity of the heart.
When quizzed by incredulous work colleagues, she would ask them rhetorically: “What’s wrong with Zhen-Shan-Ren?” (the words for “truthfulness, compassion, forbearance” in Chinese). She said she explained the benefits of the practice to friends and colleagues, and affirmed to them her right to determine her own faith.
Luckily, Yanwei is not one of the hundreds of thousands who have been captured by security forces and sent to a forced labor camps, brainwashing classes, or prison. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2007 International Religious Freedom Report, there are estimates that half of those held in China’s labor camps are Falun Gong practitioners.
According to survivor reports on Falun Gong Web sites practitioners in labor camps are routinely beaten, starved, or tortured, sometimes to death, in an effort to have them their recant their beliefs. The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture, among others, have reported on such systematic abuse.
The story of her friend Xiaowang, a 30-year-old male who worked as an assistant engineer in an electrical factory, however, is less fortunate:
“Because he was very famous in his workplace, everyone knew he was a practitioner. He was forced to write a statement guaranteeing not to practice Falun Gong anymore, but he refused to write it. He was put in prison and was very badly beaten,” Yanwei said.
“His head was beaten in like a basin. He was beaten heavily, by three to four policeman, they used the electric clubs to beat him. Every evening, every night, another practitioner had to help him eat his food, because he could not move.”
Xiaowang was not cowed and escaped from prison. He was originally from Shijiazhuang, a city near Beijing. But he spent his three prison years in Northeast China. There, he met Xiaowu, another young man who practiced Falun Gong, and they traveled back to Shijiazhuang together.
Now destitute, and fugitives because of their beliefs, they took it as their mission to travel the country helping other practitioners break through the internet blockade. They stayed for a while at Yanwei’s house, and, after teaching her and others in the city how to use the internet, moved on.
Yanwei was never caught while she was in China. She escaped to Australia in 2007 with her young daughter, one among many in a steady stream who are able to enter developed countries as refugees. She was forced to leave her husband in China. Thousands of Falun Gong refugees have similar stories.
Shijiazhuang, Yanwei’s home, was one of the many cities struck by the coordinated, nationwide effort to “crush” the discipline—“within three months” was Jiang’s original goal. All of the “Assistants” in the city—a name given to those who volunteered to teach others the Falun Dafa exercises, and acted as contact points—were arrested, had their homes raided, and were detained in unknown locations by July 21, within the first 24 hours of the campaign being launched.
When Yanwei and her mother saw this they decided to travel to the appeals office in Beijing to explain the situation to the central authorities. They had two main messages, she said: to explain the benefits of Falun Dafa, and to protest the illegal activities of the police in her city.
Yanwei’s husband almost pleaded with her not to go. He was five years old during the Cultural Revolution when his family was torn apart by violence. His parents were labeled “counter-revolutionaries,” and were beaten, paraded through the streets, and verbally attacked.
“This is a government of terror which will not reason with you,” he told her. Yanwei and her mother considered it their duty to go. She said that he simply slumped onto the couch and sighed; he could barely sleep or eat for days afterwards.
Police were crawling over the train platform to Beijing, Yanwei said. The police had photos of the founder of Falun Gong, called Master Li Hongzhi by adherents. Anyone who did not look like they belonged to the regular commuting traffic was pulled from the crowd and asked to spit or step on the photo, and to curse Falun Gong. Failure to do this would deny them a train ticket, or land them in jail.
The task of identifying Falun Gong practitioners was easy for police immediately following the beginning of the persecution on July 20; many were old women from the countryside who do not usually travel to Beijing.
At the station, Yanwei’s mother was pulled aside, and Yanwei was forced to leave her behind. Police also searched luggage without warning during the journey. Falun Gong literature would be confiscated and the possessor arrested.
In Beijing, there were more police than pedestrians around the appeals office, and they were also searching bags and demanding to know why people had come. Yanwei’s copy of “Zhuan Falun,” the main book of Falun Gong, was thus discovered.
She and her friends were arrested, had their passports confiscated, were muscled into a waiting police van, and taken to the nearest sporting arena, which had been converted into a giant prison for the Falun Gong practitioners who had traveled to Beijing.
She reflected on this occurrence, given that “Zhuan Falun” was on the Beijing best seller list in 1996: “I felt an immeasurable sorrow, because I could not have imagined that the day would come when one would be forced onto a police van and treated like a criminal, just for being in possession of ‘Zhuan Falun.’”
“During the course of my life, I had always been a good student, a good employee, and after practicing Falun Dafa I was an even better person,” she said. “This was the first time I had been in a police vehicle.”
Thousands had been rounded up across Beijing and put into sporting arenas for the day. Use of the toilet was limited, and they were treated harshly by police.
Yanwei remembers one of the women who had spoken out against the arrests and demanded an explanation. “A police officer gave her a kick, and she fell to the ground. A number of police officers verbally abused her while they surrounded her, and kept pushing her down and slapping her face, until her nose started to bleed.
“At that time I wanted to walk up and stop these criminal actions, but did not do so due to fear.”
Later in the night they were sent back to where they had come from. They were forced to register with officials, who obtained their names, addresses, workplaces. This information, Yanwei explained, was used in the ensuing years to harass and arrest followers.