WASHINGTON—Wearing large glasses with her hair tied in a ponytail, 29-year-old Li Pushen looks like an average Chinese university student. Last year, she arrived in the U.S. from her home in northern China to complete her graduate program in film and theatrical production design.
But Pushen’s story is more than her academic pursuits. Central in her life is the traditional spiritual practice of Falun Gong, which has been subject to severe persecution and vilification by the Chinese Communist Party since 1999. Having learned Falun Gong as a child, Pushen spent her teenage years during the most intensive years of repression. Her mother has been locked in brainwashing centers twice.
July 20 marks the 17th year since the communist regime began the campaign against Falun Gong, with practitioners detained by the tens of thousands in the first few days and constant propaganda attacking the practice as a “deviant religion.”
Now studying in Savannah, Georgia, Pushen went to participate in the annual rally, parade, and candlelight vigil in the nation’s capital that memorializes the known and unknown thousands of Falun Gong practitioners who have lost their lives at the hands of the Chinese authorities.
“I am really touched that there is a place to voice our feelings,” she said. “To be able to come overseas help those being persecuted in China, to speak out for them, I think this is an obligation for all of us abroad.”
While the overwhelming majority of Falun Gong practitioners are Chinese or ethnically Chinese, the practice has been taken up by people in over a hundred nations.
Art therapist Liza Brkovich and her sister Frida Kats came from Uzbekistan and now live in New Jersey. Liza has practiced Falun Gong since 1998; since 1999, she has attended every year’s candlelight vigil in the American capital.
“It was beautiful music,” she said, recalling how she had first come across the Chinese meditation. “I asked, ‘What are you doing?’ They said ‘Okay, you can start doing the exercises with us if you like.'”
Though skeptical at first, Frida eventually learned Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, from her sister. Both of the middle-aged women found that the practice improved their health and helped them lead better lives.
“Dafa changed me,” Frida said, using a shorthand reference to the discipline’s other name, Falun Dafa, favored by practitioners. “I was selfish, I was a person who was interested only in material things, I never looked for anything spiritual, I thought material things were more important. … I started to think about other people.”
The sisters often participate in Falun Gong events in New York. In parades, they take part in a group of performers who march while playing Chinese waist drums.
“I hope that we are going to play in Tiananmen Square one day,” Frida said. “People will know that the truth is, Dafa is wonderful, and will say Falun Dafa Hao [Chinese for ‘Falun Dafa is good’].”
Frida values the opportunity to raise awareness about the persecution of Falun Gong. “I try to talk about Falun Dafa and explain why we are here. A lot of people are asking, what are you doing here? What is going on here in Washington D.C.? I hope this is the last time we come here, and that the persecution will end.”