The 36 Who Dared: Fighting for Freedom in the Heart of Red China

November 20, 2021 Updated: November 25, 2021

Carrying a large backpack, and clutching a travel guide in one hand, Canadian Joel Chipkar looked the part of a typical tourist.

The brown-haired, 33-year-old real estate broker, wearing a black jacket and khaki pants, walked briskly to Tiananmen Square, the heart of China’s capital that just over a decade earlier had been reddened by the blood of thousands of students slain or wounded by the communist regime’s tanks and guns.

The weather on that day—Nov. 20, 2001—was as fine as it got in a city notorious for its dense, grayish smog. The sun was bright, and the air was crisp.

Pedestrians strolled leisurely in twos and threes over the vast stretches of gray pavement, though Chipkar didn’t notice them much. He was making a beeline for the north end of the square. He was on a mission.

It took no time for Chipkar to find what he was looking for: 20 feet west of the Chinese flag pole, a crowd of two or three dozen people with light hair like his had quietly gathered about, some sitting, others standing and smoothing their collars. The scene was attracting quite a few curious glances. It was still uncommon to see so many Western faces in that country.

Chipkar stopped himself while at some distance from the group. He recognized a few faces, but thought it wise not to greet anyone. Drawing any attention to himself could be detrimental to the plan.

There was suppressed excitement hanging in the air. In a few moments, the group of Westerners would congregate, standing or sitting in four rows as if posing for a group shot in front of the iconic Tiananmen Tower. But this was a ruse; they would later sit in a meditation position, while some would unfurl an eight-foot-long golden banner bearing the Chinese and English words for “truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance”—the three core principles of the persecuted faith group Falun Gong.

The police would swarm in, and arrests would follow.

And Chipkar’s role was to watch—and document it all.

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Joel Chipkar (L) secretly videotapes the appeal of 36 Westerners in Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Nov. 20, 2001. (Courtesy of Minghui.org)

The Planning

That was two years after the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had declared Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, an enemy for no apparent reason other than the spiritual practice’s vast popularity; estimates at the time placed the number of practitioners between 70 million and 100 million. During the 1990s, rows and rows of Falun Gong practitioners could be seen doing the practice’s slow-moving exercises every morning in parks and squares across the country. But this came to a screeching halt in July 1999, when the CCP unleashed a nationwide campaign to eradicate the practice.

Adherents had since become the victims of harassment, physical torment, detention, and slave labor. Many were driven out of work or school, and had their books relating to the practice confiscated and burned.

Epoch Times Photo
Police detain a Falun Gong protester in Tiananmen Square as a crowd watches in Beijing on Oct. 1, 2000 photo. (AP Photo/Chien-min Chung)

The persecution had also just reached new heights in 2001. Airwaves and newspapers had capitalized on a self-immolation incident at Tiananmen Square earlier that year—shown later to be staged under Beijing’s orders—designed to cast the adherents as suicidal.

The intensifying misinformation and hate campaign sent a steady stream of adherents to Tiananmen Square, a political center and popular tourist spot, to peacefully appeal for an end to the suppression.

For Falun Gong practitioners anxiously watching outside China’s borders, the continued plight of their fellow adherents in China told them something more must be done.

It took at least a year for the idea of an international appeal to come together. Peter Recknagel, a 30-year-old student of Chinese and economics from Germany, was among the first to make travel arrangements. When he sensed interest from those in other parts of the world, the plan broadened.

Eventually, 36 practitioners from 12 countries across Europe, North America, and Oceania would fly to China. Many of them had never met each other before. They kept the instructions to a bare minimum: travel separately; meet up near the flagpole by 2 p.m.; keep a low profile; convey their message of appeal; and stay for however long they could.

Epoch Times Photo
Falun Gong practitioners from 12 countries pose for a group photo before making an appeal at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, on Nov. 20, 2001. (Courtesy of Adam Leining)

The organizers took precautions to keep their plans under wraps. To evade possible eavesdropping by the regime, only a few were involved with the organizing, and they spoke in Swedish for the most part.

Adam Leining, a 30-year-old advertising executive from the United States, brought the banner in a suit bag. The night before it all happened, Recknagel and a few others drew down the curtain of the hotel room and turned on loud disco music, then slipped into the room one by one for a little rehearsal. They unfurled the banner to see how big it was and assigned three of their tallest group members to hold it.

When everyone had met up at the square, two people from Europe were arranged to hold a bouquet of flowers to present a celebratory feel. That was to buy them time as they got ready.

“There was a signal … then everybody just had to jump into the meditation position,” Recknagel, now 50 and residing in New York state, told to The Epoch Times.

“We had to be very, very careful not to blow it up before it happened.”

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Joel Chipkar on the Great Wall with a sign that he made with materials he found in his hotel room, in Beijing, in November 2001. (Courtesy of Joel Chipkar)

The Witness

Chipkar planned his part as carefully as he could.

He bought a tiny camcorder, a pager-looking device, which he threaded into the strap of his backpack. A hole was cut on the strap so the lens could poke through. Then he spent a good four days looking into the mirror while carrying the backpack to master how to angle the camera. The tape would run for about two hours, and with everything set up, he would be able to walk around with his hands free.

“I thought of everything that could possibly happen or go wrong, and I had to plan for that all, because you don’t get a second chance,” Chipkar, now 53 and living in Toronto, told The Epoch Times.

Taking the Chance

When word of the trip plan got to Anne Hakosalo in Sweden, she asked herself if she should try and if she could even make it through the Chinese border.

The Swede, now 53, was in the capital two autumns prior when around 30 mainland Falun Gong practitioners risked their lives to host an underground press conference, revealing to major international outlets what abuse they suffered.

Their daring act had provoked a furious retaliation from the regime. Most of them later wound up with long sentences. Hairdresser Ding Yan, who died in August 2001 less than two years into her sentence, was once stripped naked and locked in an iron cage with wooden spikes, and wastewater running up to her neck.

Hakosalo, an exchange student learning Chinese in northeastern city Dalian, was arrested in November 1999 while attending a Falun Gong gathering in Guangzhou, in the southern part of China.

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Anne Hakosalo pictured in a Swedish newspaper on Nov. 24, 2001. (Courtesy of Anne Hakosalo)

Tipped off of their gathering, the police did an apartment raid around 2 a.m. and arrested Hakosalo along with over a dozen other friends. One fellow adherent was hit against a wall and lost consciousness.

It might be Hakosalo’s foreign citizenship that had shielded her. The officers questioned her for hours and yelled at her, but for the most part, remained civil. They let her go that afternoon.

Hakosalo wasn’t sure if after all that, she may have gotten on the regime’s radar. At the last minute, she decided to take the chance.

She was glad that she tried. In about a week, she received the visa and booked the plane tickets.

Perhaps she was meant to go, she thought.

“I had a choice, either to passively watch and accept it when good people are being murdered, or to take action myself and make clear that I do not allow this to happen,” she would later tell Swedish media. “It is not only me who doesn’t accept this, there are many people around the world who also don’t accept it. We all want to live in compassion.”

The Banner Holder

The night before the gathering, Chipkar didn’t sleep very well. He was thinking over every possible mishap that could jeopardize his mission. The camcorder could malfunction or the police might arrest him before he reached the site, and then all his work would be in vain.

Chipkar’s friend Zenon Dolnyckyj was already among the group when he got there. Dolnyckyj, who was 23 at the time, had picked up some basic Mandarin from some Chinese Falun Gong practitioners in Toronto.

The two had met at the Great Wall a day earlier to hang up a vertical yellow banner that read “Falun Dafa Is Good.” Dolnyckyj had stayed up at the hotel to paint those Chinese characters onto the banner—a “beautiful, symbolic message,” in Dolnyckyj’s words.

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Zenon Dolnyckj and Joel Chipkar meditate on the Great Wall the day before their appeal in Tiananmen. (Courtesy of Joel Chipkar)

“Joel and I were very committed in our hearts,” he told The Epoch Times. “We knew we were risking our lives to go over there, but we felt like it was very important for the world. So it was very emotional to finally get to the Great Wall and hang that banner there.”

Both had bought return tickets to Canada scheduled for four hours after the Tiananmen gathering.

“See you at the airport,” Chipkar had told Dolnyckyj at the hotel on the morning before the appeal.

But they never did.

Having spent much of his day reading, practicing meditation, walking around nearby streets, and glancing down at his watch, Dolnyckyj walked into Tiananmen Square with enough energy that he “felt like a giant.”

Recknagel was sitting in front, in a meditation position, when the large banner was unfurled, while Dolnyckyj stood behind the banner between the characters “truthfulness” and “compassion,” helping to hold it up.

“I felt really proud because they were holding so strong, and they were pushing so strong to hold the banner,” he told The Epoch Times’ sister media outlet NTD in 2017.

Within 20 seconds, a car horn pierced the air. Soon, at least six police vans encircled them, and uniformed and plainclothes police, seeming to materialize from out of nowhere, began hurling the adherents into the vans while shoving onlookers away.

Hakosalo, who sat two rows behind Recknagel, would not move. So the police lifted her up from the ground and, dragging her by the hair, thrust her into the van.

As the police descended, Dolnyckyj pulled out from his pant leg another yellow makeshift banner that he had made from a pillowcase. He had practiced this move in the hotel. While holding this banner, he shouted at the top of his lungs, “Falun Dafa is good!”

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Zenon Dolnyckyj, wearing a T-shirt with a Canadian flag, is wrestled by Chinese police officers in Tiananmen Square after participating in a sit-in demonstration in support of Falun Gong, on Nov. 20, 2001. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

When the police finally seized him, one of them punched him squarely between the eyes, causing a bone fracture. Blood trickled down his nose. His eyes welled up with tears.

More punches then rained on him, and he was forced into a white police van, where he found a Swedish man beaten unconscious, and a blond, blue-eyed French woman whom the police tried to strangle, to prevent her from shouting “Falun Dafa is good.”

Chipkar, standing at some distance from the pandemonium, watched his friends being hauled away within minutes.

He took a rickshaw back to his hotel and immediately rushed into the bathroom in the hotel lobby, locking the door behind him and starting to rewind the footage. Once he confirmed that it was all there, Chipkar went to the nearest FedEx office and shipped the recordings home. “I felt really relieved,” Chipkar said.

“The way it went in the square when the appeal happened,” he said, referring to how the group was able to complete their appeal before the police rushed in, “it was magic—things happened exactly the way they were supposed to.”

Epoch Times Photo
Westerners are surrounded by Chinese police officers and police vehicles in Tiananmen Square after unfurling a Falun Gong banner and sitting in a meditation position on Nov. 20, 2001. The group was later taken away and detained by police. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

The Interrogation

The rest of the group was held at the Tiananmen Square Police Station, adjacent to the square, in a windowless cell that had bloodstains on the wall. More violence followed during the interrogations. An Israeli was struck in the face and kicked in the groin.

In a hotel near the airport where they were later transported, one woman was groped by police when she refused to hand over her phone. A U.S. medical student was hit on the head after he refused to sign the police report and ripped it up.

Recknagel, who also speaks Chinese, warned the police to stop attacking the medical student.

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European Falun Gong practitioners talk to a policeman from inside the underground jail in a police station near Tiananmen Square in Beijing, on Nov. 20, 2001. (Courtesy of Adam Leining)

“Do that again, and all the world will know about it,” he recalled telling the officer in Mandarin.

The police officer, in a rage, dragged him to the wall, saying something to the effect of, “Do you know how it feels to get killed?” Recknagel told The Epoch Times.

The police were nonetheless acting with restraint, compared to their handling of local adherents. They filmed the group while offering them food and water, which the adherents suspected was for propaganda purposes. State-run media reports later said the group was treated humanely.

After about 24 to 48 hours, all 35 were put on a flight and told they couldn’t return to China for five years.

Real Heroes Are ‘Not Us’

Reflecting two decades later, Chipkar saw nothing heroic in his act.

“It was a moment in time where we did what we thought we had to do,” he said. “We were all trying our best, every one of us.”

Since the start of the persecution, millions of practitioners have been thrown into detention centers, prisons, labor camps, and other facilities, while hundreds and thousands have suffered torture, according to the Falun Dafa Information Center. An untold number of detained adherents have been killed for their organs.

Minghui, a U.S.-based website that chronicles the persecution in China, has verified thousands of deaths. But that’s likely only the tip of the iceberg, experts say, owing to the regime’s massive efforts to conceal its brutal campaign.

“The real heroes who deserve the attention are the Falun Gong practitioners in China who on a daily basis go through life and death—every time they step out the door to raise awareness of the atrocities happening,” Chipkar said. “The people who are in China, those are the heroes, not us.”

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Joel Chipkar at the airport in Toronto upon returning safely from Beijing, in November 2001. (Courtesy of Joel Chipkar)

Recknagel, who spent the first 18 years of his life in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, described his journey to Tiananmen as a “big adventure.”

“Nobody really knew what would come out of that,” he said. There was no telling how much it helped the situation in China, but at least, it was a glimpse into “how real and how cruel the persecution in China is.”

“It gives you a kind of kick … to do whatever you can to help to stop it.”

The moment of the banner unfurling has been depicted by two artists, fellow adherents, in an oil painting. In the depiction, a translucent golden light surrounds the group of meditators.

“You look at Zhen, Shan, Ren,” Recknagel said, referring to the three Chinese characters on the banner. “And at that time, we were standing up for that.”

The painting is now on display in a shopping mall exhibition in upstate New York, which Recknagel sometimes visits.

“It’s just nice to have that picture as a memory,” he said.

But for him as well as many others, that memory from two decades ago is inextricably linked to sorrow.

“So many people in China, they stood up for that, and nobody has a picture,” Recknagel said. “Many of them are killed there.”

Eva Fu
China Reporter
Eva Fu is a New York-based writer for The Epoch Times focusing on U.S.-China relations, religious freedom, and human rights.