NEW YORK—Nearly 20 years ago on April 25, 1999, more than 10,000 followers of the spiritual practice Falun Gong gathered on the streets of Beijing to silently appeal for the right to practice their faith, without persecution.
That day, the sidewalks near the compound of the Chinese Communist Party leadership were filled with polite, peaceful meditators wondering why the police had started arresting their friends.
You Zhaohe, 65, and his wife, Wang Lurui, 61, were among the many who stood in solidarity near the compound just days after the police had arrested and beaten dozens of practitioners in the city of Tianjin, a two-hour drive from Beijing. The practitioners in Tianjin had been calmly appealing to a magazine publisher who had written an article falsely attacking the practice.
Falun Gong, also called Falun Dafa, is a traditional Chinese spiritual discipline based on the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance.
You, Wang, and the rest of the group settled in peacefully without any shouting. Some stood; others sat down reading “Zhuan Falun,” the main text of Falun Gong; and some meditated, the couple recalled.
“Seeing so many practitioners there was very emotional for me,” Wang said. “They are all good people, so seeing them stand up in the face of such injustice was very touching.”
The group had three simple requests for officials: release the innocent Falun Gong practitioners arrested in Tianjin; allow Falun Gong to be practiced freely, without state interference; and allow the publication of Falun Gong books.
“We didn’t know how long we should stand for, but we knew that we did nothing wrong,” Wang said.
But the April 25 gathering in Beijing didn’t yield any favorable results, and by late July, then-leader of the Chinese Communist Party Jiang Zemin had launched a large-scale persecution of Falun Gong that continues to today.
Two Decades of Determination
Nearly two decades later, on April 22, the sidewalks of Queens, New York, were filled with pedestrians who had stopped to watch and record the whirlwind of colors from a marching band, meticulously designed floats, bustling dragon dance troupes, and cheerful ladies playing Chinese waist drums. About 1,000 Falun Gong practitioners from the New York area paraded through Queens to mark the 19th anniversary of that fateful day in 1999.
For Wang and You, the anniversary carries personal meaning.
Wang first discovered Falun Gong years ago in 1996 after suffering from multiple illnesses, including a giant hemangioma (an exposed blood vessel) that was difficult to treat.
“After starting the practice, in just a few months, I was totally different in body and spirit. I then knew what it is like to have no sickness at all and for my body to feel light,” said Wang, who was a public servant when she took up the practice.
When Wang’s husband, You, a philosophy professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, witnessed the changes in her, he also starting practicing.
On April 25, 1999, the couple made the trip to Beijing because they “wanted people to know that the people arrested in Tianjin are innocent people,” You said. “We wanted society to learn about the truth and what kind of people we are.”
Wang recalled a meaningful encounter she had with one of the many policemen on Fuyou Street, the location of China’s Central Appeals Office. The office was right next to Zhongnanhai, the seat of the Chinese communist regime and living quarters for the Party leadership.
She said the atmosphere changed when police saw how the practitioners behaved.
“The policemen standing before us were nervous at first, but then relaxed after a while, seeing how peaceful we were,” Wang said. “One of them who was standing close to me told me he’s from Beijing and over his many years he’d never seen such a peaceful group of people gathered there.”
As the day progressed, representatives from among the Falun Gong practitioners managed to speak with officials. The practitioners believed the discussion to be a success, and by 10 p.m., everyone had quietly left.
But months later, as the brutal persecution ensued, Wang and You were both arrested. They were tortured on at least 10 different occasions. They spent about one year each in labor camps, where prison guards beat them and tortured them in a bid to make them renounce their faith.
Even when Wang wasn’t in custody, she was under constant surveillance on “extreme levels,” from morning to night. At times the pressure on Wang and You was so great, their will nearly faltered.
“Saying that we were not scared, that is an impossible statement,” Wang said. “One time, I was chased through the streets and I had to outrun them. I can’t tell you what it was like, but the pressure was intense.”
During this tumultuous period, the couple’s daughter, Teresa You, asked them, “Why not go to America?”
The family decided to follow their daughter’s idea and secretly prepared to leave. On April 21, 2015, they were arrested again and kept in custody for one month. They were told not to leave Beijing. But on March 29, 2016, they managed to escape.
After the family arrived in the United States, it took some time for them to release their fear. “We were unsettled for a long time,” Wang said.
Now, they are thankful to be in a free environment where they can tell people about how Falun Gong changed their lives and about the persecution still taking place in China. They are just as committed today as they were on that pivotal day in April 1999.
As Wang and You marched down the street with hundreds of other Falun Gong practitioners on April 22, their faces beamed, expressing hope and unflinching resolve.