Xiaodan Wang and her husband, Jeff Nenarella, were disappointed when they arrived back from their trip to China on Aug. 9 empty-handed.
They were a hair’s breadth away from rescuing Xiaodan’s almost 68-year-old father who was persecuted in a Chinese labor camp for 15 years, and is now being watched closely under house arrest at his home in Beijing.
Practicing Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, a meditation and qigong practice whose spiritual principles and widespread popularity have put it at odds with the atheist principles of the Chinese Communist Party.
The practice has been persecuted in China since 1999, and Xiaodan’s father, Zhiwen Wang, has become a poster child for the persecution.
In 1999, Zhiwen was given a show trial and handed a 16-year prison sentence for his work as a volunteer coordinator of the practice.
He suffered a stroke while in detention in September of 2014 and was “released” a month later, only to be whisked away for a week in a brainwashing facility in an effort to get him to renounce his faith. He never did, but was finally let go in October of 2014.
He looks better than when he came out of prison, Nenarella and Xiaodan say, but he’s still gaunt, and they fear that the pain in his legs he has mentioned is worse than he lets on. All but one of his teeth have fallen out, Xiaodan suspects from malnutrition, and his collar bone, which was broken in jail, was never properly reset, they say.
Having secured a Chinese passport for him in January and a visa to come to the United States, the couple traveled to China in late July to escort him home.
While they did everything according to both Chinese and U.S. immigration laws, they say, their trip from the northeast city of Beijing to the southern city of Guangzhou, where they were to take a ferry to Hong Kong, was fraught with difficulty.
They were never physically harassed, but spies trailed them continuously taking photos, and strange occurrences like Zhiwen’s plane ticket mysteriously being canceled and their internet and computers suddenly not working were common, they said.
“It’s a scary feeling to be in this big, communist country when you know the persecution of Falun Gong is still raging on,” Nenarella said. “And having no one you can call, no one you can count on, no law enforcement we can trust. It’s just a very scary feeling.”
Just as they were about to board the ferry to Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous region in China where they believed they had a better chance of getting out, Zhiwen’s passport was taken to a back office and a corner of it cut off without explanation, invalidating it.
“That’s when I felt almost in despair,” Xiaodan said.
Having no resources in China to get Zhiwen out of the country, the two returned to the U.S. without him, vowing to use their advocacy and power as U.S. citizens to get him released.
Fighting for Freedom
It is unknown how many Falun Gong practitioners have died as a result of the persecution, but Minghui.org, a clearinghouse for information about the persecution, has confirmed over 4,000 deaths from torture and abuse. Because of the difficulty of getting information out of China, Minghui believes the true number of deaths is much higher.
In addition, a large number of practitioners have been murdered and their organs sold for transplant. An independent report released in June that examined information from the 700 hospitals in China that do organ transplantation. The report estimated that between 60,000 and 100,000 transplants were done each year in China between 2000 and 2015. The report says that most of the organs for those operations came from Falun Gong practitioners. Because of the inefficiency of the organ transplantation system in China, researchers believe that in most cases, transplanting one organ requires killing one donor.
Part of the reason Xiaodan believes her father was spared is due to the publicity his case has received.
For the past 17 years, she and others have brought it to the attention of members of Congress, the United Nations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other governmental and non-governmental organizations.
Falun Gong practitioners have staged rallies, sit-ins, and for 24 hours a day, called the brainwashing center where he was imprisoned, Xiaodan said.
The couple started a website, freemydad.org, with updates on Zhiwen’s case, and are working on collecting signatures for a petition addressed to Secretary of State John Kerry. So far they say they have over 12,000.
They were encouraged by the reception they received in Washington when they went to visit their representatives after their trip to China, they said. They hope that it is emblematic of a larger change in attitude.
“Because [Zhiwen] had already been issued the passport, I think they all understand that [the Chinese authorities] need to re-issue it and let him go,” Nenarella said.
While they want to see Zhiwen free, Xiaodan and Nenarella, both practitioners of Falun Gong, say their goal is not just to rescue Zhiwen, but to bring awareness, and eventually an end to, the persecution of the practice in China.
The couple, whose location is not disclosed for security reasons, said they are in touch with Zhiwen but not too often for safety reasons.
They still plan to bring him home, but how they are going to do that, they still need to figure out.
Zhiwen needs a new passport, but since their attempt to bring him out of China he has faced closer scrutiny and questioning by the police, they say. A simple trip to the grocery store earned him a police escort, they said.
Taking a trip to China’s Entry and Exit Bureau to get a new passport might, at this point, not be safe.
Xiaodan, who saw her father for the first time on this trip after 18 years, says she is relieved to know that his mental state is stable and he seems to be doing well given the circumstances.
“But I definitely want to make up the time we missed in these 17 years,” she said about her father coming to the United States.
They plan to continue to work with their representatives to pressure China into releasing him with the belief that it has kept him alive thus far, and will eventually get him his passport back.
“We strongly believe that if the U.S. government speaks out with a strong voice on this case, that they’ll let him go,” Nenarella said.
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