Midafternoon on Jan. 28, 2009, the family of Jiang Xiqing received a telephone call from the Xishanping Labor Camp in Chongqing, southwest China, informing them that their father had suddenly died.
“Acute heart attack” was the official explanation for the 66-year-old’s death. But they had just seen their father the day before, and he was in good health.
His four children and three other family members bundled into a car and rushed to the camp. As soon as they arrived they were herded into the nearby Yuxun Hotel by guards smelling of alcohol.
They were made to wait for several hours. When they were finally taken to the morgue and saw their father’s body pulled out on a slab from the freezer, they rushed over.
“My dad isn’t dead, he’s alive!” yelled Jiang Hong, his eldest daughter. They hurriedly felt his face and chest, finding him warmer than their own hands.
Panicking, the guards began yelling and physically attacking the family. “Facing this sudden attack and the huge crowd of guards, we were grieving, indignant, and helpless,” his youngest daughter, Jiang Li, wrote later in a petition, part of a prolonged attempt to seek justice.
What followed for the next six years was a fruitless quest to find out how he died, and to hold the Chinese officials involved accountable. At one point the family was told that his organs had been removed and turned into “medical specimens.”
When it became clear that Jiang Li and the family would not relent, the case began to take on the contours of a classic police state novel: Lawyers who got involved were followed, tortured, and beaten, and vast sums of hush money were repeatedly offered.
Jiang Xiqing was half way through a one-year sentence of re-education through forced labor when he died; his only crime was practicing Falun Gong, a traditional spiritual practice that has been persecuted in China for 16 years.
The family’s attempt to find the truth of Jiang Xiqing’s death, and the retaliation they suffered, is a case study in the persecution of Falun Gong.
Jiang Xiqing’s case attracted a great deal of intentional attention at the time, primarily because of the abuse of the lawyers, relayed to overseas media and human rights organizations.
Epoch Times reviewed a range of documents for this article, including: the official autopsy report by the Chongqing Institute of Forensic Medicine; a 43-page transcript of a meeting conducted in the Chongqing dialect between members of the Jiang family and Chongqing officials; written family testimonies about the circumstances leading up to Jiang Xiqing’s death; and petitioning documents submitted to government departments.
Jiang Li is now in New York City—and she is still grieving and indignant, but most of all helpless, about the mysterious death of her father. This is her story.
Truth, Compassion, Tolerance
In the 1980s and 1990s, millions of Chinese citizens went to parks and public squares to practice qigong, a type of Chinese exercise like Tai Chi. The ruling Chinese Communist Party had supported qigong as a type of inexpensive but effective way to stay healthy to alleviate the financial strain on state health services.
Falun Gong, a qigong practice that involves five sets of meditative exercises, quickly became among the most popular forms of qigong after it was taught in 1992. The main draw of Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, was its promise of moral elevation: practitioners adhere to the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance in their daily lives.
Luo Zehui, the wife of Jiang Xiqing, was like many Chinese: she first tried Falun Gong in 1996 for relief from myriad health problems. Her health and spirits improved. While helping his illiterate wife read “Zhuan Falun,” Falun Gong’s main text, Jiang Xiqing was drawn strongly to its teachings. He also took up the practice. The elderly couple then introduced Falun Gong to their children.
By 1999, Falun Gong seemed ubiquitous in China—an official survey found 70 million Chinese citizens routinely performing the exercises in public. Falun Gong sources said the number of those who had taken up the practice was over 100 million.
In the eyes of then Communist Party leader Jiang Zemin (no relation to Jiang Li), the peaceful meditators were a threat to “social stability,” and the Party. On July 20, 1999, Jiang ordered the country’s vast security forces to “eradicate” Falun Gong. They were to be fired from their jobs, sent to labor camps for ideological re-education, and subject to torture until they recanted their faith and declared allegiance to the Party instead.
According to incomplete statistics by Minghui.org, a clearinghouse for information about Falun Gong, just over 3,900 practitioners have been killed by torture and abuse, and hundreds of thousands languish in detention. Researchers have estimated that 65,000 Falun Gong were killed for their organs in the years 2000–2008. With the forced organ harvesting continuing since 2008, the total number killed is believed to be well over 100,000.
After the campaign against Falun Gong began, Jiang and Luo journeyed to Beijing to protest. In Chongqing, they handed out literature explaining Falun Gong’s principles and rebutting the Cultural Revolution-style propaganda by the Party, meant to incite hatred against the practice.
The elderly couple was detained for defending the practice and sent to re-education classes—at first these were only the soft kind. Due to their age, they initially escaped the brutal beatings and grueling slave labor that many captive Falun Gong adherents were subject to.
But things changed in 2008. The Summer Olympics came to Beijing, and the world was praising China for its emergence on the world stage.
Luo Zehui was arrested by Chongqing police on May 13, 2008, while she was distributing Falun Gong material in the streets. Later that day police raided their home, hauling Jiang Xiqing away as he watched television updates about the massive earthquake in Sichuan that had struck a day earlier.
Jiang was sentenced to one year hard labor at the Xishanping Forced Labor Camp. Luo was tried in secret and given an eight-year sentence at the Yongchuan Female Correctional Facility where she was beaten unconscious on at least three occasions.
“Eight years! That’s too evil,” murmured Jiang Xiqing, when he learned of his wife’s punishment. He wept.
It was the second day of the Lunar new year, the most important holiday for Chinese families.
‘My Dad’s Still Alive’
On Jan. 27, 2009, the day before Jiang Xiqing died in custody, his family saw him hale and hearty in one of the rare visits they were granted. Jiang Guiyu, his two-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter, tried to pass him an ear of corn, but the guards refused to let him have it. So she fished a handful of peanuts from her pocket and snuck those to him instead.
When they were leaving—the visit was cut short by barking prison guards—Jiang squeezed his lips through a crack in the door to kiss his granddaughter goodbye. “We had absolutely no idea that this was the last time we would see our father,” the family wrote in their petition.
The following day at 3:40 p.m., they received a phone call informing them that Jiang had died an hour earlier. The family was finally brought to the morgue near the labor camp at about 10 p.m.
The first thing they noticed—and a key part of the unsolved mystery—was the warmth of their father’s body, which was still soft to the touch even after supposedly having spent seven hours in a morgue freezer.
“Come and rescue our father! He is still alive!” a family member yelled, according to the account of the day on Minghui.org. They tried to pull his body out to begin resuscitation attempts. Prison guards outnumbered the family and they were roughly ejected from the room, still unsure whether he was even alive or dead.
Jiang Li had exited the morgue to call the police. When she hung up, one of the guards standing next to her turned, and chillingly said: “It’s useless. The police are right here.”
Against the express wishes of the family, the police cremated the father’s body days later.
In the following months, Chongqing authorities began a systematic cover-up.
First, they gave conflicting accounts of Jiang’s death. The initial explanation said that the sudden heart attack was caused by “gua sha,” the traditional Chinese medical treatment to open energy channels. It involves soft scraping with a flat object on the skin, which produces light bruising.
To this was added a troubling detail: when members of the family met several Chongqing officials to get the official autopsy report on March 27, 2009, Zhou Bailing, a supervisor with the Chongqing Procuratorate, said that Jiang’s organs were removed and made into “medical specimens.”
This is a matter of record, given that the family insisted the meeting be recorded. The family produced a 43-page transcript of the meeting, as well as the audio, which Epoch Times reviewed, along with the official autopsy report.
In a June meeting with two family members, about 20 Party officials from the Chongqing 610 Office, the Public Security Bureau, and other departments now insisted that there had been no bruising on Jiang’s body, contradicting the “gua sha” story.
Then the officials offered to settle the matter financially, if the family would stop pursuing it. During a private negotiation that same year, Chen Jiurong, the deputy director of the Chongqing police department, offered the family 300,000 yuan ($47,000) plus their mother’s release on parole if they would abandon the case, Jiang Li said.
In 2012, two Chongqing police told Jiang Li to “name any price” to drop the case.
Jiang Li and the family ignored all such entreaties, and instead petitioned the central authorities in Beijing to investigate the unexplained death.
“It is common for Chinese officials to pay off victims of injustices in exchange for their silence because petitions by citizens to higher levels of the Chinese bureaucracy negatively affect official promotions,” said Sarah Cook, a senior research analyst at Freedom House, a U.S.-based NGO.
Cook said the problem in China is, “there is no real rule of law or value placed by the authorities on the human life of Falun Gong practitioners like Jiang Xiqing.”
When they found that Jiang Li could not be silenced with money, Chinese security forces went on the offensive, threatening and harassing her family and employer.
In December 2009, Jiang Li was fired from Shanghai Airlines. Soon after, her husband, who worked as a factory security guard, filed for divorce because of the relentless pressure from authorities.
Others who tried to help were also hounded. Zhang Kai and Li Chunfu, two lawyers based in Beijing, were ambushed by 20 men in the Jiang family home in Chongqing on May 13, 2009. The case attracted widespread attention by the China human rights community.
At a police station, the lawyers were interrogated and beaten for hours. Police also threatened to prosecute them for their involvement.
“This is typical hoodlum behavior. They just wanted to intimidate us and force us to withdraw from the case. They are so frightened; they must be hiding something,” said Zhang Kai, according to a report by Human Rights in China, a New York-based NGO.
More recently, both men were disappeared by the Chinese authorities in August 2015 as part of the massive crackdown on human rights lawyers.
Liang Xiaojun, also a rights lawyer in China and a friend, said in a telephone call on Nov. 2: “They’ve been taken in. I don’t know where they are. I can’t contact them, you can’t contact them.”
While the abuse of the rights lawyers gained international prominence, the unnatural death they sought justice for quietly slipped out of view.
Sarah Cook said that international attention to Jiang’s case and fear of further exposure may have motivated police to pay Jiang’s family members to keep quiet, and also helped prevent them from being arrested themselves.
In an extraordinary twist, Jiang Li and her sister secured an early release for their mother, Luo Zehui, in January 2010—the first time a Falun Gong practitioner in Chongqing was ever released early.
With her mother no longer in the clutches of Party security forces, Jiang Li focused her efforts on securing justice for her father.
Six Years a Petitioner
But this dragged on for another five years, with no result. Jiang Li was merely bounced between unaccountable government agencies, and locked in black jails in Shanghai and Beijing from days to weeks.
Occasional sympathy—for example, from two officials in the General Office of the State Council in September 2012—hardly helped. When asked why she didn’t just accept a payoff, Jiang Li responded, “Because human life is priceless.”
“The case of Jiang Xiqing epitomizes some of the worst abuses that Falun Gong practitioners in China have faced at the hands of Chinese authorities, and the degree to which they’re among the worst treated populations in custody,” Cook commented.
“It highlights the paradoxes of today’s China—a modern economy on the one hand, and medieval torture and killing on the other,” she said.
This year, Jiang Li obtained a tourist visa and arrived in New York on July 19. She hopes to one day bring the case before the United Nations.
She now lives in the Chinese community in Flushing, Queens. She tells her story to Chinese tourists walking through Times Square.
“I say it to everyone,” Jiang said. “What I say are facts. It’s all true.”
Jiang is also one of the roughly 190,000 Falun Gong practitioners who have filed criminal complaints against Jiang Zemin, the Party leader who launched the campaign of persecution. But she doesn’t expect an answer on her father’s death anytime soon—likely, not until China is no longer ruled by the Chinese Communist Party.
Frank Fang, Juliet Song, and Matthew Robertson contributed to this report.