Risking it All to Reach Foreign Correspondents in China
They would meet at a simple location, such as a McDonald’s or a cafe. The team watched from wide windows on the second floor, scanning the crowd to see if the foreign correspondent was followed when he or she entered the building.
They were six Falun Gong practitioners in Beijing who believed that foreign media could help the situation in China.
From July 2000 to August 2002, they established encrypted communication channels, and created intricate plans that made it possible for foreign journalists to interview victims persecuted by the Chinese regime.
For the first time, their methods are revealed.
Falun Gong is a spiritual meditation practice with ancient roots, based on the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. Jiang Zemin, the head of the Communist Party at the time, launched a nationwide persecution campaign in July 1999 because he was overly jealous of the popularity of the practice that had won 100 million practitioners.
Although the meditation practice had no political motives, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) saw the very existence of such a group as a threat to the principles it was founded upon: the destruction of traditions, and the sowing of animosity and distrust among Chinese people.
Overnight, the practice was vilified in the Chinese media, but the other side of the story was rarely heard.
“Without free access to Chinese people, Western reporters had a hard time knowing what was really going on,” said Dana Cheng, a Chinese-American living in the United States. She had contact with Western reporters who were interested in reporting on the persecution. She connected them with Yu Chao, one of the recruiters of the team who found persecuted practitioners who were willing to talk to the press.
Yu established encrypted communication channels. He had been an IT specialist for an international company, prior to losing his job due to his practice of Falun Gong.
It was immensely difficult for reporters to arrange interviews with those who were persecuted by the CCP, and it was difficult for them to get in touch with any Falun Gong practitioners.
“When the persecution started, the Chinese media became key tools in persecution. State-owned TV and newspapers published a lot of fabricated material to defame Falun Gong and incite public hatred towards its practitioners,” Cheng said. “It served the purpose to justify the persecution and mislead the public. Even when practitioners were not in jail, the environment that media created made society an invisible jail.”
Foreign press needed Chinese government permission to travel or interview certain groups in China. It was impossible to get permission to contact persecuted groups. As a result, many foreign media circulated the reports from the state-controlled Chinese media when reporting on Falun Gong when persecution started.
Today, media restrictions in China have loosened marginally. The Western press continues to deal with Chinese visa rejections, but there has been a shift in environment when works such as a documentary about Ai Weiwei’s dissidence can be filmed in China.
But at the turn of the century, it had been a very different environment. In most cases, reporters were not allowed to interview the average Chinese citizen to report on topics the CCP did not wish them to cover.
“Working with Western journalists was very dangerous at that time in China,” said Wang Weiyu, a team member who was assigned to select safe meeting locations.
“In fact I felt very afraid,” he said. “It was very difficult because the CCP was tracing foreign reporters living in China closely, especially from 2000 to 2002,” he said.
A key part of their work was ensuring safe communication between Chinese citizens and Western press at a time when reporters from Western countries were under close surveillance in China.
“Reporters have been followed by Chinese agents so closely to the degree that it interfered with their personal lives,” Cheng said.
They got in touch with reporters from major media such as Time Magazine, BBC, Washington Post, the Associated Press, and Wall Street Journal. Some traveled to China specifically to report on the persecution, while most were working from their Beijing bureaus.
There is a special public security bureau, the 13th Bureau, which looks over the security of hotels and other places where foreign journalists may go. Reporters were often followed. Their phones were bugged.
When a foreign journalist checks into a hotel, one of the first things the receptionist does is call the security bureau to let them know the journalist has arrived.
Yu helped foreign journalists download the encryption files. Ian Johnson from the Wall Street Journal had his file split into 30 separate parts.
Their main communication with the reporters was via encrypted email. They did speak on the phone at times but they changed SIM cards often. They would always switch to a new SIM card 30 minutes before a phone call occurred.
They would always secure two safe meeting locations. Wang would visit each location several times before a meeting occurred.
The first location would be one that allowed those inside to look out and see who was approaching—McDonald’s restaurants worked well, for instance. This location was a checkpoint to determine if the journalist was followed, and by how many.
They would tell the journalist to not buy any food and go straight to the second floor. If someone followed him straight upstairs, it was a red flag. The journalist would not speak to or meet anyone from the team.
They observed the people who came and looked inside the restaurant and didn’t go in—another red flag. They observed those who entered after the journalist did. The team would make an on-the-spot decision whether to abort the meeting or go forward.
A taxi would take the journalist to a spot where he could shake off any tail. For instance, it might take him to a road with a median that would prevent a U-turn. Beneath the road would be a pedestrian underpass.
The journalist would alight from the taxi and quickly walk down and through the underpass. A following car could not drive to the opposite side of the road to observe the journalist. The underpass would lead to a narrow alley that a car could not drive through. At the end of the alley a pre-arranged taxi would be waiting. The journalist would hop in the taxi and be gone before any tail could follow him.
The chances of them getting caught and arrested were high. There were times when one reporter was followed by as many as six groups of agents.
Yet in two years, Yu helped arrange interviews between Falun Gong practitioners and a dozen reporters. Around 20 persecuted practitioners were interviewed. The journalist and the interviewees were kept safe every time.
But the stories came at a cost.
“There were only a few of us, but we were working against a national system,” Yu said. “We knew it was a matter of time before we would all get arrested.”
The more information they leaked, the sooner they could be arrested.
“It was a delicate balance between our personal safety…and the protection of basic human rights,” Yu said.
Yu never appeared on site to meet the reporters. He only communicated with them through email.
“Philip Pan will not remember me, but he will remember what Modern Plaza looked like in the twilight during his taxi ride to the café where he met a female victim,” Yu said. Pan was reporting for the Washington Post at the time.
Charles Hutzler from the Associated Press would not remember Yu, either, but he would remember the Tibetan Hotel in Beijing where he interviewed a persecuted practitioner.
Some of the interviewees later were arrested. Some disappeared as a result of continued protests.
In Aug. 2002, Yu, Wang, and their wives were arrested. Apart from leading the free press team, Yu was also operating a printing center, where 700,000 anti-persecution flyers had been printed.
“I have two colleagues. The other two were arrested and maybe they mentioned me,” Yu said. He was sentenced to nearly 10 years of imprisonment, a portent of a decade of grisly torture.
Wang was sentenced to eight years and six months of prison time. He managed to find refuge in the United States last July. Yu is currently living in Chicago.
This is the story of what it cost when a truthful article about China appeared in print, and why these dissidents decided to take this chance.
Yu made sure that he wore clean clothes on April 25, 1999. The likelihood of him getting gunned down was high. If someone had to clean up his dead body, at least he would be wearing clean clothes.
That was what Yu considered that morning in Beijing when he got dressed.
Historically, once the Chinese regime labeled a group or a person as the enemy in the public sphere, that was the end for that group.
At first glance, it might seem strange that Yu would risk his life to stand up for a meditation practice. Yu was a very logical man. He had graduated from the prestigious Tsinghua University, and had a secure career as an IT specialist for an international company.
Yu was not naïve. He did not have blind faith.
There were times when he even questioned the statements made by his former Tsinghua professors, which is rare in that setting. But Yu was a thinker.
But there was one question that Yu did not have an answer for.
“Ever since I was little, I wondered what was the purpose of life,” he said. “Everything that we achieved in school or work only provided temporary happiness.”
Yu said he experienced a perpetual melancholy throughout his youth.
He said he distinctly remembered the first time he sensed the emptiness of his life. He was 3 years old, and was about to take his daily afternoon nap with his pre-kindergarten class.
The class was told to be “Chairman Mao’s good children” and fall asleep. But Yu could not fall asleep.
Instead, he watched the sunrays shine through the classroom window and wondered what was the purpose of life if it was lived to be “Chairman Mao’s good child.” It was a disconsolate feeling that never quite left him, that is until one fateful day when he was 21.
At that time, Yu was suffering from stomach pains. He took medication that cost 200 yuan a bottle. His mother convinced him to try out Falun Gong, whose exercises were known to have health benefits. Yu gave it a try, after some initial hesitation.
In 1993 Yu attended a lecture by Li Hongzhi, the founder of Falun Gong.
“In art and literature I found peace, but even that was temporary. The only thing that truly allowed me to realize why we live was the teachings of Falun Gong,” Yu said.
Yu said he distinctly remembered the lecture mentioning that one should look inwards to find solutions instead of blaming external factors, and that one should always put others before oneself.
“I was 21 when I heard that. I felt that the first 21 years of my life had been lived with a black blindfold on.”
After taking up this spiritual discipline, Yu began to look at his life and his problems differently. By improving himself as a person, such as eliminating jealous or negative thoughts of other people, Yu said life suddenly became meaningful.
The focus on the internal rather than the external was a concept that resonated with Yu for the next two decades. It was a principle that got him through his darkest moments.
When the persecution of Falun Gong began in 1999, Yu felt a need to speak out. He attended public protests. He went out to raise banners at Tiananmen Square.
“I didn’t do the Falun Gong exercises all the time. But I felt a need to stand up for this,” he said. “It is rare to come across something that gives meaning to life, especially in a society such as China’s.”
“But when I participated in protests I was aware of the dangers,” he added. “I had lived through June Fourth.”
The June Fourth Incident, also known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, was a student-led protest in Beijing in 1989. The regime responded by shooting at unarmed civilians with assault rifles and tanks.
Yu personally knew several people who died that day. One of them was Jiang Jielian, a boy he had gone to school with from kindergarten through high school. Jiang’s mother was Ding Zilin, who later founded the famous activist group called Tiananmen Mothers.
Yu was arrested for the first time when he went to submit a petition against the persecution of Falun Gong at the public security bureau on Oct. 15, 1999.
“According to Chinese law, my petition was legal,” he said. “But I was arrested anyway.”
Two weeks later, his wife was also arrested for her peaceful protest at the public security bureau. Their son was looked after by his grandparents.
Yu was jailed for 38 days during his first imprisonment at Haidian Detention Center in Beijing. He was sentenced to a re-education labor camp.
After his release, his whole body was covered with scabies, due to harsh and unsanitary prison conditions.
One by one, Yu’s family members were arrested for practicing Falun Gong. His sister was an economics and management lecturer at Tsinghua University. She was sentenced to three and a half years.
Yu knew he and his wife would be targeted again, so they made a run for it.
Yu and his wife left their home with their 3-year-old son in the middle of the night of Aug. 10, 2001. They left with no money or belongings.
“We were truly displaced,” he said.
They left their child with a family friend, where he lived for 10 months.
The grandparents took the child back as soon as they had the resources, but the child had already begun to think of the family friend as his mother.
“From 1999 to June 2000, I had been paralyzed by fear,” Yu said.
With his background in technology, Yu could have done much more than protest with a banner at Tiananmen.
He could establish encrypted communication channels, and inform foreign media about what was happening in China. But he was afraid.
“I was afraid because I knew what the government was capable of. I knew the savagery they were capable of. I know, because I have experienced it,” he said.
There was a particular Falun Dafa practitioner he knew in Beijing whose story spurred him to contemplate this thought: At what cost do we fear?
Her name was Zhao Xin. She had been a business professor at Beijing University. She was only 32 when she was tortured to death.
According to Minghui, a website that documents the accounts of the ongoing persecution of Falun Gong, Zhao’s neck vertebrae was fractured from brutal beatings. Afterward she was taken to the hospital, where they operated on her by removing a part of her esophagus.
After her surgery she lost the ability to speak.
Yu had visited her and recalled how she kept trying to speak anyway, but all she could manage were violent gasps.
“It was strange,” Yu recalled. “The hospital said her injured neck vertebrae would affect her ability to breathe…but it didn’t make sense to cut her esophagus.”
“They cut her so that she wouldn’t be able to speak, that is very likely,” he said. “They stuck a plastic tube down her throat instead.”
Nevertheless, after her release from the hospital, Zhao continued to request to be taken to Tiananmen Square on her wheelchair to continue to protest. But her failing physical condition never allowed her to go. Six months later she passed away.
After witnessing Zhao’s experiences, Yu felt a need to step forward.
“I felt an urgency to tell people about Zhao Xin’s situation. To let the world outside of China know. I felt an urgency to speak [for the persecuted],” he said.
Eerie Torture, the Cost of Evading Censorship
One by one, all who worked on arranging interviews with Western media were eventually arrested.
Yu was sentenced to 10 years in jail for organizing the meetings with foreign reporters and establishing a data encryption channel that made secure communication over the Internet possible.
Yu stayed in a so-called legal system training center, where he was brutally beaten for 11 months. It was a center specifically set up to brainwash Falun Gong practitioners.
“They would harshly kick my ribs…They were so furious that they appeared delirious,” Yu said. “But I was unafraid at that moment. I was happy. I knew that what I did was hurting the persecution.”
The jail guards took turns slapping Yu’s face.
Yu’s ears buzzed from the continual slaps. But he would smile and look into the guards’ eyes. He asked them what their names were.
No one answered.
“I laughed, and went on and asked them, you dare to hit me, but you don’t dare to tell me your names? Does your mother know this is how you make your money? Do you have a girlfriend? Does she know this is what you do?” Yu recalled.
Again, no one answered. But the the guards seemed to find his stare unsettling, and so they began digging their fingers into his eyes, Yu said.
Despite the sharp eye pain, Yu continued to look into their eyes. Some guards began to hit lighter.
“At that moment I felt that they were pathetic. All they did was follow orders. They had no free will to make decisions on their own,” Yu said. “They are cowards. They are unable to reason.”
They guards went on to write demeaning words on slips of paper, spat on them, and stuck it to Yu’s face.
“I smiled and I said to them, don’t just use spit, why not use a thumbtack to pin these papers on me so that you can relive the cultural revolution,” he recalled.
From Aug. 13, 2002 to July 2003, Yu was held at the brainwashing center.
“There were many times when I could not tell whether something was happening in reality or not,” he said. “For two months, they only allowed me to sleep one hour a day.”
He was handcuffed to a bed. Instead of a mattress, he had a plank of wood. Although his left elbow had been dislocated during the beatings, the guards yanked his left arm in the opposite direction in order to handcuff both his hands to the bed.
“It was so painful I sweated cold sweat all over my body,” Yu said.
His feet were tied with a rope. He remained in this position for four days. He was forced to excrete and urinate in his bed.
They occasionally let him get out of bed over the course of the next 100 days. He was not allowed to wash himself. He was only given two cups of water a day for drinking. He would spit his drinking water back on his hand in order to wash his face.
Yu woke up each morning with teary eyes.
“These were not emotional tears. They were my body’s physical reaction from not being able to wash my face for so long, I had discharge hardened around my eyes.”
He was not allowed to shower for five months. Yu said his skin began to resemble fish scales.
From July 21, 2003 to July 21, 2004, he was held in various cells. Some were so crowded that he and around 50 other people slept in a room of 40 square meters.
From July 21, 2004 to Feb. 20, 2012, he was jailed in Tianjin, which was managed by the Bureau of Jail Administration in Beijing. They were woken at 4:30 in the morning to run outside in the darkness of a biting winter. Afterward, they were forced to “study” their re-education materials.
Again, they were not allowed to shower. Although though there were no sanitary regulations, they were forced to handle food that would be sold to the public. He said this often occurs when people were held in detention.
Some of Yu’s fellow prisoners were forced to place cakes on paper trays before they were wrapped by plastic, while Yu was forced to wrap pieces of candies in prison.
“Food items made in China are really not sanitary. You really don’t know who made them and what kind of conditions they were in,” Yu said.
Yu was forced to wrap candy in a way that made it look like it had been done by a machine. The heavy pressure it required caused some people’s fingernails to come off, Yu recalled.
He endured bestial torture, such as being forced to listen to sounds from speakers turned up so loud that he experienced a nauseating feeling and a tightness in his chest. He listened to such speakers from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day for a week.
At other times, he was forced to labor by cleaning septic sinks.
“The purpose of this labor was to destroy my self respect, my dignity,” Yu said.
Refuge in the United States
After Yu was released from prison in 2012, he applied for a passport.
“Under normal conditions, I would not be able to get a passport, but they have gone easier on us because they don’t want people who are educated, who have gone to Tsinghua, and who have been to jail to influence other people in China,” he said.
And so Yu, 41, arrived in New York with his wife and their 15-year-old son on May 13.
They navigated through the crowd of vacationers and business people. Initially, Yu felt nothing. He was emotionally numb.
It wasn’t until five days later, that it really hit him that he was free.
He and his family held a banner together as they participated in a Falun Dafa Day parade in Flushing,
“It was the first time that I felt that I could freely breathe,” he said.
After leaving his violent environment in China, Yu said he is now facing a new challenge, this time in himself.
To this day, Yu is unable to sleep on his back due to the injuries he received in his ribs.
“But the most challenging part is not going through the persecution. The challenge is what comes afterward,” he said. “I have to make sure that I don’t turn into one of them [prison guards], that I don’t have hatred and violence in my heart.”
Yu looks internally to solve problems.
“I can prevent violence from growing by first preventing it from growing in my mind,” he said. “I have to keep in mind that the truly evil ones were the ones who ordered the persecution, not necessarily the ones who carried them out—they were trained to follow orders mindlessly.”
“I want to change hearts, and the only way to do that is by moving them, by showing them it is possible to not have hatred, by showing them how humans are supposed to live,” Yu said.
As for the practitioners in China who were arrested after the interviews, there are some that remain in prison today. There are some whose whereabouts are unknown.
As Yu sat in Bryant Park to be photographed, he smiled with a distinct gentleness that was without melancholy.
It seemed that the 10-plus years of violence against him could not take away his inner peace, for he said he had found the meaning of his life. He said it was worth everything he had endured.
He walked by a statue of Gertude Stein in the park, and asked who she was. He was now a part of a new culture, a new history. And in his new life, Yu said he would continue to do all he can to help rescue the Falun Gong practitioners who are still persecuted in China. For him, it begins by acting with a heart that holds no vengeance.