In that lonely stretch of the country—the middle of the Mojave Desert—darkness engulfed the moon. As the arid colors and tumbleweeds faded from view it would have been a silent place, if it weren’t for the low hum of a portable generator. A few teenagers huddled there, typing with fervor.
They stayed up late into the night, posting selfies, writing blog posts, and thinking of clever hashtags. The bright lights from their laptops cast a startling glow into the desert.
There were 26 youths and seven adults there. Although most of them were trying to ignore the computer lights and sleep, they did not tell the teens to turn their laptops off.
They knew that for the hundreds of thousands of prisoners of conscience in Chinese prisons, labor camps, and brainwashing and detention centers, the light from their monitors was hope.
The group of people resting in the middle of the desert were on a 3,000-mile bike ride from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness about the Chinese regime’s persecution of Falun Gong, a spiritual meditation practice that teaches truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance.
More than 3,800 deaths are confirmed as a result of persecution. But researchers estimate the actual death toll to be in the tens of thousands; the Chinese Communist Party is not exactly transparent about its human rights abuses.
Amnesty International estimates that at least 250,000 Falun Gong practitioners are currently imprisoned in China.
The cyclists who rode for this cause were young, the youngest being 11. They called their project Ride2Freedom.
The riders hailed from 15 countries—such as Israel, Iran, and Argentina. They gathered in Los Angeles to make this 45-day trek.
The sundry youths stopped in 19 cities, where they talked to politicians and gave interviews in newsrooms. They even met with civil rights activist Jessie Jackson Sr., who showed his support for their cause.
The premise of Ride2Freedom is that social media gives agency to the young, and very young activists. They organized a selfies campaign, which consists of getting supporters of their cause to post a selfie on social media with the hashtag #ride2freedom.
In the age of social media, selfies can be purveyors of hope.
A Global Effort for Awareness
Anahita Pasdar, 16, is a Falun Gong practitioner from Austria. Her parents took up the practice when she was 7. She said it brought harmony to her family.
Before the ban in China, 100 million people had practiced Falun Gong. Anahita felt they should still be able to.
“I always felt there was not much [activism] I could do as a child, this is something,” Anahita said.
On the road, as they stopped to talk to people about what was happening in China, there were strangers who hugged them, and strangers who cried upon hearing about the oppression.
One state trooper even invited them to his home and fed all 33 of them.
Most of the people they spoke with had never heard of Falun Gong.
“That’s why we’re doing this ride,” said Ride2Freedom’s main organizer Keith Ware. He noted how historically, oppressive regimes only loosened their reins after the public became aware.
“Nelson Mandela walked out of prison only when everybody knew his name and what was going on in South Africa,” Ware said.
Sophia Li, a 16-year-old from Seattle, read an article about Ride2Freedom two weeks before the group was scheduled to start.
She and her family emigrated from China in 2012 in order to escape imprisonment for their Falun Gong beliefs.
She thought she’d like to join Ride2Freedom, but she wasn’t good at riding bikes. In fact, she’s quite afraid of riding.
She thought of her grandmother, a Falun Gong practitioner who was force-fed in a Chinese labor camp to the point where the tubes punctured her stomach and caused internal bleeding.
Her grandmother managed to move safely to Seattle, but Sophia knew there were many others still in China who were not as fortunate.
After thinking about it for a total of three minutes, Sophia decided she needed to be a part of the ride.
Ride2Freedom rejected her application. It was too late to take on any more members. But Sophia kept calling.
“Get her to stop calling or find a way to bring her on,” Ware had said to the 19-year-old team leader Annie Chen.
Chen caved and decided to welcome Sophia to the team. And so Sophia began to practice, wobbling in circles on a bike in front of her home.
They began their journey on June 1 in Los Angeles. Riding next to city cars was frightening for Sophia, but not as nerve-wracking as when they left Los Angeles and steep mountain slopes emerged.
There were three groups: beginners, intermediates, and advanced. Although Sophia rode with the beginners group, she still got left behind.
“She went slower downhill than she did uphill,” Ware recalled. “I said Sophia, you have to give me something. You asked to be here.”
Sophia released the brakes and let the wind blow against her face.
Then she fell. Hard.
“I thought oh no, it’s over. She’s not going to want to get on the bike again,” Ware recalled. They were still in California at that point.
Sophia got up. Her left knee glistened with blood.
“I’m getting back on,” she said. “It’s an honor to go on this ride, to do something about this crime against humanity.”
Not long after, she fell again on the same wound, causing a large scar to sprawl across her knee.
Little did she know, she’d become one of the strongest riders by the end of the trip.
She was riding for something tangible. In China, she could have been killed for her organs had she been caught practicing Falun Gong.
In the United States, patients wait an average of five years for a kidney. The average wait time for a liver is 11 months. The websites of Chinese hospitals, however, advertised an ability to find matching organs within one or two weeks.
Deputy Health Minister Huang Jiefu, speaking at a conference of surgeons in the southern city of Guangzhou in 2006, confirmed that hospitals in China sell the organs of executed prisoners on a regular basis.
There is substantial evidence, however, that the organs are not harvested from criminals. They are stolen from groups of people the government wants to eradicate.
The practice began before the persecution of Falun Gong. As early as 1991, the Chinese medical industry had been harvesting the organs of Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic group living in northern China, investigative journalist Ethan Gutmann wrote in his book, “The Slaughter: Mass Killings, Organ Harvesting, and China’s Secret Solution to Its Dissident Problem.”
Through extensive interviews with organ harvesting survivors, Chinese surgeons, and other medical staff, Gutmann documented the organ harvesting of prisoners of conscience, particularly Falun Gong adherents starting in the late ’90s.
Among the medical staff Gutmann interviewed was Dr. Ko Wen-je, formerly the chairman of the Department of Traumatology at the National Taiwan University Hospital.
Ko specialized in organ transplants, and would visit mainland hospitals to look into the quality of organs from China. He worried that executed prisoners were drug addicts or had sexually transmitted diseases.
Chinese surgeons responded to Ko’s concerns by saying (as quoted in Gutmann’s book), “You will have no worries for your patients. They will receive nothing but the best: all organs will come from Falun Gong … they don’t drink. They don’t smoke. Many of them are young, and they all practice healthy Chinese qigong. Soon your patients—they will be young and healthy, too.”
Wang Lijun, formerly the director of public security and vice mayor of the southwestern China megapolis of Chongqing, also confirmed that the Chinese regime has indeed harvested organs from prisoners of conscience. Epoch Times learned this in 2012.
Canadians David Matas, an international human rights lawyer, and David Kilgour, former secretary of state for Asia–Pacific, found evidence that China’s organ transplant industry relies heavily on Falun Gong practitioners.
Their book, “Bloody Harvest,” shows that Falun Gong practitioners were most likely the source for approximately 41,500 transplants that were performed from the start of the Falun Gong persecution in 1999 to 2005.
The forced organ harvesting from Falun Gong practitioners continued at least through 2013, according to Gutmann’s research.
Investigators continue to research and lobby global organ transplant associations around the world to censor China for its illegal organ harvest.
There were several riders like Sophia who had family members tortured for practicing Falun Gong in China. Had their blood types and tissue matched with a waiting patient, they would have been killed immediately.
Moving Beyond the Past
It was a little strange for Jimmy Ma at first, when the cyclists stopped to talk to police officers about Falun Gong.
“If you took a selfie with a police officer in China and said it was in support of Falun Gong, you’d go to jail right away,” said Ma, a 16-year-old whose parents were persecuted during his childhood in China.
Ma’s mother disappeared when he was 3.
“I would ask my father where is my mother and he would not tell me. He said I did not smile for that whole year,” Ma wrote on the Ride2Freedom website.
His mother was released from prison after a year and six months, but his father was then imprisoned for five months.
Ma remembered the nervous look on his parents’ faces each time someone knocked on their door. They always took care to look through the peep hole to make sure that the face on the other side was a familiar face, and that the person was alone.
In some ways, the Ride2Freedom journey was liberating for Ma.
There was something freeing about the monotonous sound of whirring gears and spinning wheels, as if he were cycling further and further away from the frightening and lonely experiences in the recesses of his mind.
As he was falling asleep under the stars one night in the desert, a red moon appeared in the sky.
He hesitated to move in case it was a dream.
“It was all very freeing,” Ma said.
Pedals of Peace
Ride2Freedom is not the first ride of its kind. Eleven years ago, Ware gathered another group of teenagers to bike from D.C. to Chicago for the same cause. That project was called Pedals of Peace.
Ware, 58, is a green energy developer who once survived being buried under a glacier for three days in the North Cascade Mountains.
His symptoms of frostbite remained with him for 25 years, until he took up the Falun Gong meditation practice in 2000.
He attributes his recovery to Falun Gong, and felt he needed to do something active to give back to a good cause.
As the persecution persisted 11 years later, he organized another ride, one with more miles and more people.
This journey was difficult. None of the youths had professional biking experience.
Ware rode during all the shifts, totaling nine hours a day, to make sure no one got left behind.
“He was always yelling close the gap! Close the gap!” recalled Aishwarya Sai, an 18-year-old Falun Gong practitioner from India.
The Last 10 Miles
In Washington in July, the air was heavy with heat and grief.
It was the 16th anniversary of July 20, 1999, when dictator Jiang Zemin launched the persecution of Falun Gong. He could not control a spiritual movement that aligned with traditional values instead of communist ideology. So he set out to eliminate it.
“Ruin their [Falun Gong practitioner’s] reputations, bankrupt them financially, and destroy them physically,” he said during the launch of the policy.
At the end of their 45-day journey, the cyclists joined them in Washington with scabby knees and arms laden with mosquito bites.
So did four members of Congress, who attended the rally on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. Thirteen elected officials sent letters of support.
“From what I know about Jiang, he needs to be in jail, not Falun Gong,” Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) said at the rally.
“You’re peaceful, you’re compassionate, you’re tolerant, you’re people that should be respected for your beliefs instead of being persecuted by the communist tyrants in Beijing,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said.
Ros-Lehtinen introduced a House Resolution 343 (H.Res.343), which condemns the state-sanctioned organ harvesting of prisoners of conscience in China.
After the rally, the Ride2Freedom group walked their bikes as part of a peaceful march, where people from around the world gathered to hold yellow banners that said “Falun Gong is Good,” and “The World Needs Truthfulness, Compassion, Forbearance.”
From afar, the banners looked like endless waves of yellow silk. It moved Sophia to see so many yellow banners, as she thought of how her grandmother was once imprisoned for holding a similar banner in Tiananmen Square.
As the sun started to set, Ware ascended on a scissor lift that overlooked the Memorial, where people were setting up for a candlelight vigil.
He relished a rare moment of silence and thought about whether the journey had succeeded.
Sure, some of the original grand plans—such as having the ride be a reality television show—didn’t come through. But it was not a failure.
The riders learned social responsibility. They learned that they had agency to create change in this world.
“Dad, do we all sit together during the vigil?” his 12-year-old son, Zachary-Omego Ware, suddenly asked from below.
“I’m telling you this is your project, you kids make the decision,” he said.
The youths, in their gray T-shirts, proceeded to scatter throughout the crowd so that their gray did not distract from the yellow formation.
Then, one by one, 12,000 tea candles lit and flickered in the dark.