When your faith makes you an enemy of the state
Editors' note: Part 4 of The Christian Post's series on China's human rights abuses under the spotlight of the Olympic Games details the accounts of Falun Gong practitioners who fled the country following the government's crackdown on the practice. This article series will also share stories of persecution from the perspective of a Uyghur Muslim and Christians who lived under China's communist regime. While CP does not promote the religious beliefs of the individuals interviewed herein, we believe in religious freedom and the rights of these individuals to hold those views without threat of government retaliation. Read part 1, part 2, part 3, part 5, part 6 and part 7.
NEW YORK — It was July 20, 1999. Michael Yu, an accountant and Falun Gong practitioner, remembers well what happened in China.
Then-President Jiang Zemin had declared millions of Yu’s fellow Falun Gong practitioners a threat to the government. A warrant was issued for the arrest of Li Hongzhi, who founded the spiritual movement only seven years earlier, in 1992.
Thousands of Li’s followers, including officials in the Chinese Communist Party, were arrested that day, too, while millions of Li’s books and cassette tapes were destroyed, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
Italian sociologist Massimo Introvigne, the founder and managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions, explains in Bitter Winter, a magazine covering religious liberty and human rights, how the CCP branded Falun Gong an evil cult after the 1999 crackdown. Things haven’t improved much since then.
As of September 2017, Falun Gong was listed as the No. 1 most “dangerous” cult by the CCP, along with a number of church groups. Criminal law in China allows persons belonging to groups branded as cults to be punished with sentences of up to life in prison. Cults and religions deemed to be cults are monitored by an office called the Public Security Anti-Xie Jiao Organization. The office is informally known as the "610 Office."
One freezing afternoon in January, while sitting inside the New York Food Court in Flushing, Queens, where the cuisine of the borough’s Asian heartland collides in a lavish display, Yu told The Christian Post how his practice of Falun Gong made him an enemy of the Chinese government and forced him to flee his homeland.
The 49-year-old remembered how he stumbled upon the practice in 1995 when he was a college student in Shanghai. At that time, “there wasn’t persecution of the practice.”
“Since I was young, I was interested in qigong and martial arts for health and fitness and supernatural phenomenon,” he said through interpreter and fellow Falun Gong practitioner Scott Li.
Qigong and Falun Gong
For about 20 years spanning the 1980s and ’90s, qigong had grown popular among hundreds of millions of Chinese in the officially atheist country. Qigong is described as a hybrid of traditional medical and self-cultivation practices developed in the early 1950s by members of the Chinese medical establishment to promote traditional Chinese medicine.
While some members of the CCP in modern China had criticized it as “superstitious” with links to religion and spirituality, defenders of the practice managed to make room for it and similar therapies alongside biomedicine.
In his writings, Li Hongzhi, who lives in upstate New York after fleeing China, compares qigong to “magic.”
“Qigong is not exclusively a product of our country. It exists in foreign countries as well, but they don’t call it qigong. Western countries, such as the United States, Great Britain, and so on, call it magic,” he explained.
Falun Gong is an offshoot of qigong, which Li Hongzhi describes as “one of the Buddhist system’s special qigong methods,” which “has its own distinct qualities that set it apart from the usual ways of Buddhist cultivation.”
“This cultivation system is a special, intense cultivation method that used to require that cultivators have extremely high character and great spiritual aptitude,” Li wrote.
Falun Gong claimed up to 100 million followers during the 1990s, but only about 7 million to 10 million remain in China out of a population of more than 1.39 billion, according to a 2020 report from the United Kingdom's Home Office. But some sources suggest Falun Gong's population in China could be as high as 40 million.
Yu, who was around 22 at the time he committed to the practice of Falun Gong, never imagined he would face a time when his faith would become a liability.
The day after the mass arrests, on July 21, 1999, Yu said he went to a government office in Shanghai to ask why Falun Gong practitioners were being arrested. He said the police responded by arresting him too.
“Then the next day, July 22, they [the CCP] started broadcasting defamations and false things about Falun Gong to try to make it look bad. And they pretty much forced all the employees throughout the country to watch it," he recalled. "And asked them, 'Are you still going to practice?'” he recalled.
At the time, Yu was working as a financial manager at a company where government regulators held a position to monitor the workers' behavior to ensure they were compliant with the laws of the state.
“They used all kinds of tactics to try to pressure him to give up [his practice of Falun Gong], including asking his mother and family members to plead with him. They threatened him with firing and arrest,” Scott Li said.
When Yu resisted the pressure, he was quickly ostracized at work, which forced him to quit.
A few months later, in May 2000, he went to Tiananmen Square to do Falun Gong meditation in Beijing in protest. He was arrested on the spot.
“It was to send a message to the Chinese government that they should stop the persecution,” Yu said, noting that he also wanted them to “clear the name of Falun Gong.”
The police released him the same day after his arrest because he had not traveled with any identification. In July that year, he was arrested in Shanghai and detained for 28 days for meditating with other Falun Gong practitioners.
His refusal to give up the practice and refrain from engaging in any public display of Falun Gong landed him in a re-education camp from June 2001 until December 2002.
“Their intent is to make you give up the practice. If you don’t give up, they put you through extreme torture where you don’t want to live,” he said.
Even though there were times when he felt like giving up at the camp, Yu said he held on.
He remembers being beaten and made to sit on a tiny chair until his underwear was stuck to his flesh. He added that he was tortured in other ways in which he could barely walk afterward.
While he didn’t give up Falun Gong, the experience inside the re-education camp made him more careful with his practice after he was released.
In 2011, when he got the chance to come to the U.S. for a business conference for accountants, he decided not to return to China. He now enjoys practicing Falun Gong without fear.
When Tom Tang, 45, was in high school in Guangzhou, China, he was a student leader who was so smart that everyone in his community expected him to end up at one of China's top universities.
His high hopes were dashed in 1996, however, when his scores on national exams turned out to be only good enough for a lower-ranked school called Zhaoqing University.
In China, explained Scott Li, performance on the college entrance exam is a “huge thing,” and Tang’s underperformance was a “big heartbreak.”
After suffering from depression from his poor score on the national exams, Tang was introduced to Falun Gong by a classmate and embraced it.
By about May or June in 1999, Tang began hearing rumors that the Chinese government was planning to ban the practice. On July 20, 1999, he was stunned when a local coordinator for Falun Gong practitioners told him that the practice had been banned.
He didn’t understand why the government would ban a practice that he found helpful. So that night, he went to the capital of his province to get answers from government officials.
When he got to the government office, he found a long line of Falun Gong followers looking for answers also.
Local government officials told the group that there was nothing they could do to reverse the ban and rounded all of them up and took them to a school nearby, where they were detained for about half a day. Police collected their personal details. And once Tang was processed, he went back to his college.
On July 22, 1999, Tang said he went outside to meditate at his college and the police quickly arrived. He said they took his identification and told him he could not practice Falun Gong.
After he graduated from college, Tang went back to his hometown in Guangzhou, where he and other Falun Gong practitioners were monitored by the 610 Office.
Tang said a police officer told him that as long as he practiced Falun Gong quietly and not in public, he didn’t care. He was also advised not to go to Beijing.
The zealous Falun Gong practitioner, however, didn't listen.
In July 2000, Tang went to Tiananmen Square and held up a banner protesting the Falun Gong ban. He and other protesters were immediately swarmed by police who took them to a local precinct and locked them in steel cages.
Later that night, they were rounded up and transported to another city nearby.
To protect themselves, Tang and the protesters left their identification at home. But the police still managed to find out who some of them were. Five days later, someone from the 610 Office in Guangzhou took him to a detention center, where he was held for 15 days.
During that time, he was beaten and told to stop practicing Falun Gong. But Tang replied that he couldn’t because Falun Gong is his life. He was later released to his family and warned not to protest.
A few days later, Tang was detained again and taken to a labor camp, where he spent two years, from 2001 to 2003.
For a while, Tang kept up his protest by going on a hunger strike, which prevented him from working. He was eventually forced to eat and build a range of products, like Christmas lights and trinkets similar to those found at a dollar store.
“It’s extremely painful to the point where you don’t want to live, but they don’t let you die,” Tang recalled from the experience.
Tang spent another four-and-a-half years in prison for refusing to stop practicing Falun Gong.
After he was released from prison in 2008, Tang took over the management of his sister’s handbag business, which became wildly successful even as he continued sharing his Falun Gong practice with clients quietly.
As the government continued to monitor him, he filed a lawsuit against a former CCP leader for the persecution he suffered in 2015.
That year, while he was in the U.S. on a business trip, government agents went to his business and took the machines he was using to print information about the Falun Gong.
He decided it wouldn’t be safe to return to China after that. He distanced himself from the business for the sake of his family still there.