Falun Gong followers find asylum, freedom to practice beliefs in Boise

A 64-year-old woman heading to a supermarket in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen in December 2005 was suddenly surrounded by eight police officers on motorcycles.

A few minutes earlier, Wang Zhuhong, a retired college professor, had declined a street vendor’s offer of a bottle of water. When asked why she was so healthy, Wang made the mistake of telling the man that she attributed her good health to Falun Gong, a practice that incorporates gentle exercise movement, meditation and regulated breathing to promote good health by stimulating the body’s energy flow.

The practice had been outlawed six years earlier. Wang was taken for questioning.

“I didn’t expect that,” said Wang, now 74 and a Boise resident.

She spoke in her native Mandarin language, her words translated by her daughter, He Hui, who also lives in Boise. “I was not afraid, and I refused to answer their questions,” she said.

Falun Gong, (fah-luhn gong), also known as Falun Dafa (fah-luhn dah-fah), grew out of the qigong (chee gong) movement — literally “energy work” — that exploded in China in the 1980s.

Its practice was introduced publicly in 1992. Its founder, Li Hongzhi, who moved to the U.S. in 1998, estimates that by 1999 there were 100 million Falun Gong practitioners throughout the world. Li, a qigong practitioner from northeastern China, studied under Buddhist and Daoist masters.

Falun Gong differs from tai chi and other forms of qigong by including moral and spiritual teachings. Truthfulness, compassion and forbearance are its guiding principles.

In 1997, upset by a perceived threat to government authority, the Chinese government removed Falun Gong from a list of official martial arts organizations. Two years later, 10,000 followers staged a silent protest outside the Communist Party’s leadership compound in Beijing. The government responded by banning the practice and denouncing Falun Gong in state-run media.

Former President Jiang Zemin ordered the persecution and arrest of Falun Gong followers. Jiang and other government officials branded practitioners as subversive and a threat to state security. The government blocked websites that provided information on Falun Gong.

Today, the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., denounces Li on its website and claims he has “cheated and hoodwinked” his followers. “Some people committed suicide or became psychopathic after practicing Falun Gong, and others even turned into cold-blood killers,” the embassy says, without providing examples.

Wang was soon released. But she persisted in practicing Falun Gong and advocating it . Less than three years later, she and her husband, He Zhengquan, were arrested by police in Chengdu, a city of 4.3 million people in Sichuan Province in south-central China.

Wang and He had retired as professors at Electronic Science and Technology University there and were forced to return to Chengdu after Wang’s first detention. Officials from the government’s “610” office, established to conduct surveillance and punish Falun Gong adherents, pressured a landlord to evict the couple from their apartment in Shenzhen and arranged for He to be fired from a consulting job he had held for three years. “610” refers to the date, June 10, 1999, when the office was established.

When Wang was arrested with her husband, in June 2008, authorities accused her of providing several Falun Gong pamphlets to another practitioner. Police searched the couple’s home and seized several books on Falun Gong, along with the couple’s computer, CDs and a book containing Wang’s contacts.

While her husband was released the next day, Wang was held for 13 days at a detention center. Family members were not allowed to see her or bring necessities. Twice a day, she said , she was fed a bun made with moldy flour, along with a few slices of turnip and a bowl of turnip soup. She and other prisoners were forced to drink tap water, which in mainland China is not considered safe.

Two weeks later, Wang was transferred to what human rights organizations call a “brainwashing center” operated by the 610 office. She was never charged with a crime or brought before a judge. Wang was imprisoned for five months and forced to watch videos denouncing Falun Gong and Li for hours on end.

Amnesty International, which tracks human rights violations, filed reports that the brainwashing centers, officially known as “legal education classes,” were designed primarily to coerce Falun Gong practitioners.

“Brainwashing is one of the primary tools used to ‘transform’ practitioners, or, in other words, to force them to renounce their faith in the teachings of Falun Gong,” Wang said. “They employed all kinds of lies and dirty words to defame Falun Gong and our teacher.”

Two guards took turns watching Wang inside her cell 24 hours a day. A surveillance camera was trained on her room. The television that played the propaganda videos was on 14 hours a day, and Wang was forced to sit and watch the entire time. Meals were brought into her cell. She was not allowed to speak with other prisoners.

Wang and the other practitioners held at the brainwashing center — Wang estimates 40 percent of them were elderly — were forbidden from doing Falun Gong exercises. One day, Wang said she was sitting on the bed and bent one of her legs slightly. Immediately, a guard entered the room and yelled at her, accusing Wang of conducting a sitting meditation exercise.

Wang said she suffered from shortness of breath at one point and couldn’t sleep. Another time, she felt dizzy, could not stand still and had tightness in her chest. She said she was unable to eat much and lost 30 pounds in a short period before her symptoms gradually went away.

She did not realize until three years after she was released that she had been drugged. In 2011, she read about the death of another inmate who suffered the same symptoms when he was released. She later read similar reports from other imprisoned Falun Gong members describing the same symptoms.

“I couldn’t believe they would do those kinds of things to me,” Wang said.

Wang was told she would not be released unless she renounced Falun Gong. She was told that her husband could be taken into custody and sent to the brainwashing center.

“That was the darkest time of my whole life,” Wang said.

After her release without explanation on Dec. 9, 2008, Wang began practicing Falun Gong again. But first she closed the blinds at her home and kept the volume of music used during the exercises low so that it would not attract attention.

“I started to recover little by little,” Wang said.

Wang and her husband, who died last November, came to the United States in June 2009 to visit their daughter, who works for Micron. The couple already had passports, so they did not have to seek government permission to leave the country, which Wang believes would have been denied otherwise.

Once here, they sought asylum, based upon the fear of continued persecution for practicing Falun Gong if they returned to China. It was granted on Aug. 3, 2010.

Organ harvests alleged

Human rights organizations have accused the Chinese government of harvesting organs from Falun Gong practitioners and other prisoners while they are still alive. Human rights attorney David Matas from Winnipeg, Manitoba, who was nominated for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on organ harvesting in China, told The Australian newspaper last month that Chinese prisoners routinely are given blood tests and organ examinations.

“As far as we can tell, people who are coming out of prison in China today, they still talk about blood testing and in some ways it seems to be getting worse, because in some provinces in China now they’re not just blood testing and examining Falun Gong practitioners in detention, they’re examining them in their homes and off the street,” Matas told the newspaper.

Local teacher attracted

In 2010, Boise resident Michael Fitzgerald came across a Falun Gong pamphlet that provided information on five sets of exercises practitioners say help revitalize the body.

“For many years, I was very interested in spiritual matters. I was reading the Bible a lot. I was also reading some Buddhist texts. I was learning how to meditate, and I was doing a little bit of yoga,” said Fitzgerald, 31, an English teacher at Eagle Academy. “... I was very concerned about my health.”

He began practicing regularly with a small group that meets Saturday mornings in the rose garden in Julia Davis Park.

“The moment I started learning, then I just felt very unique things happening in my body,” Fitzgerald said. “I just felt myself becoming very strong.”

The exercises are designed to open up energy channels, much like acupuncture, but acupuncture is designed to focus on specific energy channels, not the whole body.

“According to Chinese medicine, when an energy channel is opened, it allows energy to flow through,” Fitzgerald said. “In Falun Dafa, it aims to open all of the energy channels at one time. So, from the first exercise, they all become open. In my understanding, that’s why a lot of people experience very profound health benefits right away.”

Wang said she and her husband had suffered from health problems that they recovered from after beginning to practice Falun Gong in May 1996.

Fitzgerald said he was intrigued by the fact Falun Gong does not maintain an organizational structure. There are no membership rolls, and people can come to exercise sessions as little or as often as they like. The group does not solicit money. “Even donations are not allowed, and I was impressed by that,” he said.

Between six and 15 people typically take part in the Saturday exercises, which begin at 10 a.m. and last for about an hour, Fitzgerald said. Most of them are non-Chinese. Fitzgerald said everyone is invited.

Two women who came from China took part in the Boise exercise program for a while. They quit coming because they feared their participation could lead to repercussions for relatives back in China, He Hui said.

Since practicing Falun Gong, Fitzgerald said he has become a better person.

“It really made me realize to really consider other people before myself, and that when problems come up to look at myself before I blame others,” he said. “So it’s really just helped my mind become much more strengthened, and I feel much more in tune with the people in my life.”

Recently, Wang filed a lawsuit against Jiang, the former Chinese president. She accuses him of violating citizens’ freedoms of religion and speech through his persecution of Falun Gong followers.

The suit was filed with the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, one of China’s top legal bodies. More than 100,000 other Falun Gong followers have filed similar complaints.

“Practitioners were tortured and killed for their beliefs,” Wang said. “Many families were torn apart. I have a home that I cannot go back to. Jiang is the main person to be held responsible for this crime. I felt I should sue him.”