2001International Reporting

A Deadly Exercise

By: 
Ian Johnson
April 20, 2000;
Page A1
A Deadly Exercise:
Practicing Falun Gong
Was a Right, Ms. Chen
Said, to Her Last Day

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Cellmates Recall the Screams
Of the Chinese Retiree
Before She Died in Jail
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'No Measures Too Excessive'

WEIFANG, China -- The day before Chen Zixiu died, her captors again demanded that she renounce her faith in Falun Dafa. Barely conscious after repeated jolts from a cattle prod, the 58-year-old stubbornly shook her head.

chen zixiu

Enraged, the local officials ordered Ms. Chen to run barefoot in the snow. Two days of torture had left her legs bruised and her short black hair matted with pus and blood, said cellmates and other prisoners who witnessed the incident. She crawled outside, vomited and collapsed. She never regained consciousness, and died on Feb. 21.

A year ago, few outside of China had heard of Falun Dafa and its regimen of practices, known as Falun Gong, which include breathing exercises, meditation and readings from the moralistic, and sometimes unusual, works of group founder Li Hongzhi.

Although popular among millions of Chinese, Falun Gong didn't jump to international prominence until April 25 last year, when 10,000 of its believers converged on Beijing, surrounding the government's leadership compound in the Forbidden City and demanding an end to state press reports that portrayed them as a superstitious cult. The crowd cut an odd sight: Mostly middle-age, working-class people, they simply meditated quietly for the better part of a day before leaving the center of town to return to their homes across the country.

But to a government that doesn't much tolerate open challenges to its power, the protest was an unforgivable provocation. The government arrested hundreds of Falun Gong organizers and discovered that some were officials in the central government, the police and even the military. Worried that a cancerous religion was infecting its atheist state, Beijing declared Falun Gong an "evil cult" last July and formally banned it.

Confronted with the full weight of China's security apparatus, Falun Gong should have died a quick death. But unlike the dissidents who occasionally challenge the Communist Party, Falun Gong activists haven't been stopped, despite mass arrests, beatings and even killings. Instead, a hard core continues to protest, with several dozen arrested every day in downtown Beijing when they try to unfurl banners calling for their group's legalization. A year on, Falun Gong faithful have mustered what is arguably the most sustained challenge to authority in 50 years of Communist rule.

Ms. Chen's tale is one of extremes. On one end is the Communist Party, which is so determined to break Falun Gong that it has resorted to public-security measures on a scale not seen since 1989, when an antigovernment movement led by students was crushed in Tiananmen Square. The government's victory in this fight, should it come, may well be Pyrrhic; its heavy-handed approach has disillusioned millions of ordinary people, such as Ms. Chen's daughter, who were apolitical until last year's events. It has also damaged China's international standing just as it needs foreign help on an array of pressing economic issues.

On the other end are people such as Ms. Chen, who in their simple, and perhaps naive, way are at the forefront of a slow trend to demand the freedoms guaranteed by China's laws and constitution. While many Falun Gong practitioners have compromised -- by practicing secretly at home, for example -- thousands have insisted openly on their right to freedom of belief and assembly. "We're good people," Ms. Chen's friends recall her telling officials from the Weifang city government who interrogated her in her barren concrete cell two days before she died. "Why shouldn't we practice what we want?"

The story of Ms. Chen's last days is reconstructed from interviews with family, friends and prisoners, as well as two accounts written by cellmates and smuggled out of jail in recent weeks. Originals of these accounts were examined and shown to the authors' friends and relatives, who verified the documents as having been written by their loved ones.

Allegations of mistreatment also are backed by more than two dozen separate interviews with Falun Gong adherents in other cities, who independently said they too were beaten with clubs and electric batons, chained to bars and made to disavow their faith.

Local officials rejected efforts to interview them for this story, while Beijing's official position on all allegations of prison abuse is that no Falun Gong practitioner has been mistreated in custody. It says 35,000 adherents came to Beijing but were sent back safely, with only three dying accidentally when they tried to escape. International human-rights groups say it is likely that at least seven more deaths like Ms. Chen's occurred through mistreatment in prison.

"All she had to do was say she renounced Falun Gong and they would have let her go," said Zhang Xueling, Ms. Chen's 32-year-old daughter. "But she refused."

Three years ago, Ms. Chen hardly imagined that she would be risking her life by practicing Falun Gong . She was 55 and had taken early retirement from a state-run truck-repair garage where she had worked for 30 years making auto parts. One day while out walking in the neighborhood near her family's one-story brick bungalow, Ms. Chen noticed some practitioners of Falun Gong. A widow for 20 years whose children were grown, Ms. Chen had little to do during the day, so she started attending the exercise sessions regularly.

"My mother was never anyone who believed in superstitious things," said Ms. Zhang, who doesn't practice Falun Gong herself. "Frankly, she had a bad temper because she felt she was getting old and had sacrificed so much to raise us alone. When she joined Falun Gong her temper improved a lot and she became a better person. We really supported her."

Over the next two years, Ms. Chen became an enthusiastic participant, rising at 4:30 a.m. to exercise for 90 minutes in a small dirt lot with half a dozen other practitioners. After a day running errands for her children and grandchildren, Ms. Chen spent evenings reading the works of Mr. Li, the group's founder, and discussing his ideas with fellow members. Those beliefs incorporate traditional morality -- do good works, speak honestly, never be evasive -- as well as some idiosyncratic notions, such as the existence of extraterrestrial life and separate-but-equal heavens for people of different races.

Gradually, Falun Gong gained adherents in her neighborhood, Xu Family Hamlet, which is located in an industrial suburb of Weifang, a city of 1.3 million in eastern China's Shandong province. The hamlet is a dusty maze of poplar-lined dirt roads and bungalows surrounded by crumbling brown brick walls -- a typical village being swallowed up by its urban neighbor. By last year, her local group had doubled in size to a dozen regular members -- hardly a giant organization, but a regular presence in the community.

For Ms. Chen, China's decision to ban Falun Gong last July came out of the blue. She hadn't noticed the articles and television shows that had attacked the group, and she paid little attention a year ago when members surrounded the Communist Party's leadership compound in Beijing. The day the government ban was announced "was the bitterest of her life," said her daughter, Ms. Zhang. "She couldn't accept that they were criticizing Falun Gong and calling it an evil cult."

Although barely literate and never before interested in politics, Ms. Chen resisted the ban. She invited group members to practice at her home and refused to deny her affiliation with the group or her love for Mr. Li, whom she respectfully called "Master Li."

Then, last November, several top organizers of Falun Gong were given long prison sentences. Shocked, Ms. Chen joined thousands of fellow practitioners by traveling to Beijing with the vague idea of protesting against the government. Since the ban in July, many had gone to Tiananmen Square and sat cross-legged with their arms stretched in an arc over their heads -- the classic starting pose for Falun Gong exercises.

Ms. Chen never made it that far. On Dec. 4, the day after she arrived in Beijing, she was walking through the Temple of Heaven park when a plain-clothes security agent asked if she was a member. She answered truthfully and was arrested, her daughter said.

She was taken to the Weifang municipal government's Beijing representative office, a sort of lobbying bureau-cum-dormitory that scores of Chinese cities and provinces have set up in the capital to house local officials visiting Beijing.

The next day, Ms. Zhang and three local officials made the seven-hour drive to Beijing to pick up Ms. Chen, a humiliation for the officials, who were criticized for not keeping better control of their people. Ms. Zhang paid the equivalent of a $60 fine -- a month's wages -- and returned home with her mother, who complained that police had confiscated the $75 in cash she had brought with her.

As punishment, officials from the Chengguan Street Committee (street committees are the lowest level in China's system of government) confined Ms. Chen to their offices, just 200 yards from her home. She stayed there for two weeks, in a form of "administrative detention" that the state can impose almost indefinitely. Ms. Zhang had to pay another $45 for her mother's room and board.

On Jan. 3, Ms. Chen celebrated her 58th birthday. Despite being under day-and-night observation, she was in great spirits, Ms. Zhang said. "She knew she was right. All she wanted was to make the government not make a criminal out of her because she knew she wasn't a criminal."

Then, on Chinese New Year, which this year fell on Feb. 4, hundreds of Falun Gong protesters were arrested and beaten in Beijing. (Though no longer under surveillance, Ms. Chen wasn't a protester.) Officials in the capital were stunned by the outbreak. On Feb. 16, the local district chief came to see Ms. Chen and told her that Beijing wanted to make sure no other Falun Gong adherents went to Beijing, especially since China's annual session of parliament was due to begin in a few days. He asked Ms. Chen to promise she wouldn't leave home.

"My mother told them very clearly that she wouldn't guarantee that she wouldn't go anywhere. She said she had the right to go where she pleased," Ms. Zhang said. The officials left in a huff.

Two days later, Ms. Zhang came home to find half a dozen officials in her living room. They said her mother had been spotted outside by a special squad of informants who roamed the neighborhood looking for Falun Gong participants who dared to leave home.

Ms. Chen was taken into custody and never seen by her daughter again. She was held for a day in the Chengguan Street Committee offices, but then during the night she managed to escape -- exactly how isn't clear, officials told Ms. Zhang. Ms. Chen was arrested the next day, Feb. 17, heading for the train station, apparently hoping to go to Beijing to plead her case before the Petitions and Appeals Office, a last resort for people who feel they have been wronged.

This time, officials from the local district Communist Party office sent Ms. Chen to a small, unofficial prison run by the street committee, described to practitioners as the Falun Gong Education Study Class.

People who have been held there describe it as more of a torture chamber. The building is two stories with a yard in the middle. In the corner of the yard is a squat one-story building with two rooms. This is where beatings took place, according to four detainees who described the building in separate accounts.

While Ms. Chen was transferred to the detention center, officials called Ms. Zhang and said her mother would be released if she would pay a $241 fine. Ms. Zhang was fed up with the government's "fines" and, she said, her mother's insistence on standing up for her rights. She told the officials that their fines were illegal and that she would complain to the local procurator's office if they didn't release her mother. She rejected another call on Feb.18 and again threatened legal action, though she didn't follow through.

Meanwhile, Ms. Chen spent a night in the jail, listening to screams emanating from the squat building, according to two of her cellmates. Before she was led in, she was allowed another phone call. She called her daughter later on the 18th and asked her to bring the money. Irritated by the troubles brought on by her mother's uncompromising attitude, Ms. Zhang argued with her. Give in and come home, the daughter pleaded. Her mother quietly refused.

Ms. Chen's ordeal began that night. Wrote an adherent who was in the next room of the squat building: "We heard her screaming. Our hearts were tortured and our spirits almost collapsed." Officials from the Chengguan Street Committee used plastic truncheons on her calves, feet and lower back, as well as a cattle prod on her head and neck, according to witnesses. They shouted at her repeatedly to give up Falun Gong and to curse Mr. Li, according to her cellmates. Each time, Ms. Chen refused.

The next day, the 19th, Ms. Zhang got another call. Bring the money, she was told. Ms. Zhang hesitated. Her mother came on the line. Her voice, usually so strong and confident, was soft and pained. She pleaded with her daughter to bring the money. The caller came back on the phone. Bring the money, she said.

Ms. Zhang got a sick feeling and rushed over with the money and some clothes. But the building was surrounded by agents who wouldn't let her see her mother. Suspicious that this was a ruse to get more money from her -- and that her mother wasn't really in the building at all -- she returned home. An hour later, a practitioner came to see Ms. Zhang. Falun Gong adherents were being beaten in the center, she was told.

Ms. Zhang raced back with her brother, carrying fruit as a small bribe for the police. She was refused entrance and her money was refused as well. She noticed an old woman in a room and shouted up to her: "Is my mother being beaten?" The old woman waved her hand to signify "no," although Ms. Zhang wondered whether she might have been trying to wave her away from the prison, fearing she, too, would be arrested. Ms. Zhang and her brother went home for a fitful, sleepless night.

That night, Ms. Chen was taken back into the room. After again refusing to give up Falun Gong, she was beaten and jolted with the stun stick, according to two prisoners who heard the incident and one who caught glimpses of it through a door. Her cellmates heard her curse the officials, saying the central government would punish them once they were exposed. But in an answer that Falun Gong adherents say they heard repeatedly in different parts of the country, the Weifang officials told Ms. Chen that they had been told by the central government that "no measures are too excessive" to wipe out Falun Gong. The beatings continued and would stop only when Ms. Chen changed her thinking, according to two prisoners who say they overheard the incident.

Two hours after she went in, Ms. Chen was pushed back into her cell on the second story of the main building, an unheated room with only a sheet of steel for a bed. Her three cellmates tended to her wounds, but she fell into a delirium. One of the cellmates remembers her moaning "mommy, mommy."

The next morning, the 20th, she was ordered out to jog. "I saw from the window that she crawled out with difficulty," wrote a cellmate in a letter smuggled out by her husband. Ms. Chen collapsed and was dragged back into the cell.

"I was a medical major. When I saw her dying, I suggested moving her into another [heated] room," the cellmate wrote in her letter. Instead, local government officials gave her "sanqi," herbal pills for light internal bleeding. "But she couldn't swallow and spat them out." Cellmates implored the officials to send Ms. Chen to a hospital, but the officials -- who often criticize Falun Gong practitioners for forgoing modern medical treatment in favor of a superstitious belief in their exercises -- refused, her cellmates said. Eventually they brought in a doctor, who pronounced her healthy.

But, wrote the cellmate: "She wasn't conscious and didn't talk, and only spat dark-colored sticky liquid. We guessed it was blood. Only the next morning did they confirm that she's dying." An employee of the local Public Security Bureau, Liu Guangming, "tried her pulse and his face froze." Ms. Chen was dead.

That evening, officials went over to Ms. Zhang's house and said her mother was ill, according to Ms. Zhang and her brother. The two piled into a car and were driven to a hotel about a mile from the detention center. The hotel was surrounded by police. The local party secretary told them Ms. Chen had died of a heart attack, but they wouldn't allow them to see her body. After hours of arguing, the officials finally said they could see the body, but only the next day, and insisted they spend the night in the heavily guarded hotel. The siblings refused and finally were allowed to go home.

On the 22nd, Ms. Zhang and her brother were taken to the local hospital, which was also ringed by police. Their mother, they recalled, was laid out on a table in traditional mourning garb: a simple blue cotton tunic over pants. In a bag tossed in the corner of the room, Ms. Zhang said she spotted her mother's torn and bloodied clothes, the underwear badly soiled. Her calves were black. Six-inch welts streaked along her back. Her teeth were broken. Her ear was swollen and blue. Ms. Zhang fainted, and her brother, weeping, caught her.

That day, the hospital issued a report on Ms. Chen. It said the cause of death was natural. The hospital declines to comment on the matter. Ms. Zhang said she challenged officials about the clothing she had seen, but they told her her mother had become incontinent after the heart attack and that was why her clothes were soiled.

Ms. Zhang and her brother tried filing a lawsuit, but no lawyer would accept the case. Meantime, her mother's body lay in refrigeration, until the threatened litigation was resolved.

Then, on March 17, Ms. Zhang received a letter from the hospital saying the body would be cremated that day. Ms. Zhang called the hospital to try to prevent it, but she said officials didn't give her a clear answer and said they would have to call her back. They didn't. Ms. Zhang never saw her mother's body again.