A Battle of Wills
BEIJING -- It's 9 a.m., and Mei Yulan looks distinctly down at heel, having spent the third night in a row walking the chilly April streets of China's capital, waiting for today to arrive.
When it does, the 44-year-old farmer knows what she will do. Like scores of fellow adherents of Falun Dafa, Ms. Mei will head to Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing and proclaim the innocence of her sect in hopes the government will legalize the group. Before she gets to utter a word, she expects to be arrested and whisked away to face days, months or years of incarceration or hard labor.
Indeed, early Tuesday, police had established a tight cordon around the square and were asking people coming out of subways and off buses if they were Falun Dafa adherents. At least a dozen were detained by 8 a.m.
It is a fate more than 30,000 have faced over the past year as the group, which practices a form of meditation and exercises, has intensified its struggle with Beijing to gain legitimacy. China, however, shows no sign of bending, insisting that Falun Dafa believers are being duped by an "evil cult" that has cheated members of money and whose emphasis on prayer over science has led to thousands of deaths due to lack of medical care.
The battle was joined exactly a year ago, when roughly 10,000 Falun Dafa practitioners surrounded the downtown leadership compound of the Communist Party, demanding an end to what they said was biased coverage of their group in the state media. Local television stations and newspapers had been criticizing the group as "superstitious" -- a word in communist parlance indicating the group soon would be banned.
Last year's protest hastened its fate. Shocked by the well-organized demonstration, the government arrested top Falun Dafa leaders, banned the group in July and then promulgated a law barring cults. Yet each step has only caused more protests, which have been met by increasingly harsh police treatment. Human-rights groups say it is likely more than a dozen believers have died of police brutality in prison, while thousands of others like Ms. Mei have been beaten or tortured, many with clubs and electric batons.
To an outsider, Ms. Mei's willingness to face almost certain rearrest seems like zealotry. No one compels her or her fellow believers to go downtown; indeed, many Falun Dafa adherents appear able to continue to practice their faith at home.
The mother of two girls sees it differently. She regards it as her duty to proclaim the group's innocence and, through a steady battle of wills, to force the government to change its mind. While she might not put it in such words, she behaves like a martyr for her new religion, relying on faith to justify her actions. "All 11 members of my family have been arrested," she says, recounting her story in a taxi being driven by a Falun Dafa believer.
"We're ready for any sacrifice."
Sitting beside her is her 75-year-old mother-in-law, who explains in her thick native Henan accent how she, too, was beaten in police custody two weeks ago. Local authorities, the women say, were trying to make them renounce their belief so they wouldn't travel to Beijing for the anniversary. One official whacked away at both women's calves with a plastic truncheon, they say, and they roll up their thick blue cotton trousers to show dark-blue and black bruises.
Authorities say the claims of police abuse are an effort to smear the government, but the accounts are detailed and often corroborated by Falun Dafa members in other cities, who tell of similar efforts by officials to torture believers into submission.
"When I was arrested two weeks ago," Ms. Mei says, "police pulled my head back with my hair and asked me to give up Falun Gong," as the practice is also called. "I said no, and then they told me to sit cross-legged. Then they trod on my feet until I screamed in pain."
After 10 days, Ms. Mei was released when she promised not to go to Beijing. She left the next day and was initially put up in the homes of local Falun Dafa believers. As the anniversary approached, many of these benefactors were detained -- her most recent host was picked up while Ms. Mei was out buying vegetables in the market. She spied police cars ringing the apartment building and fled, leaving her belongings behind. Since then, she has wandered the city and slept outside, wary of the police who scour Beijing for vagrant Falun Dafa believers.
In addition to exercises and meditation, Falun Dafa's practices include readings from the moralistic, and sometimes controversial, works of group founder Li Hongzhi. The group says it is apolitical; China's leaders see its protests as a threat.
Residents here say the police have targeted city dwellers first, hoping to
make it difficult for outsiders like Ms. Mei to survive in Beijing. Zhang
First, she says, she was slapped and beaten several times. Then, when none of the 15 Falun Dafa believers in her cell repented, she was singled out as the cell's ringleader because she happened to be standing in front of the cell when a warden came by to see the recalcitrant prisoners.
Two other prisoners, interviewed separately, confirm her story: After the warden left, a female prison guard ordered Ms. Zhang to give up Falun Dafa. When she refused, the guard ordered her to strip and kneel naked before her on the concrete floor. The guard poured bucket after bucket of water on Ms. Zhang, each time ordering her to give up Falun Dafa. But each of the five times, Ms. Zhang refused, even as she started shaking from the cold in the poorly heated cell.