New York—Nearly 20 years ago on April 25, 1999, over 10,000 followers of the spiritual practice Falun Gong gathered on the streets of Beijing to silently appeal for the right to practice their faith, without persecution.
That day, the sidewalks near the Chinese Communist Party leadership compound were filled with polite, peaceful meditators wondering why their friends were starting to be arrested.
Zhaohe You, 65, and his wife Lurai Wang, 61, were among the many who stood in solidarity after police officials arrested and beat dozens of practitioners just days earlier in the city of Tianjin, a two-hour drive from Beijing. The practitioners in Tianjin had been calmly appealing to a magazine publisher who had written a false article attacking the practice.
Falun Gong is a traditional Chinese spiritual discipline based on the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance.
But the April 25 gathering didn’t yield any favorable results, and by late July, then leader of the Chinese Communist Party, Jiang Zemin, had launched a large-scale persecution of Falun Gong that continues until today.
Two Decades of Determination
Now, nearly two decades later, the sidewalks of New York were filled with pedestrians who stopped to watch and record the whirlwind of colors from a marching military band, meticulously designed floats, bustling dragon dance troupes, and cheerful ladies playing Chinese waist drums.
On Sunday April 22, about 1,000 Falun Gong practitioners from the New York area paraded through Queens, to mark the 19th anniversary of that fateful day that’s both sad and also a testament to great determination.
For Wang and You the anniversary carries significant meaning.
Wang first discovered Falun Gong years ago in 1996 after suffering from multiple illnesses, including a giant hemangioma (an exposed blood vessel) that was difficult to treat.
“After starting the practice, in just a few months, I was totally different in body and spirit. I then knew what it is like to have no sickness at all and for my body to feel light,” Wang, a public servant at the time, said.
When her husband, You, a philosophy professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, witnessed the changes in her, he also starting practicing.
“We wanted people to know that the people they arrested in Tianjin are innocent people,” You said, explaining the reason the pair made the trip to Beijing. “We wanted society to learn about the truth and what kind of people we are.”
You, Wang, and the rest of the group settled in peacefully without any shouting. Some stood, others sat down reading “Zhuan Falun,” the main text of Falun Gong, and some meditated, the pair recalled.
“Seeing so many practitioners there was very emotional for me,” Wang said. “They are all good people, so seeing them stand up in the face of such injustice was very touching.”
The group had three simple requests for officials: release the innocent Falun Gong practitioners arrested in Tianjin; give Falun Gong a peaceful cultivation environment; and allow the publication of Falun Gong books. They had no political agenda.
“We didn’t know how long we should stand for, but we knew that we did nothing wrong,” she said.
Wang recalled a meaningful encounter she had with one of the many policeman on Fuyou Street, the location of China’s Central Appeals Office. The office was right next to Zhongnanhai, the seat of China’s regime and living quarters for the Communist Party leadership.
She said the atmosphere changed when police saw how they acted.
“The policemen standing before us were nervous at first but then relaxed after a while seeing how peaceful we were,” Wang said. “One of them who was standing close to me told me he’s from Beijing and over his many years he’d never seen such a peaceful group of people gathered there.”
As the day progressed, representatives from among the Falun Gong practitioners managed to talk with officials. The practitioners believed the discussion to be a success and by 10 p.m. everyone had quietly left.
But months later, as the brutal persecution ensued, Wang and You were both arrested. They were tortured on around 11 different occasions. They spent about 1 year each in labor camps, where prison guards beat them and tortured them in a bid to make them renounce their faith.
While not in custody, Wang said she was constantly being observed and stalked on “extreme levels” from morning to night. At times the pressure was so great, they say their will nearly faltered.
“Saying that we were not scared, that is an impossible statement,” Wang said. “One time I was chased through the streets and I had to out run them. I can’t tell you what it was like but the pressure was intense.”
During this tumultuous period, the couple’s daughter, Teresa You, asked them “Why not go to America?”
The family decided to follow their daughter’s idea and secretly prepared to leave. In one instance they were arrested on April 21, 2015, and were contained for one month, they were told not to leave Beijing. But on March 29, 2016, they managed to escape.
After the family arrived in the United States, they admit it took some time to get rid of their fear, “We were unsettled for a long time,” Wang said.
Now they are thankful to be in a free environment where they can tell people how Falun Gong changed their lives, and about the persecution still taking place in China. Nineteen years later, they are just as committed as they were on that pivotal day in April 1999.
As You, Wang, and the legion of Falun Gong practitioners marched down the streets on April 2018, their faces beamed, expressing hope and unflinching resolve.