By Nima Green
Thousands of followers of the Chinese spiritualistic practice Falun Gong are facing persecution, torture and even death for refusing to renounce their beliefs. Frank Zhao, who now lives in Perth, is one such follower who spent two years in a labour camp. Here is his remarkable story.
Frank peers through the cold, iron bars of his 2m squared, claustrophobic cage. He is alone, finally, after hours of aggressive police questioning. It’s October 2001, and Frank Zhao, a young, Chinese IT technician, cannot quite believe the position he is in; in a cage, inside a prison, somewhere in the south of China.
Is he afraid?
“No, I know I have done nothing wrong.”
Yet just a few hours earlier, Frank had been arrested inside his own home, his arms pinned down and his apartment completely ransacked by five men bursting inside in the dead of night.
“We know who you are!” one policeman barks, leaning over Frank, whose face is being pressed into the floor.
“Where are all your materials?” another demands. Frank turns his head and watches helplessly, as the strangers rifle unceremoniously through his belongings. His laptop and his phone are seized, as are several books, and then his phonebook as well. They have what they came for and so they drag Frank to his feet and haul him out the door, down the stairs and into the cool, autumn night. As Frank is led away from his home, back in his bedroom, a Falun Gong book lies open.
Five years previously, in 1996, Frank was a Uni student, like any other, in a North Eastern Chinese University. Whilst still a young man, he was in poor health, suffering from an irregular heartbeat, and what he describes as a “weak disposition”. In an effort to help, his brother gave him a book about a type of Quigong, that is a type of spiritualistic belief-system, based on self-cultivation and energy levels, similar to Tai Chi or Yoga. This was a new system though, having only been founded in 1992 by Li Hongzhi. It was called Falun Gong, meaning “law-wheel”. This seemingly innocuous book, gifted with well-meaning intent, was to completely change his life forever.
At first, the change was positive. After reading the book, Frank began to practice Falun Gong’s meditative positions. His heart beat stabilised, and Frank found himself enjoying good health for the first time in his life.
“They were the best years-they were happy times.” he says.
However, in 1999, Jiang Zemin, the President of the People’s Republic, banned Falun Gong. Many believe that the Communist Party had become threatened by the huge numbers that the practice had amassed, approximately 70-100 million people by Chinese Government estimates. And so since 1999, Falun Gong practitioners have been systematically persecuted by the Chinese State. Statistics collected by the Falun Gong Information Centre based in New York, say that there have been 87,000 reports of torture and 3,369 confirmed deaths since 1999, although due to censorship, the figures may be higher. There are even widely reported cases of organ harvesting. Frank is one of the many who have been made to suffer for their right to believe.
Kati Vereshaka, the spokesperson for the Falun Dafa Association of Victoria says,
“Many ask why we are so severely persecuted and I think you’ve got to look at the numbers…Every aspect of China is supposed to be tightly controlled by the Communist party, so the fact that such a large group is outside of Party control is threatening…But it’s more than that, we have strong moral values that are set by Falun Dafa principles not by the party, so it’s also an ideological struggle as well.”
It is this ideological divide that practitioners, like Kati and Frank, explain is part of the reason why so many of them risk so much, their jobs, their families and even their lives, to persist despite such odds.
After his arrest in 2001, Frank was sentenced to two years in a labour camp. There had been no trial, no judge or jury and no witnesses. When he arrived, he was met with the sight of high concrete walls, surrounding a vast treeless, grey compound with prison guards dressed from head-to-toe in black. He was put to work making everything from smart suits to Christmas lights for more than 12 hours a day. He was also put under pressure to “confess” that Falun Gong is an evil practice, and to renounce it. He refused at first, and continued to do so, until a year into his imprisonment, he was moved to an isolated part of the labour camp, to a cell away from the others.
“In that place I was forced give up my beliefs.” Frank utters softly.
“They asked me to write something saying that Falun Gong was no good. If I refused, they beat me…they used their fists, they used their feet. For more than one week I was only allowed to sleep for two hours a day from 2am to 4am. It was unforgettable. It was terrible, really terrible…” Franks voice breaks for the first time. He pauses, and then adds,
“I did it…This is something in my life that I’m really ashamed of…but no matter it’s in the past…” Frank trails off.
This signed confession meant that Frank was not tortured again, and in 2003 he was released. However, his problems were not over yet. Frank and his wife were put under surveillance and had several more run-ins with police. Eventually, they went on the run, moving from place to place. Then, just before the 2008 Olympic Games, the Communist Party increased the level of pressure on suspected dissidents, and Frank felt that the situation was becoming too dangerous. Frank and his wife made the difficult decision to leave their families behind, and flee. Frank’s mother was able to get them passports from a small-town official, and in July 2008, Frank and his wife flew into Perth, and made a request for asylum. Three years later, Frank describes their new life as “a different world.”
“In China I had to keep my belief in my heart, but in Australia I can even wear a yellow t-shirt saying ‘Falun Gong is good!”
Falun Gong practitioners continue to face detention and torture in China, yet Frank’s story is a testament to human will in the face of adversity and prejudice. He hopes that going public with his story will help to raise awareness of the continuing plight of many of his people, and says that his experiences haven’t dented his self-belief, but actually have served to strengthen it.
“You cannot beat belief out of someone. It’s a human right to be free to believe. I feel free now.”