- Mary-Anne Toy
- July 26, 2008
Falun Gong practitioners and democracy activists try to draw attention to the plight of the persecuted movement in front of the Washington Monument in the US capital.
HELEN is a graduate of one of Beijing's most prestigious universities and speaks fluent English and French. She lives in poverty in a run-down apartment block in a Chinese city that shall remain nameless.
Neighbouring flats are occupied by mistresses of married Chinese businessmen.
Helen, not her real name, lives a secret life too; one that is far more dangerous and far less acceptable to China's Communist leaders than being kept as a mistress.
She believes in Falun Gong, a quasi-Buddhist spiritual movement preaching "truth, forbearance and compassion" and teaches qi gong — ancient Chinese breathing exercises — to improve health and even cure illnesses and injuries.
Practising Falun Gong — the exercises or the teachings known as Falun Dafa — is punishable by jail, torture and even death in China. The Government says it is an "evil cult" that brainwashes its victims into refusing medical treatment and even suicide.
There have been at least 3000 documented deaths and 63,000 cases of torture of Falun Gong practitioners in China. Helen, who refuses to denounce Falun Gong, has survived two stints in labour camps and does not think she could survive a third, hence her life on the run.
With the Olympics less than 13 days away, the country's vast security network is trying to to ensure an incident-free Games. This includes random sweeps of housing compounds for identity checks to ensure that "undesirables" are picked up or forced away into someone else's jurisdiction — making life even more precarious for people like Helen.
Falun Gong was banned in July 1999 after the Chinese Communist Government was alarmed by its sudden popularity and its ability to organise mass protest. The famous silent protest in April 1999 when 10,000 practitioners surrounded the Communist leadership compound, Zhongnanhai, in Beijing, was the final straw for then president Jiang Zemin, who ordered the movement be eradicated.
Falun Gong was founded in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, a former soldier turned qi gong expert, and was the most popular of many qi gong groups in vogue then as people looked for meaning in post-communist, quasi-capitalist but still one-party controlled China. By the time Falun Gong was banned, state-run media estimated it had 70 million followers in China, including government and party cadres.
A savage propaganda campaign ensued, reminiscent of previous Communist purges such as the Cultural Revolution. It demonised Falun Gong as a doomsday cult that was undermining social stability.
Thousands of members were forced to recant or suffer torture and death in labour camps. Followers were sacked, expelled from universities, deprived of health care and pensions, some spouses filed for divorce. Several members immolated themselves in Tiananmen Square, an incident that Falun Gong claims was fabricated.
Outside of China, Falun Gong continued to grow and now members in 70 other countries including Australia wage a guerilla campaign against the Communist Party. They have made unprovable allegations such as that 6000 imprisoned Falun Gong followers were having their organs harvested.
China has denied organ harvesting and said Falun Gong threatened serious social disorder and the Government acted lawfully in suppressing it. The US State Department, US Congress, the United Nations and human rights groups such as Amnesty say persecution of Falun Gong practitioners in China is a continuing abuse of human rights.
Since Helen was released from a labour camp in 2005, she has been living on the edge of society, frequently moving around, yet still spreading the word about Falun Gong.
"More and more people are becoming practitioners … Even under such persecution it is becoming a strong (moral) force that the CPC will not be able to stop one day soon," she says.
The Age had to take precautions to contact Helen so her location could not be identified by authorities.
"There is an enormous vacuum in every Chinese person's heart, no belief, no moral standards … and in this situation when they meet a Falun Gong person or read a Falun Gong book which teaches them how to be a good person and gives moral guidelines for living, they are really awakened and shaken," she says.
Students Li and Wang, both just 17, plan to quit high school after learning Falun Gong through Helen. Another recruit, Susan, is halfway through university. She intends to complete her course even though she doubts the value of the education she is receiving because she is too timid, she says, to buck the system entirely.
Li's parents knew of Helen's past and her two stints in labour camps, but she was an old family friend and an English teacher who could possibly help their surly, sometimes suicidal, teenager as a tutor, so they welcomed her into their home.
He resisted learning English for years, but when Helen began telling him about Falun Gong, he was hooked. Li said it had given his life purpose. He now loved studying, but planned to leave the soul-destroying rote-learning education system. He found a job so he could move out of home and practise Falun Gong in peace.
This angered his parents and Li's father threatened to report Helen to police. He did not follow through with the threat, after Li's mother threatened to disgrace her husband by going public about his mistress if he tried to turn in Helen and their son.
Helen said she was initially keen to protest at the Olympics, but has realised she had more important work to do.
"Many people like me have really risked our lives, including in jail … to try and let the world know what is happening and that is enough in my opinion," Helen said.
John Deller, a spokesman for Falun Gong Australia, said the movement was indigenous to China and had the concern of Chinese people at heart, so they did not want to upset the Olympics.
They also feared the Government would twist any Olympic protests to further discredit Falun Gong.
"The problem is that the powers that be are using the Games to persecute people," he said.
Helen lives in a bare concrete-floored flat that is stifling in summer. It is rented in a friend's name. She sneaks in and out of the housing compound early in the morning and late at night, when most people are asleep.
She stays as quietly as possible, a habit that has given her a soft speaking voice. She never answers the door unless she is expecting a friend, and they have a special code, regularly changed, to identify themselves. When she learns of a security sweep, or if the housing committee is asking too many questions about her, she goes into hiding until it is safe to return. She stays in touch with other practitioners and her family through the internet and occasional phone calls.
She still manages to meet new people and sometimes reveals her interest in Falun Gong. In doing so, she risks her life. But in three years on the run, her secret has been kept.
"We're not trying to overthrow the government. We're just trying to help people understand the CPC's evil nature … and that they can break free," Helen says. "How can I overthrow the Government? I don't have a weapon and I have to be careful all the time."