by John Meagher
Irish Independent: Life was looking rosy for Ming Zhao. It was the end of 1999, and he had returned from China after almost a year in Dublin studying on a scholarship at Trinity College. A top-grade computer science student, he was looking forward to spending time with his parents and three brothers, all of whom had carved a career out of computing.
While in Dublin, Ming had been dismayed to hear that the Chinese government had begun persecuting members of the spiritual Falun Gong movement, of which he was a follower.
Shortly after returning to China, he went to his local government appeals office in order to register his opposition to the persecution. He was arrested on the spot, detained for several days and his passport was confiscated.
It was an experience that didn't deter him from spreading the Falun Gong message of "truthfulness, compassion and tolerance". But his luck soon ran out. At a peaceful rally in Beijing in early 2000, he was one of several arrested. And so began two years of internment in a 'labour camp' where torture was a frequent occurrence.
Today, Ming, a 38-year-old Dublin-based web designer, recalls the nightmare of the Chinese justice system for many arrested Falun Gong followers.
"They used electric batons to shock us," he says. "They would tie me to a bed-board when giving me the electric shocks. It was incredibly painful -- the skin would go red immediately and the following day it would be black. Fear of the shocks was almost as bad as the shocks themselves."
His quiet, softly spoken voice only serves to heighten the trauma that he describes.
He was subjected to regular bouts of sleep deprivation. "The other inmates would be told not to let me sleep," he says. "It was terrible -- I thought I was losing my mind. And that's what they wanted, of course."
And there was worse to come in the Tuanhe 'Re-education through labour' Camp in Beijing. "They ordered inmates who were there for other crimes to beat me up. They were given special benefits for carrying out the beatings -- sometimes they were released early as a result. Once I was beaten so badly I couldn't walk for two weeks." Nor was he able to use the toilet. "My legs were so badly beaten I couldn't squat. It was an evil place."
The physical scars eventually disappeared, but the psychological wounds remain. He looks visibly distressed when recalling the beatings that he was frequently subjected to in captivity.
'My life is happy now, but I cannot forget. And thinking about what happened to me makes me realise that at this very moment there are thousands of Falun Gong followers who are experiencing the same sort of torture in prisons throughout China.
"And then there is the matter of the body-organ harvesting. Many Falun Gong followers have died in prison and their organs have been taken. The United Nations has written a number of reports about this practice, but it is something that the Chinese authorities have denied."
For most of Ming's two years in prison, his family did not know his whereabouts.
"The authorities did not inform them that I was in prison. My older brother only found out by chance -- he had gone to every prison in Beijing to try to find me."
Furthermore, he wasn't informed of his release date until the actual day. "Psychologically, not knowing when I was going to get out of prison was extremely difficult. There was no date for me to look forward to. Sometimes, I wondered if I would ever get out."
He believes the establishment's opposition to Falun Gong is inspired by a fear of mass mobilisation. When the persecution started in July 1999, an estimated 70 million Chinese were Falun Gong followers.
"The government spreads lies about Falun Gong -- it says that it is a cult, but it is not religious at all. It says we believe that sick people should not receive medicine and should commit suicide instead -- it's a lie.
"After the Cultural Revolution [Mao Tse Tung's violent campaign to rid the country of its liberal bourgeoisie] ordinary people kept their heads down and got on with their lives. There was a sense of fear. But Li Hongzu [Falun Gong founder] changed that. His teachings offered people a new way of looking at their lives."
Ming first read Li's introductory book, Falun Gong, in 1994 -- two years after it was first published. "It had a huge impact on me," he says. "It made me re-evaluate my life and my health improved as a result. It taught me to look at all aspects of the way I was living -- from meditation to food. It offers a balanced look at life -- I would recommend it to anyone."
Today, he estimates that there are about 40 dedicated Falun Gong practitioners living in Ireland. It is not known what proportion of the 70,000-odd Chinese living in this country follow the teachings.
After release from prison -- a move that was hastened thanks to international pressure led by then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern -- Ming returned to Ireland to complete his studies at Trinity. He enjoys life here, but hopes to return to China one day.
"My father saw me off at the airport and he told me not to come back to China because it would be too dangerous for me. He believed I would be arrested again if I returned."
That was in 2002 and he hasn't seen his father -- or any member of his family -- since. "I speak to them on the phone, but that's it. It is difficult being away from them. When this regime falls, I will see them again."
Ming believes political change is underway in China, with growing millions demanding greater freedom. "The mood is changing," he says. "The current head of the government is not as opposed to Falun Gong as his predecessor was, but the situation is still not safe."
Despite his suffering, and the uncertain future, Ming has no regrets about following the Falun Gong way or life.
"It has improved me as a person in a way that I could not have imagined. It has made me strong, too. One day I will be free to practise it in my own country. I'm sure of it."