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Friday, July 08, 2011

Free of Charge

Tian Jin, a Chinese immigrant and Falun Gong practitioner, reflects on her life as an activist and her perilous road to religious freedom

When prison guards in drab colours first came at her with a syringe and stuck it in one of her veins, Tian Jin had few options but to resist. Her blood was drawn for reasons she didn't understand.

Her little sister's blood was also taken during one of three imprisonments, but their elderly mother, who was twice arrested and detained, was never forced to give a blood sample. It wasn't until years later that they heard rumours that prisoners were cut open, their liver, kidneys, heart and other organs hacked from their bodies. "Blood taking was to find a match," Jin said through a translator this April in Vancouver.

Even when she was jailed with dozens of other women in cramped, cinder-block cells, she said only some detainees had their blood tested. She said the women who were singled out were, like her, Falun Gong practitioners.

This winter, as the city debated and eventually amended a traffic bylaw about the eight-year vigil maintained by the Falun Gong in front of the Chinese Consulate on Granville Street, the silent protest continued. Jin could be found on the grass between a cement wall and loud, fast traffic heading downtown. These and other Falun Gong practitioners must now apply to maintain a small wood hut outside the consulate every two months. Nothing prohibits them from squatting on the grass, banners unfurled as they meditate and pray, which they do day and night.

Dressed in pastel sweat pants and a bright pink blouse buttoned to the collar beneath a V-neck sweater, Jin tells her story in Mandarin through two translators, including Sue Zhang who's become a pseudo spokesperson for Falun Gong practitioners in Vancouver.

Jin works part time at a Burnaby printing press and also draws on limited social assistance while she takes English classes. Speaking in their second-floor bedroom with the door closed and two laptops on the table, her husband Song Chen, a tall man with high cheekbones and a level gaze, leans toward her with his eyes welling with tears on the one occasion Jin sobs while telling her story. Despite alleging torture, starvation, forced labour and isolation from her family, Jin breaks down and weeps only once. "They could not change my belief," she says. Her faith is constant, unassailable. And she fled to Canada where she could practise. "It is my great honour and my dream living in Canada, a free world," she said through a translator. "It is very precious to me... I practise Falun Dafa wherever and whenever I want."

Jin holds permanent resident status and will apply for citizenship when she is eligible. As a refugee, she was drawn to Canada for one specific reason--one Vancouverites will recognize as the nine-year vigil outside the Chinese Consulate. "I chose Canada because I saw the report of the Vancouver practitioners' 24-hour protest. It gave me hope and courage when I was at the darkest time of my life."

On this Canada Day, Jin will exercise her democratic right of freedom of expression. "I may go to the Chinese consulate to sit quietly to protest the persecution of Falun Gong by the Chinese Communist Party."

Jin's history of protest against the Chinese government's religious prohibition dates back to when she was first arrested in the summer of 1999. In her late 20s, she travelled from her home in the capital city of Liaoning province in northeast China to Beijing's Tiananmen Square and helped unfurl a five-metre banner with three words: "Practicing peaceful appeal."

Earlier that spring, the communist government of the People's Republic of China responded to a nascent but popular spiritual movement that had so far been ignored. The statement on Jin's banner came in response to two violent crackdowns and a decision by the establishment to ban Falun Gong, which was branded "an illegal organization spreading superstition and heresies and disrupting social stability in the guise of physical fitness exercises," according to an English version of the state-run media, the People's Daily.

The decree was delivered with the morning news: "The Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs announced that Li Hongshi's Falun Gong organization is illegal and therefore banned."

The state's newspaper reported on July 30, 1999: "China has confiscated 1.55 million volumes of illegally published books and materials on Falun Gong since the central authorities banned it on July 22." The People's Daily also reported an estimated 300,000 confiscated publications were destroyed that week. Printers and wholesalers, book stores and retailers that stocked Zhuan Falun, the founding and rambling philosophies written by Li, were shut down. In addition to criminalizing her beliefs and outlawing her rituals, Jin says her values were also being widely discredited, misrepresented and slandered by her government.

The state media alleged Falun Gong had duped its believers, such as Jin, and persuaded them to attack the Communist Party and media offices. "Li Hongzhi," read a People's Daily story two days after the ban, "caused fear among practitioners and some lost their sense of right and wrong and became ill or died. Some even killed relatives."

Suddenly an outcast along with millions of other practitioners, Jin radicalized and redoubled her efforts to defend her spirituality. Over the next decade, she would pay a dear price. But she would survive with her life.

At Tiananmen Square, alongside the group of fellow spiritual foot soldiers with their mild banner, Jin says she was detained on the spot and put on an eight-hour train ride north where she was confined for 14 months. She was interrogated about her beliefs, habits and Falun Gong's founder, Li. She withstood hours of lectures and corporal punishment aimed at "re-education." Outside in all weather conditions, she built bricks. She was hanged from a tree by her wrists in winter, her joints knotted together behind her back with one arm stretched and bent over her shoulder and the other arm bent and reaching up from her waist. She was put in a helmet and bashed in the head. The bruises healed and she didn't scar. Her blood was drawn, tested.

In jail, she says two friends were tortured to death. "That's the thing about torture: nobody knows, nobody sees it," she says.

Jin has little evidence of her three prison sentences except for their memory and medical discharge papers following a three-month hunger strike. Corroborating her experience is virtually impossible. The 2009 human rights investigation and book, Bloody Harvest: The Killing of Falun Gong for their Organs by former Edmonton MP David Kilgour and immigration lawyer David Matas, documents the evidence and numerous victims. They cite a United Nations report that states two in three alleged torture victims in China are Falun Gong practitioners. When she was released, Jin wasn't deterred from pushing her primary goal. "It is my strong wish that all these crimes be exposed to the outside world." Before she could reach a world-wide audience outside China, Jin began by raising awareness and morale at home.

Collaborating with other activists, an organized band carried small portable, battery-powered speakers to parks outside of labour camps, markets and factories. They mounted them high in trees and atop electrical posts, the speakers wired to cassette players set to a timer. Then they'd scatter. When the clock struck, anyone within earshot heard a pre-recorded message preaching the tenets of Falun Gong and the values embraced by millions of worldwide practitioners: truth, compassion, tolerance.

Falun Gong is a form of qigong, an ancient form of philosophy aligned with static and dynamic practice that incorporates coordinated breathing and meditative physical movements that resonate in Taoist and Buddhist traditions. Tai Chi is a form of qigong. What practitioners generally call Falun Dafa is also broadly known as Falun Gong, itself a young theology dating to the early 1990s. By 1998, as many as 70 million Chinese were said to practice. Jin, whose late father ran a bookshop, was introduced to the practice at the same time as her siblings and says she was drawn to its emphasis on morality. How truth, compassion and tolerance inform an individual's moral code is said to come clear to practitioners through cultivation and meditation.

The Chinese government has branded Falun Gong as "an evil cult." But practitioners don't subscribe to an organization, aren't forced to pay dues and are integrated members of society.

Nonetheless, Li has drawn broader criticism for his remarks about homosexuality. In the second volume of Zhuan Falun, first published in 1996 and translated to English in 2008, Li discredited gay and lesbian sexuality by lumping it with such social ills as drug abuse, trafficking, organized crime and promiscuity. He called homosexual behaviour "repulsive." "It's gotten out of hand!" he decried in his peculiar, ranting philosophical discharge. Although sexuality and same-sex marriage are constitutionally enshrined rights in Canada, Li wrote: "To be perfectly frank, your government may approve of it, but your Lord does not!"

Falun Gong is not the only religion with bigoted passages in its scripture. There are practitioners who insist homosexuals can use spiritual work to cultivate a change in orientation. On the topic, Jin doesn't hold any prejudice. "It's their freedom to choose to be lesbian or gay."

The second and third times Jin was arrested, she had breached the pervasive firewall that restricts Internet access in China. She had taken a role in a complex distribution network that included spontaneous guerilla broadcasting and widespread pamphlet printing. She accessed proxy servers in distant countries to douse the great firewall that limits the flow of information between China and the world. Relying on ever-more sophisticated technology, Jin burned CDs, printed brochures and downloaded images and news stories from outside her own borders. Among the greatest source of support for her and fellow practitioners, says Jin, were reports of a 24-hour vigil in Vancouver. Before that sustained act of solidarity began in 2003, however, Jin was sentenced to 10 years in a labour camp. Arrested in May, she was released in November following a 26-day hunger strike. In 2003, she was detained and sentenced to 13 years of forced labour. She again went on a hunger strike, this time clinging to life for 50 days before doctors granted her medical exemption, alerting her that she'd be back behind bars if her health improved.

In prison she was kept alive because she was force fed and hooked up to an intravenous drip. The food she remembers was hardly sustaining. Undercooked buns made from mouldy, maggoty flour. Dirty water. On the rare occasion there was meat, it was almost always spoiled.

An ambulance delivered her to her mother, who was also twice arrested and detained, and Jin remained under police surveillance. During these four years and three arrests, Jin's sister Cai was also arrested on three separate occasions, beaten and abused. They say they were never sexually assaulted, but tell horrific stories of women who were savagely wounded. Jin's husband, Song Chen, was tortured. At one time, his abusers pressed 28 electric batons against the most sensitive parts of his body. He says it was days until his sight returned. Jin's younger brother was recently released after serving nine years of a 10-year sentence. "Because he practiced. He didn't give it up."

Now 41, Jin arrived in Vancouver as a refugee two years ago on May 13, 2009. The date is personally significant and also resonates in the young history of Falun Gong because it is the day Li claims he was born. (Skeptics dispute this date since it falls on or near the birthday of the Buddha, which allows Li to claim added spiritual authority.)

When Jin fled China, she left with her husband and sister. They took a train south, eventually arriving in a United Nations refugee camp in Thailand. The sisters' mother, 73, stayed behind with her youngest son and daughter. Jin lives in the upstairs bedroom of a tidy but rundown, two-storey Strathcona house. She works nights while her husband runs a modest landscaping business. She spends a few hours each week protesting in silent meditation outside the Chinese Consulate. She continues to circumvent the Chinese firewall, plugging information into China from Canada and the outside world, most notably of the vigil in Vancouver.

More at Vancouver Courier

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