Followers of the Chinese practice and kin gather here to speak out against China’s crackdown.
The Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 1, 2002
By Kristin E. Holmes, Inquirer Staff Writer
Jingduan Yang’s mother wants him to shut up. Stop talking, she tells him in her phone calls from China.
Her youngest son, a Thomas Jefferson University Hospital psychiatrist, is only getting his big sister in more trouble.
“She’s in again and it’s all because of you,” Yang said his 79-year-old mother, Sun Yixia, told him. “Don’t say anything. Be quiet.”
But Yang refuses.
The 40-year-old native of Hefei, in China’s Anhui Province, wants anyone who will listen to know that his sister, Jingfang Yang, is imprisoned in China because of her belief in the spiritual meditation practice of Falun Gong.
Today, the Cherry Hill doctor will stand with other family members of detainees to raise awareness about the thousands of Falun Gong adherents who human-rights organizations say are being subjected to imprisonment, hard labor, torture and death because of their beliefs.
Yang is scheduled to speak at a news conference today at Thomas Paine Plaza, 15th Street and JFK Boulevard in Center City, as part of a two-day international conference on Falun Gong that ends today at the Convention Center. The news conference is part of a global outreach campaign called “Rescue Our Family Members.”
Organizers say about 2,000 Falun Gong practitioners were expected to gather for the international conference, which is scheduled to include a walk through Chinatown today.
Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, combines meditation and a series of five exercises similar to tai chi. The practice is designed to help followers harness energy that can help them avoid illness and achieve a spiritual peace. They are to constantly strive to live by the principles of truthfulness, compassion and tolerance.
The practice was founded by Li Hongzhi, a former Chinese government grain clerk, and drew millions of followers in the 1990s. But after a demonstration by practitioners protesting government treatment, China banned Falun Gong in 1999 and branded it “an evil cult.”
So far, 520 deaths of Falun Gong followers in China have been documented, according to Shiyu Zhou of the Falun Gong Information Center. Zhou, who teaches computer science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, is a Falun Gong practitioner. His father, also a practitioner and a retired army officer, was held in a labor camp for six months in 1999.
“People came to his home and picked him up in front of my mom,” said Zhou, who lives in Runnemede. “My mother didn’t tell me that he was gone. Every time I called, she just said he wasn’t home. Sometimes I can hear from her voice she was crying, but when I asked her, she didn’t want to say.”
Zhou’s mother was afraid to say more. In China, the Communist government had become increasingly alarmed by a growing religious movement that could summon tens of thousands to protest in Beijing, Falun Gong followers say.
“They fear losing control of people’s minds and hearts,” Zhou said.
China has denied allegations that hundreds of Falun Gong members have been killed.
Scott Lowe, a University of North Dakota professor who specializes in Chinese religion, understands how the movement’s literature could cause alarm.
Falun Gong has no formal organization, requires no donations, and can be learned and practiced individually using free materials on the Internet. But Zhuan Falun, the book that explains the spiritual practice, includes some apocalyptic messages that could raise suspicions, Lowe said.
“Li Hongzhi talks about good and evil, suggests that members of the Communist Party are possessed by demons, and talks about a great cosmic battle,” Lowe said. “The Chinese government is worried about the possibility that large numbers of disaffected people will rally around a spiritual leader with a compelling message.
“In the case of Falun Gong, they missed the boat,” Lowe said, “but their concern is understandable.”
To Jingduan Yang and other relatives, there is nothing understandable about the imprisonment of their loved ones.
Yang discovered last month that his sister had been detained for a second time in four years.
Jingfang Yang, 55, is the oldest of eight children, her brother said. Growing up, she was the caretaker and protector of her siblings. She was aggressive and assertive and always battled with their brother Jingshu, who was closest to her in age.
According to Jingduan Yang, in 1995, Jingshu Yang noticed a difference in his sister. She was more tolerant and calm. He asked her what happened. Jingfang Yang gave credit to Falun Gong.
Four years later, Jingfang Yang traveled to Beijing to protest the treatment of practitioners. Police stopped her in a subway and asked if she were a Falun Gong practitioner. She said yes – and was detained for one year.
During that year, Jingfang Yang wrote that she witnessed the routine torture of other practitioners. When she was released, she was fired from her job as an archivist, lost her benefits, and later was denied a passport to visit her brother here.
A month ago, Jingfang received a call on her cell phone shortly after attending an uncle’s funeral. The call was about a business she had started, she said.
She left and never came back.
A week or so later, several men arrived to search her mother’s house.
“That’s when we knew that they took her,” Jingduan Yang said.
Despite his mother’s protests to be silent, Yang is determined to tell his sister’s story.
Perhaps people will care and want to help, he said. Perhaps international governments will apply pressure.
“I feel like I can be a voice for my sister,” the psychiatrist said. “I know this is what she would want.”