Inside story: Terror in China: Zhizhen Dai’s husband was kidnapped, tortured and killed by the Chinese authorities – simply for being a follower of falun gong, a blend of exercise, meditation and religious beliefs. Stephen Moss meets her
The Guardian (England), Aug. 7, 2002
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Zhizhen Dai stares unflinchingly into the camera, while her two- year-old daughter, Fadu, fidgets and plays up to the photographer. This is an adventure for Fadu, part of an incomprehensible round- the-world journey; for Dai, it is an obsession. The 39-year-old has become the mouthpiece for her murdered husband, and she is determined that the world should know why he died.
Dai was born in China but left to study in Australia in 1987 and became an Australian citizen in 1992. “In my heart I was always searching for something,” she says. “Chinese history is very sad and I didn’t want my life to repeat my parents’ life.” But she failed to find whatever truths she was seeking in the west and returned to China in 1993, where she became a follower of falun gong, the blend of exercise, meditation, morality (“fa” means law) and religious belief that swept the country in the 90s, attracting up to 100 million adherents.
The couple lived in Guangzhou city, close to Hong Kong. Chen had worked for 10 years as an electrician at a state-owned paper mill; his sister had worked there for 18 years. In the 90s the Chinese government tolerated falun gong, but as the sect grew, the Communist party became suspicious of a possible challenge to its power. In June 1999, the government branded the nascent religion, a mix of Buddhism and Taoism, counter-revolutionary and banned it. Chen and his sister were about to be thrust into the political front line.
“When the persecution started in 1999, my husband went to Beijing to protest and tell the Chinese government how much our family had benefited from practising falun gong,” says Dai. “He was immediately arrested and put into jail for 15 days. In jail, the police beat him and asked other criminals to beat him. The same happened to my husband’s sister because she had gone to Beijing to protest too. She was put into the underground jail in Beijing and then transferred to a jail in Guangzhou for 15 days.”
Both were released, but the persecution was only beginning. “The boss of my husband’s company was ordered by the government to dismiss practitioners of falun gong,” says Dai. “If they refused, the bosses themselves would be sacked. My husband and my husband’s sister would not give up their beliefs, so they were both fired.”
Still, they would not recant and the office responsible for the suppression of falun gong in Guangzhou was becoming increasingly heavy-handed. “In July 2000 my husband was kidnapped, at the same time as my husband’s sister. We were living in different districts, but both were kidnapped by the same order of Guangzhou city and they disappeared at the same time. We didn’t know if he was alive or dead. Three weeks later he was allowed to come home. He had been subjected to brainwashing. For seven days he had not been allowed to sleep – not a single minute’s sleep. He was forced to watch propaganda. When he became tired, they kicked him and beat him and poured water on him – anything to keep him awake. They said that if he didn’t give up falun gong, it would happen to him again.”
Chen took the threat seriously and spent little time at home after that. But in December 2000 he took his wife and baby daughter to Beijing to protest against the continuing persecution, which had seen hundreds killed – mostly under torture – and thousands detained in prisons and mental hospitals. The journey to Beijing was to be his final act of protest.
“My husband unfurled a banner in Tiananmen Square,” says Dai, whose eyes have filled with tears several times during her account. “He was immediately arrested and taken to Tiananmen police station; that day, more than 100 followers of falun gong were arrested and taken there. He refused to give his name or say where he was from, because previously that had caused problems for his family, his workplace and the residents’ committee.
“He was sent to the Yian Qin detention centre near Beijing, where he was tortured. He was badly beaten and tortured with electrodes – they wanted to know what his name was and where he was from. His condition was very poor and they were worried that he would die, so they released him and he came back to find baby and I, who were staying in a hotel in Beijing. We took the train back to Guangzhou and four days later he was kidnapped again. That was the last we heard from him. Six months later [in July 2001], his body was found in an abandoned hut in a suburb of Guangzhou. My husband’s sister identified the body. My husband’s father could not stand the shock of the news and died soon afterwards.”
Dai was not in China when her husband’s body was found. China does not permit dual nationality: when she was given an Australian passport she had to renounce Chinese citizenship and, early in 2001, the government had told her it would not renew her visa. “It was difficult to leave the country when he was missing,” she says, “but the visa had run out. I was still hoping he would come back.”
She was forced to return to Australia, where she learned of her husband’s death on a falun gong website. Her sister-in-law is now serving a two-year sentence at the Guangzhou Cha Tou Island labour camp: she is not allowed access to her family and was not permitted to see her dying father or attend his funeral.
Dai wanted to collect her husband’s ashes and tried to get back into China, but she was refused a visa. It was at this point that she began her campaign to expose Chinese persecution.
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