Screws tighten on persecuted sect
Mary-Anne Toy in Beijing
Helen, a university graduate who speaks English and another European language fluently, lives in poverty in a rundown apartment block in a Chinese city we cannot identify to protect her.
The flats on either side of her are occupied by the mistresses of Chinese businessmen.
Helen, not her real name, also lives a secret life - one that is far more dangerous and less acceptable to China's Communist leaders than being or keeping 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 allegedly even cure illnesses and injuries.
Practising Falun Gong 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 committing 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 but does not think she could survive a third, hence her life on the run.
The Olympic Games are less than two weeks away, and the country's vast security network has stepped up efforts to ensure an incident-free Games. This includes random sweeps of housing compounds to ensure that "undesirables" are picked up or scared away into someone else's jurisdiction, making life even more precarious for people like Helen.
The Herald interviewed several underground Falun Gong believers in China, including three new recruits, to see how the movement was faring after nine years of persecution and in the lead-up to the Olympics.
Falun Gong was banned in July 1999 after the Government became alarmed by its sudden popularity and its ability to organise mass protests. The famous silent protest of April 1999, when 10,000 practitioners surrounded Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party leadership's compound in Beijing, was the final straw for the president at the time, Jiang Zemin, who ordered the movement eradicated.
Falun Gong was founded in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, a former soldier turned qi gong expert. It was the most popular of many qi gong groups then in vogue as people looked for meaning in a post-communist, quasi-capitalist but still one-party controlled China.
By the time Falun Gong was banned, the state-run media estimated it had 70 million followers in China, including government and party cadres.
A savage propaganda campaign involving every level of government and society followed, 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. The Government says several members set fire to themselves in Tiananmen Square, an incident that Falun Gong claims was fabricated.
Outside China, Falun Gong kept growing. Members in 70 countries, including Australia, wage a guerilla campaign against the Communist Party, claiming, among other things, that 6000 Falun Gong detainees were being harvested for their organs.
The Chinese Government denies this. It says Falun Gong could provoke serious social disorder and that it has acted lawfully in suppressing it. The US State Department and Congress, the United Nations and human rights groups such as Amnesty International say that persecution of Falun Gong 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 edges of society, frequently moving but still doing the one thing that the Government fears most: spreading the word about Falun Gong.
"More and more people are becoming practitioners," she says quietly. "Even under such persecution … it is becoming a strong force that the CPC [Communist Party of China] will not be able to stop one day soon."
The Herald's security precautions for this visit include not involving any Chinese staff in our plans, leaving behind our mobile phone to prevent it being tracked and circuitous routing to disguise our destination.
"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," Helen says.
"Li" and "Wang", both just 17, plan to leave 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 and sometimes suicidal teenager as a tutor, so they welcomed her into their home.
He had resisted learning English for years but when Helen began telling him about Falun Gong he was hooked. Li says it has given his life purpose. He now loves studying but plans to leave what he says is the soul-destroying rote-learning education system. He has found a job so he can move out and practise in peace.
Li's parents were furious when they found out. A threat by his father to report Helen to the police was neutralised after his mother met Helen and listened to what she had to say. The mother then threatened to disgrace her husband by talking publicly about his mistress if he tried to turn in Helen and their son.
Susan, a top student with a quiet manner, becomes agitated as she describes how she knew nothing about the Cultural Revolution or the murder of student protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989 until meeting Helen and learning about Falun Gong.
"I couldn't understand why the Government didn't allow us to know these things," Susan says. "It makes me wonder how can I still trust the textbooks." People in China are not encouraged to think independently, just to get good marks so they can make money, she says.
A few months ago she offended a roommate when she suggested that it was irrational to boycott the French supermarket chain Carrefour - as many Chinese nationalists have done - because of its alleged support for the Dalai Lama.
Li introduced his best friend, "Wang", to Helen when Wang became disillusioned with school and society. Formerly an enthusiastic class monitor, Wang had been punished by teachers for highlighting student welfare issues and passing on suggestions from other students.
"Chinese schools are only a place to cram Communist Party philosophy into students, not to give you knowledge," Wang says. "The authorities penalise teachers who want to be good teachers, so they are victims too."
Asked if she will protest at the Olympics, Helen says she was initially keen but has realised she has more important work.
"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 says. "We're not trying to push people. When I asked Li and Wang about going to Tiananmen Square they said, 'Of course we want to do that but there are so many people who need help here [to hear about Falun Gong]'."
John Deller, a spokesman for Falun Gong Australia, says the movement is indigenous to China and has the welfare of Chinese people at heart, and so does not want to upset the Olympics. Followers also fear the Government would use any protests to discredit Falun Gong. "The problem is that the powers that be are using the Games to persecute people," he says.
Helen's bare, concrete-floored flat - stifling in summer - 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 or not yet up. The gaps around the windows are stuffed with newspaper and the window coverings are always kept closed to disguise the light and muffle sound.
She stays as quiet as possible, a habit that has given her a speaking voice so soft that you have to strain to hear her. She never answers the door unless she is expecting a friend, and they have a special code, frequently changed, to identify themselves. When she hears of a security sweep or if the housing committee is asking too many questions about her, Helen leaves, hiding out wherever she can until she thinks 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 people and, if she thinks they would be interested, shares Falun Gong with them. Every time she is risking her life, but trusting and hoping that the person in whom she has confided will keep her secret. So far, in three years on the run, they have.
"We're not trying to overthrow the Government," she says. "We're just trying to help people understand the CPC's evil nature and that they can break free.
"How can I overthrow the Government? I don't have a weapon and I have to be careful all the time."
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