Refugees seek new beginnings in the City of Brotherly Love.
By F. H. Rubino firstname.lastname@example.org
There’s a yarn that devotees of Falun Gong—the tai chi-like spiritual movement that swept across China during the 1990s before the Communists banned it—tell about a woman being lashed by a labor camp guard. Her clothing reduced to ribbons, so the tale goes, she tore off a shred and wiped her exhausted, sweating tormentor’s brow with it. Moved by her selflessness, he collapsed crying. The story of Jingfang Yang, a Falun Gong (also called Falun Dafa) practitioner who fled China for Cherry Hill, N.J., last February, isn’t that dramatic, but as she sits in an interpreter’s South Philly living room and relives her ordeal, you’re reminded that paranoia is a scary thing.
Yang is one of an estimated 200 Falun Gong enthusiasts who regularly practice in and around Philadelphia, most visibly outside the Liberty Bell Pavilion at Fifth and Market every Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to noon. She’s also scheduled to speak at a March 20 “Quit the Party” rally near the Chinatown Friendship Gate (10th and Arch) that’ll celebrate what local practitioners assert is the defection from the Communist Chinese Party of some 70 million who, like Yang, have had it with totalitarianism.
On this snowy Friday, however, Yang, who sports a pageboy cut and looks younger than her 60 years, is recalling days when staying alive warranted an internal celebration. She remembers the indignity of being handcuffed to a hotel-room chair for 32 days following her October 2002 arrest, one that precipitated a three-year labor camp sentence. She’d already served a year in a detention center. Describing daily life in the camps, Yang says she and other detainees, lumped with convicted murderers, robbers and drug offenders, toiled 16 hours a day making chopsticks and light bulbs. They slept on cold cement floors. Often they were shackled to one another, sometimes for more than a week. The most defiant suffered beatings, although no one escaped physical abuse altogether. They lived on spoiled rice and cabbage. “It didn’t matter how old a person was,” she says. “They mistreated everyone.”
Yang says she once saw a young woman strapped to a bed and stretched tortuously “for days and days.” The woman ultimately died. Yang she says she knows of six or seven others from her native Anhui Province who perished. All for refusing to renounce a tranquil regimen that many swear does wonders for mind and body. Yang, who lives with her mother (her daughter and granddaughter still live in China), says she has been free of a laundry list of health problems since taking up Falun Gong in 1993. “I feel so wonderful, so energetic,” she says.
Falun Gong, characterized by practitioners as a variation of the ancient Chinese art of qigong (which many liken to yoga), became popular in China after “Master” Li Hongzhi authored a 1996 bestseller extolling its virtues. Besides meditating and practicing five nonstressful exercises, the faithful strive to improve their morality, emphasizing truth, compassion and tolerance. By the late ’90s, 70 million to 100 million Chinese were practicing, according to the Falun Dafa Information Center in New York, faluninfo.net. But in 1999, China’s government labeled Falun Gong a cult threatening national stability, and outlawed it. Some suspect the action stemmed from leaders’ fears that as the Chinese increasingly embraced Falun Gong, many might reject Communism, which eschews spirituality.
Falun Dafa Information Center spokespersons say they’ve documented the killing of more than 3,000 Falun Gong practitioners in China, although they believe the true figure approaches 30,000. They further allege the government has sold slain practitioners’ vital organs abroad. Corinna-Barbara Francis of Amnesty International in London says that although Amnesty doesn’t confirm (or dispute) those figures, the human-rights watchdog has long been convinced the persecution is real.
“There’s no question from Amnesty’s perspective that Falun Gong is one of the most severely persecuted groups in China,” she says, “and that this persecution has been going on for 10 years and consists of arbitrarily detaining people, imprisoning them.”
Francis adds that the Chinese Communists “almost never” respond to Amnesty about human-rights allegations, and haven’t responded to inquiries concerning Falun Gong.
Although China hasn’t responded to Amnesty International, the webpage of the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United States of America features a link, “Outlawing Falun Gong Cult.”
When you click on it, a menu of headlines including, Falun Gong: An Evil Cult, and A Look at Cult Leader’s Malicious Fallacies appears. Each links to narrative accusing Falun Gong practitioners of criminality or characterizing Honzhi as a wacky cult head.
Practitioners hate the cult label, explains local psychiatrist Jingduan Yang, a Philadelphia Falun Dafa Association spokesperson and the 48-year-old brother of Jingfang Yang, because it’s a wildly inaccurate yet effective means of marginalizing Falun Gong.
“Everything about Falun Gong is the opposite of a cult,” says Yang, who attends practice sessions every Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. “Cults isolate their members and take their property and money. Falun Gong is the opposite. The challenge is to practice truth, compassion and tolerance while living in everyday society.”
Jingfang Yang loathes the cult characterization almost as much as she deplores Communism. Still, she says she’s avoided bitterness.
“I’m not angry ... I just feel so sorry for the people still practicing there. They are suffering.” ■