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SUDBURY, ONTARIO – In a non-descript house in a leafy neighbourhood in New Sudbury, lives a quiet couple, too afraid to ever return to their homeland.

May Lu, and her husband, Millor Soong, both mechanical engineers, sought asylum in Canada after Soong had endured three years in prison and Lu had entered the country on a student visa. His crime? The dissemination of materials related to Falun Gong.

It is impossible to determine the scope of the current Falun Gong community, but before it was banned, there were an estimated 100 million practitioners in China.

Lu, 40, and Soong, 39, have lived in Sudbury for about a year and are now ready to tell their story.

They were married in 1998. He has been practising Falun Gong since 1996; she since July 2000, after learning about it from Soong.

Shortly after the ban went into effect, all the practitioners at their firm (the couple worked for the same company) were called into a meeting and encouraged to stop practising. They were also asked to relinquish all books related to Falun Gong.

But Lu and Soong continued to practise. The authorities took note, and started monitoring his movements and activities.

IMPRISONED FOR THEIR FAITH

In October 2001, Lu was caught distributing flyers at a university in Beijing, where she and her husband were living. Later that month, Soong was nearly sent to a brainwashing centre after their firm’s security personnel, accompanied by three police officers, appeared at their fourth-floor apartment during the lunch hour.

“You stay there 24 hours a day and are forced to watch videos criticizing Falun Gong,” Lu says of the centres.

To stave off the authorities, she threatened suicide.

“I told them if they were going to take him to the police station, that I would jump,” she says through watery eyes.

The police left and the couple fled Beijing that night. They hid with relatives for six months before relocating to Shanghai, where they believed they would be safe.

While in Shanghai, the two distributed materials on Falun Gong, which were intercepted by the police. They were arrested on Nov. 2, 2004, and she was detained for one month. Soong was charged and sentenced to three years in prison.

“The hardest part is up here,” he says, pointing to his head. “On a day-to-day basis, you don’t know what will happen to you the next day. Even the detention centre was a horror. It could be physical or psychological. At the time, I didn’t know if I would survive prison. Nobody knows.”

Lu and Soong says they were subjected to forced labour – she made plastic Christmas tree parts, while he worked on electrical transformers intended for Western markets.

Conditions inside the prisons were oppressive and “unimaginable.” Soong shared a 13-metre square cell with 26 other men for eight months at the detention centre where he was first held. There was no privacy, no heat, no hot water and no place to sleep. There were no glass panes separating inmates from the elements. The cell was very dirty, in part because the communal toilet was open. Meals consisted of rice and vegetables, and meat once a week. Soong recalls one especially paltry dinner, which was nothing but 13 noodles. Prisoners were allowed to shower once a week, for five to 10 minutes. Soong says it was “very cold” during the winter.

Soong says he was never beaten or subjected to physical violence – as an educated man, he knew his rights and threatened to go public with his account following his release – but the experience was a constant “psychological battle” and he saw other prisoners subjected to beatings.

Wardens tried constantly to force Soong to relinquish his practice, but he refused.

He says prison authorities conducted psychological warfare, teasing out prisoners’ weaknesses and turning them against each other.

“If I talk with (my cell mates) they will report to the police what I’ve said. Everybody is a spy,” he says.

The couple knew their lives in China would be forever “uncomfortable” and made plans to flee. Lu believes they would have faced merciless persecution, even if they had stopped practising. She asserts her safety could never have been guaranteed.

In 2007, Lu was granted admission to the University of Guelph. She left China in September and has never returned. Soong was released from prison in November 2007 and joined her on Dec. 20. A few days after he arrived, they applied for asylum.

Two years later, on Dec. 16, 2009, they were granted refugee status.

ORGAN HARVESTING

Although Lu was concerned about organ harvesting, it was not the primary reason she and Soong fled China. But they have good reason to be concerned, say critics of China’s government.

Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, says the country executes “several thousand” people per year, which has fueled a growing trade.

“The complete lack of transparency led to the emergence of a grey market through which wealthy or politically connected individuals could source the organ needed for a transplant from scheduled executions,” she says. “Hospitals started to compete to provide this very lucrative practice, employing shady ‘intermediaries’ to set up with prison authorities arrangements through which they would pledge the organs of some executed prisoners to specific hospitals. Patients needing transplants also started to use such intermediaries.”

Richardson goes on to say this has led some people to begin sourcing organs themselves, either “buying organs from sellers (especially for kidneys) or even, in some cases, kidnapping and harvesting organs from their victims.”

She does not see an end to the practice.

“The ministry of justice who runs the prisons, the public security bureau, who assists in the executions, and the Communist Party structures will resist such change because of the enormous financial interests and, in the case of people in power, because it allows them to bypass the queue of ordinary patients waiting for a transplant,” Richardson says.

David Matas, a Winnipeg-based lawyer specializing in human rights and refugee cases, notes the country performs 10,000 transplants per year, but only harvests 1,500 of those organs from prisoners who are executed. He estimates the industry is worth $1 billion annually.

Matas co-wrote the 2009 book, Bloody Harvest: Organ Harvesting of Falun Gong Practitioners in China. He and David Kilgour, his co-author, were nominated in 2010 for a Nobel Peace Prize for their work unearthing human rights abuses in China.

“They developed a data bank, basically of Falun Gong practitioners and what their blood types are, in the prisons. Then they wait for a customer who needs an organ and is willing to pay, who has a particular blood type,” Matas says. “They wheel out the Falun Gong practitioner from the prison and inject the prisoner with drugs that will immobilize the person without killing them.”

The procedures allegedly take place in illegitimate operating suites housed in mobile white vans that park outside prisons, with their hospital signs removed. Typically, the prisoner dies during the extraction.

Matas and Kilgour, a former cabinet minister, testified on Feb. 5, 2013 before the Canadian House of Commons’ sub-committee on international human rights, a branch of the standing committee on foreign affairs and international development.

Richardson says it is impossible to ascertain the scope of the persecution, but Human Rights Watch believes “the Chinese government does reserve particular hostility towards the Falun Gong because of the extent of its organization.”

Matas says the Chinese government denies persecuting Falun Gong practitioners and claims death row prisoners volunteer their organs in payment for their crimes, but the evidence suggests otherwise.

“The systematic blood testing of Falun Gong practitioners is not for their health – they’re being tortured (in prison),” he notes.

Amnesty International corroborates Matas’ claims. On July 29, the watchdog agency issued an action alert detailing the imprisonment and torture of Wang Xiuqing and Qin Hailong – a mother and daughter – who had spent 18 months in the Harbin City Qianjin Re-education through Labour (RTL) Camp. They were released in April.

“Hailong has recounted, for example, being beaten and dragged on the rough ground. The food she was given was of such poor nutritional quality that her health suffered, and after eight months in (the RTL camp) she stopped menstruating,” the alert indicates.

The two were detained while demanding an investigation into the death of Hailong’s father (Xiuqing’s husband). Authorities claimed he died of a heart attack, but when his body was returned to his family, it was covered in bruises and there was blood trickling from his nose.

A 2002 Human Rights Watch investigation reported evidence of serious abuses, including “beatings, electric shock and other forms of torture, forced feeding and administration of psychotropic drugs, and extreme psychological pressure to recant.” HRW notes it had difficulty verifying practitioner accounts.

Matas has worked with investigators in China posing as concerned family members making inquiries and has gathered testimonies from throughout the country, including “admissions from doctors in hospitals saying they have organs from Falun Gong (practitioners) for sale.” Lu points out families have been known to co-operate with the authorities to turn in their loved ones.

Matas says practitioners are considered “non-persons” inside prisons.

Lu says Soong was followed relentlessly by two prisoners, who monitored all of his actions and interactions. She believes he was spared in part because of her persistence – her near-weekly letters and monthly visits ensured he remained relatively safe. As she speaks, her eyes are steadfast – they are the eyes of someone who has known fierce love in the face of unspeakable terror.

Despite the challenges of living in an unfamiliar country, Lu says she cannot relinquish her faith.

“The principles of Falun Gong are truthfulness, compassion and forbearance. These are universal principles. To approach the nature of the universe, we must follow these principles,” she explains. “It’s how we return to our home.”

On her living room wall hangs a poster with the statement, ‘killed for their belief.’

“I can’t lie to my heart,” Lu adds. It is her truth.

The embassy of the People’s Republic of China, in Ottawa, did not respond to The Star’s interview requests.

falung-dafa-gong-china-prison-arrested

Millor Soong made this detailed sketch of his cell at the detention centre where he says he was held for practicing Falun Gong.


FALUN GONG

Falun Gong (also known as Falun Dafa) is a spiritual practice based on ancient Chinese tradition that incorporates elements of Buddhism and Daoism, meditation and gentle, fluid exercises. Practitioners believe it promotes physical, mental and spiritual well-being by enhancing the flow of vital energy through the body, and cultivates truthfulness, compassion and tolerance. By practising, individuals assimilate the mind and body, and can achieve enlightenment.

“Falun Gong practitioners believe if we can assimilate our minds and bodies, we can come as close to these principles as possible, and we begin to enlighten, to awaken to the beauties and intrinsic nature of the universe,” Joel Chipkar, vice president of the Falun Dafa Association of Toronto, explains. “Proper cultivation of the spirit helps the body, and vice versa. The exercises help purify the body.” Founded in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, Falun Gong spread quickly. The government initially endorsed it, but in the mid-1990s, the communist party approached Hongzhi and tried to assume control. He refused to cede power and the clamp down began.

“They wanted to start charging money for it, and basically controlling it,” Chipkar says. “You cannot have a discipline (in China) if you are not controlled by the communist party.”

Starting in 1994, practitioners were harassed, and in 1999, the government formally banned Falun Gong, and launched indoctrination and propaganda campaigns to delegitimize the practice.

Published Oct. 18, 2013 in The Sudbury Star