The words came quickly as Wen Ling recounted being hunted by the Chinese government and living in hiding for more than 11 years. But when asked about her son, whom she hasn’t seen since 2004, there was a long pause.
“Yes, I did try to contact my son,” the 54-year-old woman told the Jakarta Globe during in an interview in Jakarta in late December.
Wen, a Chinese citizen and a member of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, was overcome by tears and the interview had to be ended.
It was a full two weeks before she was ready to speak to the Globe again about how she managed to be briefly reunited with her son in 2004.
She said that in an attempt to convince her son that she was not a criminal — as the government had claimed — Wen returned home in disguise.
“I opened the door and there he was, my only son, all alone at home. He was stunned and immediately asked me to leave, fearing for my safety,” she said.
Wen refused to leave. As her son got down on his knees, begging her to flee, she said she embraced her child and whispered: “Son, you must always remember that Falun Gong is good. Your mother is not a criminal. It is the Communist government that forces us to live like this and tears our family apart.”
“That was the last time I saw him,” she said.
After spending years as a fugitive, Wen left China for Indonesia last August in a bid to tell the world about the suffering that Falun Gong practitioners have endured in her native country.
Persecuted at Home
Falun Gong is a spiritual movement founded by Li Hongzi in 1992 that cultivates mind, body and soul through a series of slow-motion meditative exercises on the principles of truthfulness, compassion and tolerance.
The teachings include ideas from Buddhism, Taoism, Qigong and other traditions that date back to Chinese antiquity.
Wen joined Falun Gong in 1994 and soon became one of its most active campaigners.
But China banned the movement on July 20, 1999, calling it a cult “that poisons people’s minds.”
Months later Wen found herself being hunted by Chinese authorities.
Members of Falun Gong believe the regime felt threatened by the growing size of the movement, which was estimated to have around 70 million followers shortly before it was banned.
“I felt that such accusations were baseless,” Wen said.
“We are not a political organization. Falun Gong’s aim has always been a spiritual one. So, in October , thousands of practitioners gathered at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in the hopes of talking with officials from the central government to set the record straight.”
Police instead came down hard on the rally.
Wen and many others were detained and questioned for days.
She was only released after confessing to treason.
Ta Yuan, a Falun Gong member from China’s Hunan province, was not as lucky.
He refused to sign a confession and was taken to a police station.
“Soon the station was filled with Falun Gong members and we were cramped into a tiny cell,” he told the Globe.
Amnesty International said thousands of Falun Gong members were sent to prison for “using a heretical organization to subvert the law” and thousands more to labor camps.
“The guards always used non-Falun Gong inmates — mostly hardened criminals and drug addicts — to torture us.
The guards themselves never got involved in the actual torture to avoid being blamed for human rights violation,” Ta Yuan said.
During his time in a Hunan prison, Ta Yuan went on a three-day hunger strike to protest his arrest.
“Finally I was force-fed,” he said. “I was tied to a wall. My hands, feet, waist and neck were strapped tightly in place. One of the prisoners was told to close my nostrils and another prisoner lodged a cut bamboo tube into my mouth as I was gasping for air. Food would then be channeled through the tube.”
Amnesty said other Falun Gong members were subjected to cruel medical tests and psychological torture designed to alter their mental state.
Officials from the Chinese Embassy in Jakarta declined to provide an official statement when asked about allegations of human rights violations against Falun Gong members.
Instead, it provided the Globe with a number of articles from Chinese media.
“Here’s some background on Falun Gong,” Cathy, an embassy official, told the Globe.
One article said the movement was trying to sabotage China’s relations with other countries through baseless claims of human rights abuses, which the article called “propaganda tactics.”
“Falun Gong continues to mislead the international community, posing as a spiritual organization when in fact it is a cult that spread the word among its followers that doomsday was eminent and that people should accept its leader as the sole savior,” the article said.
Other articles had claims such as “Falun Gong leads my brother to commit suicide,” “Falun Gong mother chokes daughter to death” and “Falun Gong fanatic murders uncle.”
The embassy also drew attention to remarks made by those who claimed to be Falun Gong “survivors,” detailing how the movement allegedly brainwashed its members and turned them against the government.
“Former Falun Gong Followers Say Cult Leader Should Be Tried” was the headline of one article, referring to Li Hongzi, who now resides in the United States.
Li Siu Hong, another Falun Gong member from China, said this was all propaganda.
“All of the cases of abuses and killings of Falun Gong members are neatly covered up by the government. News about the movement is not only censored but also monitored. If we were to download information about Falun Gong, our house would soon be raided,” Li Siu said.
“People in China are unaware of the atrocities that occur daily. There have been numerous occasions where the Chinese government spin-doctored cases of murder and suicide and forced victims to say that they were perpetrated by Falun Gong members.”
Human Rights Watch researcher Philem Kien said it was irrefutable that Falun Gong members had been subjected to torture and degrading treatment by the state, but that all the allegations were difficult to substantiate.
“It is very difficult to provide an accurate description of the real conditions in China today,” Kien said.
“What is unquestionable is that China and the Falun Gong are engaged in a propaganda battle — both armed with claims that are difficult for third-party institutions to verify.”
After arriving in Indonesia in August, Wen met 44-year-old Zhao, a Falun Gong follower who arrived from Singapore a year earlier.
For most of her time in Singapore, Zhao was able to practice Falun Gong exercises, joining other members from China who regularly met in Esplanade Park, a major tourist site in the city-state.
But in 2009, around the time of a visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao, Singapore cracked down on the movement, saying the group’s activities were “disrupting public order.”
Posters about the movement, which were put on the park’s walls, were said to be “damaging public property.”
When Zhao was unable to extend her Singaporean visa, she came to Indonesia, leaving her daughter behind with her sister.
Bantarto Bandoro, an international relations expert from the University of Indonesia, said China was known to have exerted political pressure on countries like Singapore and Indonesia.
“China has a huge political and economic influence in Asia. Breaking ties with China would do more harm than good, particularly for Southeast Asian countries,” he said.
“On issues like the Falun Gong, Tibetan refugees and other [controversial] groups, China has the upper hand.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees notes that several other countries like Cambodia and South Korea had also deported Falun Gong members.
But Bantarto said Chinese pressure on Indonesia, a country also under international scrutiny over its human rights record, would likely be subtler.
Zhao said one of the main reasons followers fled to Indonesia was so they could practice Falun Gong freely and expose to the world the torture and prosecution of movement members.
In Indonesia, it wasn’t hard for Zhao to find those willing to assist and house her. Falun Gong is booming in the country and has spread to more than 15 provinces, with dozens of small but close communities in Jakarta and Bali.
Zhao, Wen and Li Siu eventually found work, teaching Mandarin to advanced-level students.
With limited knowledge of English and even less of Indonesian, it is the only job they can get.
Maroloan Barimbing, a spokesman for the Directorate General of Immigration, said the government allowed Falun Gong followers to remain here out of “humanitarian considerations.”
But it’s still not smooth sailing for the movement in the country. “Recognizing Falun Gong as a legitimate entity in Indonesia is another matter,” Bantarto said.
Nyoman Suryanata, a Falun Gong practitioner from Indonesia, confirms this. “As our movement grew, the Indonesian government said, ‘Hey, if you organize and gather this many people for your activity, you have to become a legitimate organization,’ ” he told the Globe.
“So we did. We submitted all the required documents in 2003 and again in 2010 but they refused to recognize us.”
The Falun Gong practitioners filed an appeal and the Jakarta State Administrative Affairs Court is expected to deliver its decision today.