Truthfulness, compassion, tolerance: How Falun Gong saved a life

by KEITH R. ARANEO-YOWELL

Lang-hao Lin shifted uncomfortably in her seat when she flipped to the page in a Falun Gong history book with an image of a young girl bound to a chair with rope, and surgical tubing going into her bloody nostril.

“This is similar to what happened to me,” Lin said. “They put some kind of medicine into the thing they force-feed you. After feeding, you’re in semi-consciousness, dreaming all day, you’re not clear-minded anymore.”

Lin, who asked that her real name not be used, was referring to the treatment she received while serving a two-and-a-half-year sentence in a forced labor camp in Shanghai, China. Her crime was practicing Falun Gong or Falun Dafa, a philosophy that holds tolerance, compassion and honesty as its three pillars of spirituality.

“It’s not a religion,” Lin said. “It’s culture generated from the 5,000-year-old Chinese history.”

Started in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, Falun Gong draws from Buddhist and Taoist principles of self-improvement without the worship of a deity. It emphasizes qigong, a meditative practice that uses slow movements and controlled breathing as a way of spiritual enrichment.

Hongzhi’s book, “Falun Gong,” teaches the physical and spiritual aspects as well as how to meditate. Practitioners begin by assuming four standing meditation positions and one final sitting position. The legs and torso remain static while the hands move slowly around the body in ways that “mix and merge the universe’s energy with the energy inside the body.”

In this way, many practitioners believe that the ritual has powerful supernatural healing capabilities.

Because of the changes she perceived in those around her, Lin, 37 started attending Falun Gong meditation in Shanghai in 1997.

“I witnessed with my own eyes so many people getting healthy bodies by just doing [Falun Gong] exercises,” Lin said. “Before, they even had cancer. It was like a miracle happening around me.”

Lin said the practice grew rapidly because of its simplicity and effectiveness and, while there is no official entity monitoring the number of practitioners, the Congressional Research Service’s report titled “China and Falun Gong” estimates the number of practitioners during the mid-1990s to be anywhere from 3 million to 70 million.

Despite its wide adoption in Chinese society, however, the Chinese government made the practice of Falun Gong illegal in July 1999.

Roger Tsai is an attorney for Parsons, Behle & Latimer who would later help Lin attain status as a political asylee. He said the Chinese government felt threatened by Falun Gong’s popularity.

“[The Chinese Communist Party] was worried about how popular Falun Gong was,” Tsai said. “At one point the size of this group was larger than the size of the communist party, so it was a potential challenge.”

A government official was later quoted in print and broadcast for the Xinhua News Agency (a Chinese news outlet) as saying, “Those who jeopardize social stability under the pretext of practicing any qigong will be dealt with according to the law.”

Even though there is no official record of the number of arrests for practicing Falun Gong, the Wall Street Journal reported in 2000 that more than 30,000 practitioners had been arrested in the first year of the Chinese government’s ban of the practice.

Lin was pregnant with her daughter and working in Shanghai when Falun Gong was made illegal. She continued to openly attend Falun Gong meditation even though she had heard stories of the Chinese government sending practitioners to prisons and labor camps. “I was scared,” Lin said. “I did not want to be persecuted, but I did not stop.”

In 2001, Chinese authorities found Lin at her work. “At first, I was not [arrested] because I had a baby, and they gave me a one-year nursing period,” Lin said. “They told me, if after one year [I did] not denounce Falun Gong, they would send me to a labor camp.”

After receiving threats from the government and hearing accounts of life in labor camps, she decided she had no choice.

Lin went into hiding for a year in Nanjing, a city roughly 200 miles northwest of Shanghai. “My husband and my daughter didn’t know where I was. I dared not go out. After one year,” Lin said, “I missed home so much, I made one phone call to my husband. I told him where we could meet, but when I went, there were police waiting already. I didn’t even get to see [him].” Lin believes her husband’s phone was tapped.

Lin would spend the next two-and-a-half years in a forced labor camp assembling American products, a task she said was assigned to her because she could read English. She slept on a plank of wood. She was not allowed to talk. She shared a single toilet and a cell the size of two standard parking spaces with up to 10 other women.

For 10 days, Lin did not eat or drink water as a way of protest. “If you refuse to eat or drink, they use a tube to force-feed you,” Lin said stoically. “It’s not to save your life, it’s for punishment.”

Had Lin simply signed a document renouncing Falun Gong, authorities would have allowed her to go free. She said she couldn’t do it because it goes against the truthfulness that Falun Gong holds paramount over suffering. “It isn’t true, so I couldn’t do it,” Lin said.

After her release from the labor camp in 2005, Lin was only able to continue her Falun Gong practice in secret because the Chinese government continued to monitor her activity. Lin was unable to attend public meetings, protests, rallies or Falun Gong meditation.

Reprieve came only in 2008, when Lin’s husband accepted The University of Utah’s offer to study for one year as a visiting scholar. Her husband left China while Lin and her daughter acquired passports and visas to stay in the United States for the rest of his time at the University of Utah.

After a few months of talking with her husband about staying in the U.S., Lin approached Roger Tsai to obtain status as a political asylee, which would grant her one year of legal residence in the U.S. With Tsai’s help, she submitted her case for political asylum to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in 2009. Two months later, she and her family were allowed an extra year in the United States after her husband’s visiting scholarship ended in August 2009.

Lin still studies Falun Gong year round. Once a week, she and a group of other practitioners meet in Salt Lake City’s Liberty Park during the spring and summer, and with one of the elderly practitioners at a nursing home on 700 East during the rest of the year. Robin, who asked that his full name not be used, practices Falun Gong with the group of other adherents at the park. He said Falun Gong does not advertise and is open to anyone who wishes to participate.

When Lin and her family became political asylees, they became eligible to apply for permanent residency in the U.S. Tsai assisted in this process and Lin and her family submitted the paperwork in March 2010. They are still waiting to find out if they’ll be able to stay in Utah indefinitely.

Bhutanese celebrate holiday, new life in SLC

Story and photos by MATT BERGSTROM

Thursday, Oct. 9, was an important day for Hindus around the world. It was the celebration of Dashera, the victory of the goddess Durga over the demons who stood in the gods’ way during creation.

For a group of Bhutanese refugees in Salt Lake City, it was also a celebration of a different victory.

Thursday was the first time the small Bhutanese community in Salt Lake City has officially gathered since refugees began arriving in the city in April 2008. The gathering was held at the Taj India restaurant at 4515 S. 900 East.

Bhutanese celebration

Bhutanese celebration

For nearly 20 years, these families had been living in refugee camps in Nepal. Most of that time the Bhutanese coexisted peacefully with their Nepali hosts. For the past few years, tense relations between China and Tibet have driven more refugees into Nepal. This flood of new arrivals pushed the Nepali government to its breaking point, prompting officials to make an appeal to the United Nations for help. The U.N. decided to resettle the Bhutanese who had long been without a home of their own.

Nearly 250 Bhutanese have resettled in Salt Lake since April. Among them are many members of the Dulal family.

Biren Dulal, 26, was only 8 years old when his life was uprooted and he moved with his family from his home in Bhutan to a camp in southeast Nepal. Today he barely remembers why he had to leave his home. He thinks it had something to do with the Buddhist government wanting Hindus to convert in the interest of national identity.

The actual reason seems to still be in dispute. According to the Web site for Human Rights Watch, the exodus was based on ethnic reasons rather than religious ones. The government of Bhutan in the late 1990s was interested in establishing a firmer national identity. The dispute is whether ethnic Nepalese in Bhutan chose to leave or were forced out by the government.

Regardless of the reason for leaving, Biren said life in the camp was difficult, but not unbearable.

Refugees were seldom allowed to leave. They had their own schools and shops and most of their basic needs were met. However, under certain circumstances, refugees could get permission to live outside the camp.

Biren left the camp for the first time at 18 years old to attend Kalimpong College in eastern India. After earning his bachelor’s degree he went to Katmandu to teach middle school science. A short time later he decided to return to the camp where most of his family still lived to continue his teaching there.

Soon after, members of Biren’s family began being resettled in the U.S. He decided it would be best if he joined them.

Biren Dulal arrived in San Diego on June 21, 2008. He had been sent to live with a brother and sister who had already been resettled there. Biren did not care for San Diego, but is too polite to say why.

Biren Dulal at the celebration.

Biren Dulal at the celebration.

He was then allowed to join the rest of his other brothers and sisters in Salt Lake City. The former teacher now divides his time between his job as an interpreter for the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake, the nonprofit group that helped resettle him, and his volunteer work teaching English to other Bhutanese in town.

Ultimately he would like to get back to teaching science.

Travis Zirker, an IRC caseworker for many members of the Dulal family, said getting back to work is a common desire. A few of Biren’s brothers also were teachers in Nepal before coming to America.

One of those brothers is Ghana Dulal, who Zirker said has become a sort of unofficial community leader.

In the small Indian restaurant packed on an unseasonably warm autumn afternoon with almost 200 Bhutanese refugees, guests from various resettlement organizations and members of the press, Ghana Dulal offered a speech of gratitude and, in a small way, victory.

He talked of their hardships while encamped in Nepal and of the warnings they received from friends before leaving. They were told they would not be allowed to be Hindus in America.

In the end, Ghana Dulal summed up what all the Bhutanese were feeling, and what those who have not been there could not understand, when he said, “We are no longer refugees. We are free people.”