Rosemary Neill meets Jennifer Zeng, AUTHOR
SHE can talk about the brainwashing and torture she endured, and maintain her composure. She can tell you, without breaking down, about her husband being arrested and detained. But the tears spill out, unbidden and bitter, when Jennifer Zeng discusses how the Chinese Government tried to turn her only child against her because she practises Falun Gong. This is the meditation-based spiritual movement banned by the Communist Party in one of its harshest crackdowns since the Cultural Revolution. The party maintains Falun Gong is an evil cult.
"There was a stage when my daughter become so confused," Zeng says. "She was so scared and confused. She was only six or seven. She had to make a choice between her own mother and what the party told her."
Today, 12-year-old Shitan lives in Sydney with her mother, a soft-skinned, soft-spoken woman of 38. Zeng fled China and came to Australia as a refugee in 2001, and her daughter followed. "I'm very happy now that she is in Australia," says Zeng, adding that Shitan would love to see her father, grandfather and friends in Beijing.
But the schoolgirl knows she can't visit, as it is likely her mother would be arrested. For while she leads an ostensibly quiet life in the suburbs, working for a lifestyle magazine and meditating, Zeng continues her struggle against China's persecution of those who practise Falun Gong.
Next week, Zeng’s account of her ordeal, Witnessing History: One Woman's Fight for Freedom and Falun Gong (Allen & Unwin, $32.99), will be released in Australia. It is the first book by a Falun Gong follower who has suffered imprisonment and torture -- and it has been black-listed in China. In it, Zeng explains how her life was "thoroughly transformed" after she discovered Falun Gong. A scientist by training, she had suffered two haemorrhages after giving birth. She contracted hepatitis C from blood transfusions and was unable to work or care for Shitan. "I was only 30 years old; I had a wonderful husband and a precious daughter but I felt so wretched that life hardly seemed worth living," she writes. But once she started practising Falun Gong, which combines meditative exercises with Taoist and Buddhist precepts, she regained her health, career and optimism. Indeed, she felt she was leading a "different existence". But her happiness was short-lived. In 1999, the Communist Party banned Falun Gong after 10,000 followers protested in Beijing against the mistreatment of Falun Gong members in another city. This was the boldest challenge to the party's power since the Tiananmen Square student demonstrations of 1989.
Zeng refused to give up practising, even after she was arrested three times. In 2000, she was sent to a labour camp. There, she had to squat in the sun all day and was subjected to electric shocks and brainwashing sessions. The aim was to have her renounce her spiritual beliefs. To add to the humiliation, "reformed" inmates were forced to help re-educate or beat up other Falun Gong followers. Zeng couldn't bring herself to do this.
She spent 10 months in the labour camp before "reforming"; at times she says she felt on the verge of total collapse. "I witnessed somebody else become totally insane and I couldn't guarantee I wouldn't end up in the same situation. That was really, really frightening," she says, her voice fading to a whisper.
Her commitment to her faith can seem extraordinarily courageous and zealous. To get out of the labour camp, she gave interrogators the false impression she had recanted. She castigates herself for this, writing that she failed "the standards required of a Falun Gong student". But what was the alternative? Going mad or dying behind high wire fences? "Possibly," she concedes reluctantly.
Not all of her family supported her single-minded pursuit of her beliefs. Her terrified mother-in-law tried to stop her leaving the family's Beijing flat to meditate outdoors.
In 2002, Zeng was one of seven followers who filed charges with the UN against former Chinese president Jiang Zemin for persecuting Falun Gong practitioners. Then living here, she received threatening international phone calls from distant relatives.
"I understood their reaction," she says. "In their eyes it's so shocking an action to take and so dangerous, to put my husband in this kind of situation. I understand their anger. I always felt for people who live under terror." Four days after the charges were filed, Zeng's husband was arrested and her daughter spent her 10th birthday alone. "[I was] thrown into greater torment than when I was thrown into prison myself," she says. Her husband, who hopes to join her in Australia, was held for a month and is still under surveillance. Soon after, his mother contracted cancer and died. Zeng believes she became sick "from the shock".
Will her book put her husband at further risk? She thinks that, paradoxically, the more her story is exposed, the safer her husband will be. "They [the Chinese authorities] wouldn't want to advertise my book by arresting him," she explains. To this day, it's unsafe for her to talk freely to her family in China. The communist authorities know everything she's doing here, she says.
"My main concern is not to bring trouble to others. Maybe some little action of mine could result in big, big trouble for someone inside China," she says. Aware of this risk, her mother has forbidden contact between Zeng and her sister, who has spent 18 months in a labour camp because of her Falun Gong beliefs.
Has the toll on her family been worth it? Zeng says her family is innocent and that she blames their suffering on her persecutors rather than her faith: "I don't believe that persecution is right ... the law should deal with people's actions and deeds only but in China it is used to deal with your thoughts."
She is dismayed that many in Australia's Chinese community have bought the Communist Party line that Falun Gong is an evil cult. (The local Falun Gong branch is officially excluded from Sydney's Chinese New Year parade.) And Western experts seem unsure whether Falun Gong is a benign faith or a more sinister sect. But they don't doubt that its practitioners are persecuted in China -- largely because the movement has spread at an astonishing speed since it was founded in 1992. Today, it claims tens of millions of followers in and outside China.
Falun Gong's leader, Li Hongzhi, is a former grains clerk and trumpet player from northeast China who moved to New York in 1998. The Chinese Government says he is a charlatan who changed his birthday to May 13 -- the same as Buddhism's founder. Li denies this. Nevertheless, some followers refer to him as Living Buddha. Li believes in aliens and has told Time magazine he exists at "a higher level". According to the BBC, the communists blame him for the deaths of thousands of devotees, claiming he has stopped them seeking medical help. Li says this is untrue.
Zeng says Falun Gong has spread so quickly simply "because it is so good"; the positive effects on followers' physical and mental health are "so obvious". She says she wrote her book to "expose the evil" of China's labour camps and to highlight the plight of other Falun Gong inmates: "What we ask is for an end to the persecution and for the freedom to practise our own beliefs. I regard that as basic human rights -- it's not political at all."