Jennifer Speaks at The Society of Women Writers
by Jill Morris
Jennifer Zeng, author of Witnessing History: one woman's fight for freedom and Falun Gong published by Alien and Unwin
In April 2000, Jennifer Zeng was sent to a Chinese labour camp for “re-education”. Her experiences there were harrowing and-it quickly became clear-her memory of them still raw.
The reason for Jennifer’s arrest and imprisonment was her adherence to the beliefs and practices of Falun Gong. One of a number of qigong movements, Falun Gong is an exercise and meditation practice that advocates there principles: truthfulness, compassion, forbearance.
Jennifer opened by telling us how overwhelmed she had been by the freshly-announced defection and request for Australian asylum of her compatriot, Chen Yonglin. Australia, she told us, should take serious the diplomat’s claims that China has a thousand spies operation in our country, with kidnapping of former Chinese nationals as part of their brief. She herself had experienced the felling of being “watched” since her arrival here three years ago. She warned that other countries, too, had likewise been infiltrated.
Jennifer Zeng was born in 1966, the year the Cultural Revolution began. In 1984, after finishing high school, she moved from her native Sichuan to Beijing where she completed a Master’s degree in Science (geochemistry). Some time later she contracted Hepatitis C and became seriously ill. Seeking relief from the physical distress that Hepatitis C inflicts, “I tried other qigong(movements with a religious/philosophic core) but none of them gave real benefits. After one month of Falun Gong, my symptoms were gone.”
Unfortunately for Jennifer, Falun Gong is a movement that the Chinese government sees as a threat to its authority. In April 2000, as mentioned, Jennifer was arrested and sent for re-education-in a camp which she described as a “living hell on earth”. Compared with a Chinese labour camp, “the camps of Hitler and the Gulag(were) far less cruel.”
Like other inmates, Jennifer had to perform forced labour, making garments-“for sixteen hours a day, sometimes with no sleep at all.” All there garments, said Jennifer, are exposed. “You might even be wearing a garment that I made.”
The main purpose of this camp-and others like them-is “to crush the will of prisoners. The police tell the guards to torture to the best of their ability”-with the less than zealous ones themselves likely to be subjected to torture in their turn.
A favorite punishment is sleep deprivation. Jennifer mentioned one woman who became insane following fifteen days and nights without sleep, compounded by psychological torture. The use of electric prods was anther measure commonly used. Subjected to such treatment, Jennifer on one occasion ended up losing consciousness.
After six months of enduring and witnessing such horrors, “a voice came to me. I must write a book about these crimes which should not exist in the twenty-first century.”
Coming to this decision was one thing. Implementing it was another matter. Before she could write the book, Jennifer had first to get out of the camp. And before she could do that, she had first to satisfy the authorities by denouncing Falun Gong. This Jennifer decided to do, in October 2000, and was then faced with a particular refinement of cruelty. As proof that her denunciation was bona fide, she was required also to torture other inmates. Jennifer’s naked emotion in telling of this is, something none of us will quite put from our minds.
One month after her release, Jennifer started her book. In doing so she “[had] difficulty as a non-writer trying to find the words to express my experiences”. Her task was made the harder by her needing to relive the trauma of that experience. Having completed a portion of it, Jennifer copied it to two floppy discs, ripping the hard disc clean. These floppy discs she contrived to send out of China to a friend in New Zealand.
In September 2001, Jennifer manage to come to this country, having secured a visa with the help an Australian. Once here, she had still to live with uncertainty. Would she be granted refugee status?(It took two years.) Would she find a job? And there was constantly that fear of being “watched”.
Despite there preoccupations and uncertainties, Jennifer’s priority remained the completion of her book.
In a voice that was a tumble of emotions, Jennifer now read to us a passage from the book’s preface. In it she speaks of the driving purpose behind her writing of it and the fact that, “For this I am prepared to sacrifice my life.”
“It’s happening every day,” she told us regarding the ongoing persecution of Falun Gong members, two thousand of whom had been tortured to death in the past six years. “I want the Australian people and government to know. This kind of people is not to be trusted. It is now wise to deal with people you don’t understand. I’m crying my heart out for the world to know the real China that’s under the curtain today.”
Central to the discussion that followed Jennifer’s speech was the question as to why the government is so bent on eradicating Falun Gong. “Why does it label the movement as ‘evil cult’?” The answer mainly lies in the fact that the Chinese government is a centralized one. As such it sees as vital the maintenance of rigid control over its teeming millions. In introducing Jennifer, Valerie Pybus told us that on a trip she had made to China she “had never seen human beings so controlled.” Against that must be set the fact that, in the last seven years, Falun Gong membership has grown so rapidly that is outweighs Communist party numbers. Add to this the fact that Falun Gong, though very loosely organized, subscribes to a non-materialistic view of life-a view inimical to the government’s thrust to economic development above all else. Unable to reconcile the opposing views, the Chinese government has-regrettably-restored to persecution and repression.
Understand the Chinese government’s motives does nothing to excuse them. “We are all a little non-plussed (at them)”, said Dorothy Keyworth, in her vote of thanks to Jennifer. Essentially, Falun Gong adherents were “practicing being good.” Two of Dorothy’s abiding memories, after reading Jennifer’s book, were the vision of the unfortunates being tortured with electric prods and the vision of “all those women in a cell, knitting fifteen hours a day.”
To Valeria Pybus, the last word: “I challenge you all to read this book. It should be compulsory reading for the younger generation.”
Originally published at The Society of WomenWriters Newsletter -August-September 2005