By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
At 5 o'clock in the morning, a van pulls into the deserted parking lot outside the Richardson public library. Ordinarily at this time, a group of Falun Gong practitioners would be gathering for their morning exercises, but today they have a more urgent mission. They will spend the next week inside this van, touring the Deep South before surfacing at a public rally outside the U.S. Capitol.
The rally, expected to draw 3,000 attendees from across the country, will commemorate the second anniversary of the day the Chinese government declared Falun Gong an "evil cult" and outlawed its practice. The move paved the way for a bloody crackdown that has left more than 250 people dead, many of them tortured to death while in police custody. Another 10,000 practitioners have been sent to labor camps without trial because of their beliefs, while 50,000 have been similarly detained in prisons and mental hospitals.
Dakun Sun, the trip's voluntary organizer, emerges from the lumbering vehicle. Originally Sun planned to fly to Washington, D.C., but yesterday he decided to rent a van so a group of practitioners, who like him are scheduled to arrive in Houston for a 9 a.m. news conference, can join the tour. The group will stop in seven cities en route to D.C., but it is unclear what exactly it will do once it gets there. Other details, such as where the group members will sleep, are similarly foggy.
"I haven't thought about that," Sun says.
Sun has slept for only two hours, but he is undaunted by the prospect of a four-hour drive. The ability to travel is a freedom he cherishes. Last year, Sun contacted the Chinese Consulate in Houston to renew his passport only to have it seized. Because he is not a U.S. citizen, Sun is trapped in the United States.
"I had a hard time explaining to my manager why I couldn't travel to other countries for work," says Sun, a software engineer who left Beijing six years ago. "I know it's related to Falun Gong, but [government officials] fail to give me an answer."
Sun suspects he knows what the problem is: His name appears on a Web site, www.falundallas.net, as one of six local Falun Gong contacts. Anyone interested in learning Falun Gong can download free information from the site, contact Sun or simply show up at any of the half-dozen practice sites in Dallas. "I bet that's where they found my information. They matched my name on the Web site with my passport," Sun says. "They have robbed me of my nationality."
Sun is not alone in his predicament.
A minivan carrying Kitty Wang, David Kang and Xuehai Li arrives. Later in the week, they will fly to D.C., but they have decided to spend today in Houston. Like Sun, they listed themselves as Dallas-area contacts on the Web site and, in doing so, made themselves outlaws back home. Besides Li, who is a U.S. citizen, Wang and Kang still have clearance to return to China, but traveling there is a risk they dare not take. Wang, 27 and a business student at Southern Methodist University, recently learned the reason.
Last year, Wang returned to Beijing and was arrested while practicing Falun Gong in a public park. She was detained at a police station, where she was denied food and water. During interrogations, Wang says the police threatened to send her to a labor camp unless she identified herself. After two days, Wang relented and, in the process, put her family at risk: She fears the Chinese government could punish them in retaliation for her activities in Dallas.
"The Chinese government knows my name. They may threaten my family. That very well may happen," Wang says. "At this moment, if there is no change in China, and if I were to go back to China, I would be sent to a labor camp."
Wang says she is obligated to continue to raise awareness about Falun Gong by speaking publicly about it, even if that puts her family in jeopardy. To do otherwise, Li explains, would go against the philosophy of Falun Gong.
"We need to be benevolent. We need to be nice to people, but when they hurt us we need to be tolerant. This is the power of tolerance," Li says. "To understand this, you have to go back and look at what Falun Gong is about."
The two-car caravan rolls onto the highway and turns south. During the next week, these practitioners, and others who will join them, hope to tell the American public the truth about Falun Gong--about their goals, the Chinese government's crackdown against them, their own personal scars and the family members they've left behind. Whether America will understand remains to be seen.
It is not surprising the Chinese government views Falun Gong, or Falun Dafa as it is also known, as a threat. Since its founder, Li Hongzhi, or Master Li as he is called, began publicly teaching Falun Gong in 1992, he has attracted an estimated 70 million nonviolent "disciples." Outside China, Falun Gong says it has attracted an additional 30 million adherents in 40 countries, including the United States.