By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
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At 9 a.m. the news conference outside the Chinese Consulate in Houston gets under way. About 30 practitioners, most wearing yellow Zhen-Shan-Ren T-shirts, hastily assemble their props for the benefit of two local television crews. A large banner that reads "SOS! Urgent. China: Stop persecuting Falun Gong" is unfurled along a narrow patch of grass outside the consulate. Around it, practitioners erect placards containing grotesque photos of tortured Chinese practitioners.
The placards offer images of bruised buttocks, frostbitten toes, blackened limbs and smashed teeth. One photo, taken in Tiananmen Square and smuggled out of China, depicts a security officer stepping on the head of a practitioner.
In the background, a glass case outside the consulate contains a snapshot of China that government officials want the U.S. public to believe. One photo depicts a group of smiling Chinese children holding balloons. The accompanying text says that "Democratic reform" has improved the general welfare of all Chinese residents.
One by one, the yellow shirts read statements into a handheld microphone. Afterward, each one joins the rest of the group, seated on the grass, their knees a few inches from the street. With closed eyes and crossed legs, feet on top of thighs, the practitioners quietly meditate to the ethereal sounds of the Falun Dafa CD playing on a portable boom box.
Falun Gong's practitioners say they are not a political movement, and they do not take positions on any issue--including debates over China's hosting of the 2008 Olympic games and whether the United States should resume permanent normal trade relations with China. Instead, they simply hope that international pressure will force the Chinese government to legalize Falun Gong and cease violating its practitioners' human rights, which are guaranteed by the Chinese Constitution and several international treaties the government has signed.
By the sounds of things, they have a long road ahead of them.
Hongyi Pan introduces himself to me and says he wants to translate for another man, Yuefeng, who speaks only Chinese. Through Pan, Yuefeng says he is desperate to find his sister, who is a Falun Gong practitioner in China. Last year, she was sent to a mental hospital and, later, to a labor camp, and he hasn't heard from her since. His father later went to Tiananmen Square to appeal on her behalf at a government office, but he, too, was arrested and hasn't been heard from since.
The situation is now dire. This summer, China's president, Jiang Zemin, passed a new law that made practicing Falun Gong a crime punishable by death. The law represents an escalation of the crackdown, paving the way for the potential executions of the estimated 60,000 people now detained in Chinese prisons, mental hospitals and labor camps. Yuefeng, who is clutching the hand of his young daughter, a U.S. citizen, is afraid his sister and father may soon perish.
"He hopes the media can pressure the government to stop the killing," Pan says. "That's all he wants."
By 11:30 a.m. Dakun Sun's van, now filled with practitioners, is back on the road. The group does not stop for lunch, opting instead to head straight for Baton Rouge, where they will hold a news conference outside the Louisiana Capitol and, after that, travel on to New Orleans.
Sun occupies the driver's seat. His co-pilot is the translator, Hongyi Pan, an AIDS researcher at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Seated in the two rows behind them are Linda, a Dallas resident, followed by Austin residents Danielle, Joy and Ming. Amy Lee, who fled China a year ago before moving to New York, is also present. (These are their American names.)
The women, all of whom were born in China and moved to the United States in recent years, have just begun to speak English. As a result, their words, and therefore their stories, are difficult to comprehend. The language barrier causes the women to stop and ask one another, in Chinese, how to say something in English. Invariably, that spawns further debates, which are waged in Chinese and go on for miles. Soon, the talk turns into a blur of foreign sounds: There are "shings" and "ows" and "ungs," linked together by the phrase, "How do you say?"
Later, over the Louisiana swamps, the group is jarred into silence by a large bang, which is followed by a rhythmic thump--a flat tire. With no place to exit, Dakun Sun pulls the van over. He eyeballs the damage, hops back in and tentatively continues on.
The further we drive, the more obvious it becomes that the van is unsteady. After the van nearly sways off the road, Joy says something. The women abruptly stop talking and assume the double-legged meditation position. They hold their left arms, palms up, horizontally across their abdomens and their right arms vertically in front of their bodies. They close their eyes and remain silent for several minutes.
They are "sending out righteous thoughts." Hours later, when we pull up to the state capitol, there is no tread left on the back tire, and the right side of the van is so dented that the sliding door no longer shuts properly. Joy explains that the blowout was an attempt made by evil forces from another dimension to sideline the tour. She is not, however, the least bit worried that they will succeed.