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.
In Texas there are only a few dozen loosely knit practitioners, most of whom are Chinese born, but they are making their presence more visible with hopes of attracting Westerners. A Falun Dafa advertisement appears on DART buses in Dallas. Every day in Houston, at least one person can be seen practicing Falun Gong's five sets of simple, yogalike exercises outside the Chinese Consulate.
But who are these people and what do they want? More important, what is Falun Gong? Is it, as the Chinese government claims, an "evil cult" bent on revolt? Or does its philosophy really hold the key to the universe, as Falun Gong practitioners claim? One thing is for sure: They are willing to die for beliefs that, to many Western minds, are difficult to swallow.
The first obstacle Gongers present to newcomers is their claim that Falun Gong is not a religion. Rather, they call it a mind and body "cultivation practice," because Falun Gong does not involve the worship of a god or any other central figure. It also has no earthly hierarchy, and its practitioners collect no money. Master Li, who fled China in the late 1990s and now lives in New York, is considered a teacher. Today, he travels across the country giving lectures to packed audiences. These lectures are recorded, translated into various languages and posted on the Internet where they can be downloaded for free.
Li's students, meanwhile, gather in their own homes or in public spaces, preferably parks, where they are visible. Some volunteers offer free, nine-day classes in which they teach the five sets of exercises. Called qigong (pronounced: chi-gong), they include four standing exercises and one sitting meditation.
The practice itself requires surprisingly little. Besides the exercises, the only thing practitioners are expected to do is apply the principles of truthfulness, compassion and forbearance to their daily lives. These principles, which in Chinese translate to Zhen-Shan-Ren, make up the "mind" component of Falun Gong, and they are what separate it from other physical-oriented practices, like Taiji or yoga.
Therein lies the catch.
In Li's writings, he offers an explanation for human existence that most people would consider to be religious. Simply put, Li believes that life, as we know it, takes place in one dimension that represents the lowest state of existence in the greater universe. Human beings were once enlightened beings that traveled in that universe, Li says, but because they failed to adhere to the principles of Zhen-Shan-Ren, they gradually descended to lower levels and, ultimately, wound up on Earth, where they cling to human "attachments."
David Kang, who is planted in the backseat of the minivan, tries to translate the concept into Western terms.
"Catholics say there is a heaven, but where is it?" Kang says. "It exists. It's in another dimension."
Unlike Catholics, Gongers do not believe that higher life exists after death. Instead, the greater universe is omnipresent. If one practices Zhen-Shan-Ren on earth, gradually he will ascend to higher levels of existence or understanding. Along the way, he will simply "put down" his attachments, which include everything from seeking fame and material wealth, to smoking, homosexuality and violence. Killing, which includes abortion, is considered the most serious of all attachments.
Kang, a software engineer who came to the United States for graduate school, explains that routine American life provides many opportunities to practice. "In our daily lives," Kang says, "some people don't like to work, so they push their work on you. How do you handle this?"
If you react well, meaning you respond with Zhen-Shan-Ren, you will cultivate Xing Xing, which is a Chinese word for moral virtue. As people cultivate Xing Xing (pronounced: shing shing) their "Gong" column grows. Like a spiritual elevator, the Gong column lifts practitioners to higher levels of existence. Ultimately, they reach the state of "Unlocking Gong," where they become enlightened beings. Their "celestial eye," located in the brain above and slightly between the eyes, will open, enabling them to see into other dimensions and, thereby, discover the "truth" of the universe.
Practitioners are encouraged to do the exercises and apply Zhen-Shan-Ren to their "ordinary" lives. In return, Master Li promises them that their physical health will immediately improve, freeing their minds for spiritual growth.
The health benefits, which some claim have cured cancer and turned gray hair black again, may be hard for outsiders to believe. To Xuehai Li, they are the key to understanding Falun Gong's popularity.
"Why can Falun Gong attract so many people in such a short period of time? There must be a reason. It's because when people start the practice they actually feel the benefits," Li says. "That's why we start with the [exercises]. When we have a good feeling about the health part, gradually people will get to understand why."
Kang says Falun Gong has given him more than physical health: It has created a venue to explore broader spiritual questions that aren't debated in China, where religion is outlawed and the only road maps to human existence are contained in science textbooks.
"In this generation, we don't believe in anything--just science and communism. But to some extent science is a religion. It has professors. It has Ph.Ds. It has its own temples. And communism is a cult--it has a history of killing," Kang says. "In Falun Gong, there is no punishment. We regulate our hearts using the principles [of Zhen-Shan-Ren]. You are responsible for yourself."
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.
"This trip too important," she says.
By 10 a.m. Sunday, the group has re-created their photo opportunity in the heart of New Orleans' bustling river walk tourist district. Under a pavilion located a block off the French Quarter, the group erects its banners and torture photos. After connecting the microphone, Dakun Sun reads a statement about the persecution in China for the benefit of a newspaper reporter. After him, Amy Lee and Danielle read brief summaries of their lives.
The rest of the group fans out on the sidewalk, distributing leaflets. "SOS! Urgent," Joy says, offering fliers to anyone who passes. Some people refuse to make eye contact with her, but others are drawn to the images of torture.
"Oh, how hideous!" says one lady. Two teen-agers step up to the posters so they can read the accompanying text. "They exercise and they get beat up for it?" one asks. Another man says, "They're having the Olympics there?"
A few feet away, a singer seated at the edge of the pavilion stops playing his steel guitar and glares at Joy, who is standing in front of his tip box. "You gonna work this spot in front of me?" he asks. "I gotta make a living, and I was here first."
Joy wheels around, smiles and hands him a flier. "SOS! Urgent."
"Listen," the guitarist continues, "you're working right in front of me. It's very rude, and you're not even asking for tips."
"Oh," Joy says, "very sorry." She walks a few steps away and resumes leafleting. The guitarist, scowling, resumes playing. As the morning passes, the guitarist's agitation grows. He frequently stops playing and scowls at Joy. Occasionally, however, he reads bits and pieces of the flier. Later another man lumbers over. "Those assholes set up by me," the guitarist tells him. "They're being persecuted in China. I'm beginning to understand why."
Joy is aware that the guitarist is trying to earn money, but she is not bothered by his attitude.
"What I am doing now is the righteous thing. What I am doing now is saving people who don't know the truth," Joy says. "The moment you know the truth, your heart changes."
Joy was introduced to Falun Gong in 1997, a year before she and her husband left China for Austin. Back home, where Joy was a high school chemistry teacher, her doctor informed her that she was incapable of having a child. After she started practicing Falun Gong, she became pregnant. To Joy, Falun Gong gave her a miracle and changed her life for the better. It has also brought trouble.
At the University of Texas, Joy performs her daily exercises on campus. Earlier this spring, Joy was startled when she found a photo of herself, taken while she was practicing, posted in the laundry room of her apartment complex. The words "evil cult" were written across the photo. Joy does not know who put the flier up, but she suspects it was either a Chinese student who believes the government's propaganda or, worse, representatives of the government itself. Either way, she got the message: Although she and her husband are Chinese citizens, they cannot safely go home.
"Imagine when I go to the airport. Do you think the police will let me into China?" Joy says. "They will stop me. Arrest me."
Dakun Sun takes a break from reading his statement. A shy person, Sun says Falun Gong has given him the energy and confidence to speak publicly--a skill he applies every day. Since Falun Gong was outlawed in China, Sun spends all his free time, including vacations, attending Falun Gong seminars in Texas and elsewhere in an effort to raise public awareness.
"I volunteer because I feel obligated to do that. Sometimes my friends will say, 'You are changed. Previously, you just did your regular work, and now you are quite active. Are you interested in doing political work?' It's difficult to explain," Sun says. "If there was no persecution, I would not be active. I would live my normal, peaceful life. I would go to work and to the mall with my wife."
The statement jars a memory. Earlier, Sun said his wife does not practice Falun Gong. At first she practiced, Sun says, but after it was declared illegal in China she became afraid and quit. Now, his activism is causing stress.
"It is not a happy, good change for my wife," Sun says. "She is concerned about my health. She complains, quite often, 'Why do you keep doing this?' and 'When are you going to stop?'"
Perhaps Sun is afraid that Falun Gong is a door through which he has forever passed, but his wife will not? He laughs. He doesn't find the question funny; he is simply embarrassed. A week ago his wife moved out. They did not separate on angry terms, but their marriage is in doubt. Sun says he is sad but not afraid of the outcome: Either she will return or she will not. Sun says, "This is a test."
By 1 p.m. the guitarist is fed up. He puts down his guitar and turns to face the rest of the Gongers, who are sending out righteous thoughts under the pavilion. "Hey," he says, grabbing his crotch, "meditate on this!"
The guitarist collects his tips and stows his instrument. He then lights a cigarette and stares off in the direction of the river. Joy hustles over to him and hands him a petition, which calls on the Chinese government to end the Falun Gong persecution. The guitarist reluctantly takes it, exhaling smoke as his eyes scan its words. When he's done, he looks at Joy.
"SOS! Urgent." The man signs the petition.
Joy skips away, her face filled with happiness and tears.
"You see," she says, "his heart has changed."
After leaving the tourist district, the group stops at a takeout egg roll joint for dinner. There, Amy Lee, Dakun Sun and Hongyi Pan get consumed in dialogue carried out in Chinese. Sun says they are debating the International Olympics Committee's decision, made two days earlier, to award the 2008 Olympics to Beijing.
So far, the most frequent question they've been asked is whether they think China should host the summer games. The situation has put them in a dilemma: They do not wish to take a political stance on this issue, yet they all have opinions about it. Those opinions differ, but most agree that the games will not improve the plight of the Falun Gong. Rather, they believe the government will hasten the crackdown in order to eradicate the practitioners long before the world arrives in Beijing.
If they continue to express their opinions, they will be seen as taking a stance in opposition to the IOC's decision. Because Falun Gong has no hierarchy, there is no one to tell them what they should do. So they ask me. I don't know what to say. I point out that their press kit, which consists of literature printed by volunteers, contains a sheet of paper that directly compares the 2008 Beijing games to the 1936 Berlin games, hosted by Adolf Hitler. The paper includes a photo of Hitler and the quote: "[Jews] Must Disappear from the Face of the Earth." Opposite that, there is a picture of Chinese President Jiang Zemin and his widely reported quote: "No Means Are Too Excessive to Exterminate Falun Gong."
The paper does not expressly say what the IOC should do, but it makes a compelling argument that China is walking down a path of genocide and, therefore, shouldn't host the games. The paper certainly looks like a political statement. The group absorbs the information and resumes its debate.
That evening, the group spreads out inside the apartment of a local practitioner, who has opened his doors even though he is out of town. The two-bedroom flat is sparse and functional. The living room consists of a couch, a computer and a small TV-VCR unit, next to which is a stack of Master Li's videotaped lectures. The only decoration on the wall is a large instructional poster that depicts the five sets of Falun Gong exercises. A box of snack-sized potato chips and a case of bottled water have been left for the group.
Here the true grassroots nature of the tour, and the Falun Gong movement itself, comes to life. Instead of preparing for sleep, the group goes to work. Hongyi Pan and Joy begin writing letters, while Amy Lee and Danielle revise their statements. The others log onto the Internet and travel to www.clearwisdom.net. The Web site, along with www.falundafa.org, is run by volunteers and is Falun Gong's cyberspace headquarters. There are links to Master Li's lectures, general information about Falun Gong and news about the latest incidents of illegal arrests, detentions and deaths of practitioners in China.
The group posts updates of the progress of the tour, and, simultaneously, they check on the progress of other groups, some traveling by car and others by foot and bicycle, which are en route to D.C. But the Internet plays another, more personal role. Besides the telephone, the Internet is the best place where group members can find information about their family members in China.
Just how desperate their surfing is won't become clear for several days.
As the group travels from New Orleans to Jackson, Birmingham, Knoxville and Roanoke, their accents and, thus their stories, begin to sink in. It's no wonder they call the tour "SOS! Urgent": They are literally trying to save the lives of their relatives in China.
Linda, a chemical engineer who most recently worked at Texas Instruments, moved to the United States in 1997 to attend graduate school in Iowa. Back in China, her brother and his wife learned Falun Gong in the mid-1990s--a time when the Chinese government did not view it as a threat, and its practitioners freely exercised in large, orderly groups in public parks.
In the mid-1990s, as the number of practitioners swelled, the government's attitude began to change. In 1996, Master Li's first book, which had become a national best-seller, was banned. Later, news articles began to appear that described Falun Gong as an evil cult, intent on overthrowing the Communist party. In contrast to U.S. newspapers, these reports were not spawned in open debate. In China, the government controls all media, and the news that Falun Gong was suddenly "evil" marked a reversal in China President Jiang Zemin's policy of tolerance.
On April 25, 1999, more than 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners peacefully gathered in Beijing outside the State Council Appeals Office, which is located inside China's leadership compound, to express their opinion that Falun Gong has no political intentions and that its practice is beneficial. Linda's brother and sister-in-law were among them. The meeting ended peacefully.
"It looked like everything was going to be positive," Linda says. "But unfortunately, [the government] started to investigate the practitioners."
Three months later, Zemin outlawed Falun Gong. Linda's brother and his wife, along with thousands of other practitioners, returned to Beijing, where they were arrested. Later, Linda's brother was forced to appear on television and lie, publicly denouncing Falun Gong. He was released, but he continued to practice. As a result, he was fired from his job, which like most jobs in China, is controlled by the party.
Still the couple did not quit practicing. Instead, they wrote letters of appeal to the Chinese government. In December, they once again set out for Beijing to appeal. Before they made it out of the suburbs, they were arrested and sent to labor camps, where they remain today.
"My brother has been beaten very badly," Linda says. Her sister-in-law has also been tortured. "They forced her to stand in the ice and snow for 15 days."
Linda, who last spoke with her brother in 1999, says it is nearly impossible to get any information about his current condition. "I once sent my brother a letter, but I got no response."
Ming is similarly concerned about her 68-year-old mother. In May 2000, police officers raided her mother's home in the Hunan Province, seized her Falun Gong literature and sent her to a labor camp. Since then she has been beaten unconscious, deprived of sleep and forced to stand against a wall for days at a time.
"They tell her, if you give up [Falun Gong], you can go free," Ming says.
Ming's mother refuses to do so. Before she started practicing Falun Gong, Ming says she had such severe stomach blockage that she could rarely eat food and, instead, lived on injections and daily medications.
"After she practiced Falun Gong, she has become better and better. She can eat food. She became energetic. [Her] hair had become white. After practicing Falun Gong, her hair became black," Ming says. "My mother says, 'Dafa gives me life. If they order me to give it up, it's like killing me.'"
Ming sets her chin on the back of the seat and sighs.
"So many people suffer and suffer so much," she says. "Because I will not give up Falun Gong, if I go back to China perhaps I will fetch death. I cannot go back, but I so miss my family."
As the tour progresses, Amy Lee is increasingly in demand. At every stop, the local reporters dispatched to cover the tour focus on her because she is the only member of the group who has been personally tortured. As they near Washington, she regularly shushes the group so that she can conduct telephone interviews with national reporters.
Amy Lee gives many of the interviews in Chinese, which are translated for American audiences, but she struggles to speak in English. She only began speaking English last March when she arrived in the United States, smuggled out of China with the help of a Western journalist. She practices by reading her press statement aloud, mouthing the words slowly and repeating them. Occasionally, she asks how to pronounce certain words. They are words like "surveillance," "unconscious" and "comatose."
In China, Amy Lee was a clothing designer and artist. She was also happily married and the mother of Dou Dou, her baby daughter whose name means "pistachio." The story of her trip through China's criminal justice system illustrates the way in which the crackdown targets families as part of its design to completely eradicate the practice of Falun Gong.
Like Linda's brother, Amy Lee went to Beijing on the day Falun Gong was declared illegal. There she was forced onto a bus and driven back to the suburbs. The next day she returned and was again arrested. This time, she was forced to watch an anti-Falun Gong video. After she was bailed out, she went home and proceeded to write letters of appeal to the Chinese government. In response, police arrived at her home and workplace, where she was ultimately fired. They also went to her husband's workplace, where his bosses began accusing him of "promoting Falun Gong."
In May 2000 she went back to Tiananmen Square and erected a banner that said: "Falun Dafa is good." She says seven plainclothes officers wrestled her to the ground, beat her and detained her inside the Tiananmen Police Station. At first she was not allowed to use the bathroom for 12 hours. "Don't you talk about forbearance?" one of the guards asked her. "I'll find out how long you can forbear."
Later, Amy Lee was beaten for an hour. Officers dragged her by the hair, slammed her head into the ground, where she was kicked until she lost consciousness. When she came to, she had been stripped of her clothes, and her body was covered with bruises. An officer accused her of pretending she was dead. Several days later, she was sent to a mental hospital where a team of officers and nurses stuck a tube through her nose and pumped a liquid solution of red pepper and water into her stomach.
"When the tubes reached my stomach I felt like I wanted to vomit. At that very moment I thought I would die," Amy Lee says. "So many people were tortured to death this way."
Amy Lee was released a short time later, and, in the ensuing months, she continued to praise Falun Gong in letters to the government. The police responded by placing Amy Lee under house arrest. They also forced her husband to sign a pledge that Amy would not practice or write any more letters of appeal. When Amy Lee refused to attend a "transformation class," in which practitioners are pressured to give up Falun Gong, the local party representative informed her that they would hold the class in her home. Before they arrived, Amy Lee took Dou Dou and fled to a rented apartment. She realized her cell phone had been bugged when the police tracked her down, took away Dou Dou and forced her to attend the brainwashing class.
The retelling of the day Dou Dou was taken is the only part of the story that causes Amy Lee to cry.
"That hurt," she says, "in my heart. You know?"
Later, Amy was served with a divorce petition that her husband brought against his will. She had no choice but to sign. When she was released, she realized she had one option left if she wanted to live: She snuck out of the country, leaving her husband and daughter behind. Back home, her husband is routinely required to write "self criticisms" and reprimanded for Amy Lee's activities.
Invariably, the reporters ask Amy Lee what it felt like to be tortured. Even if English were Amy Lee's native tongue, it's uncertain whether she--or anyone who has gone through what she did--could find the words to relay her feelings.
Amy Lee's participation in this tour jeopardizes her husband and daughter, but she says she will not be silenced. She also refuses to let the government break her spirit.
"I still feel very happy," she says, "because I did not go against my heart."
At some point during the trip, the day of the march on Washington got moved up a day from Friday to Thursday, July 19. The snafu did not dampen the turnout. As promised, some 3,000 practitioners began gathering beneath the Washington Monument at 8 a.m. After a massive group exercise, the practitioners formed themselves into a parade that brought street life to a halt as it crept down Constitution Boulevard and onto the Capitol grounds.
On the steps, a temporary lectern has been erected and is surrounded by a dense semicircle of reporters, photographers and camera crews. Somewhere in Tennessee, somebody asked Amy Lee by cell phone if she would speak during the Capitol Hill news conference. At the time she said she wasn't prepared, but today she stands behind the lectern and clutches a copy of her well-worn statement. Dressed in a blue shirt and white slacks, she looks neither happy nor nervous. She simply looks determined.
In the press material, Amy Lee is slated to speak third. As the news conference gets under way, however, a string of politicians begins arriving at the podium. One by one they declare their support for Falun Gong. Eventually, Amy Lee sits down in a row of folding chairs.
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Later that day, the U.S. House of Representatives defeated an effort to suspend normal trade relations with China, which had been offered by some representatives who are angered, in part, by China's human rights record. Meanwhile, in China, the government signed a contract with Russia in which it agreed to buy $2 billion worth of fighter jets.
As Amy Lee waits, I recall something she said after an evening spent in a civil rights memorial park in Birmingham, Alabama. Inside the van, the group happily munches on Drumstix ice cream cones and discusses American movies. Their favorite is Forrest Gump.
"Americans don't like tragedy," Amy Lee announced. It takes a while for me to translate this, but eventually I understood.
She means, Americans like happy endings.