Twenty years ago, Chinese authorities arrested Jennifer Zeng as part of a nationwide crackdown on her faith, the persecuted meditation practice of Falun Gong. After her release from the labour camp, she managed to get out of China and publish a book about her experiences — Witnessing History: One woman’s fight for freedom and Falun Gong. It tells the true story of her arrest, torture, and “reeducation through forced labour” by the Chinese Communist Party.
There is no sun and no moon in a cave, and in the dispatch division there was no TV, no newspapers, no calendars, no watches. Our days, indeed our entire lives, were filled with reciting Order 23 (the government regulation used to justify the imprisonment of innocent people and the supremacy of the ruling Communist Party). After three days of squatting and standing, everybody’s feet, hands and bodies swelled up with the immobility. Our feet were like big steamed buns and we couldn’t get our shoes on, so we would stealthily kick them off and then have to somehow jam them back on when we used the toilet.
After we had stood for eight whole days, we were given small folding camp stools to sit on. But our right to sit could be taken away at any time for any reason; the decision was at the discretion of the officers or of Wolf and Bei. And the reciting of Order 23 was never to be remitted.
We gradually lost all sense of time, merely longing for nightfall every day from the moment we got up.
The only “crime” that Jennifer supposedly committed 20 years ago was practicing the meditation and qigong exercises of Falun Gong and continuing to adhere to the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance after being told to renounce them.
The slow-moving rhythms of the Falun Gong exercises were once a common sight in every urban park in China. Just as yoga became popular in North America, the various qigong practices had become even more popular in China. And in the late 1990s, Falun Gong was far and away the most popular of them all.
Falun Gong was practiced freely in the parks without any fees or organizational structure, just an organic blossoming of daily meditation and traditional Chinese wisdom, Zeng says. The philosophy of the group comes primarily from the Buddhist school of thought and emphasizes kindness and tolerance. People from every walk of life were taking up the practice, and by 1998, there were over 70 million people practicing Falun Gong.
Zeng was one of them. At the time, she says, she had a perfect Beijing pedigree: “I was a graduate in science from Beijing University. I was a wife and mother. I was even a Chinese Communist Party member.” She has since renounced ties to the Party.
Actually, in the 1990s, the regime in China even supported Falun Gong. Government offices had their own Falun Gong practice groups, and Falun Gong’s founder, Mr. Li Hongzhi, gave lectures at the invitation of Party officials. There wasn’t an issue with being both a Party member and a Falun Gong practitioner.
Then in 1999, in a turnaround that shocked the world, the Chinese Communist Party outlawed Falun Gong.
Jennifer Zeng, like tens of millions of others, suddenly found herself living a secret life.
At first, practitioners assumed it was a misunderstanding. They thought that if they could just clarify what they were about and explain that they had no political aspirations, the initial wave of arrests would end.
What they didn’t realize was that Jiang Zemin, head of the CCP at the time, wanted Falun Gong erased from history. There had been no misunderstanding. The nation’s leaders knew Falun Gong was good, but they were worried by its popularity and, worse, they knew that its very principles of honesty and compassion were a threat to the CCP’s legitimacy and its plans for China’s authoritarian future.
On April 13, 2000, secret police from what came to be called the 610 Office coordinated Zeng’s arrest, and she was forced to join the millions of other practitioners in China’s dreaded forced labour camps, the infamous laogai.
Jennifer Zeng’s torture in a Chinese labour camp
The torture Zeng suffered is too graphic to describe here, but it involved shocks from electric cattle prods, beatings, and psychological torment. Everything in the environment of the labour camp is designed to erode a prisoner’s humanity. But even in that dark place, Zeng says she still saw goodness in the world.
She says that on the rare occasions when she could talk for a few moments with another practitioner in the camp, it was like “sweet spring water in the desert.”
The key to dismantling a person’s psyche is to deprive him or her of connection, Zeng says. Kept alone with only forces of opposition and manipulation, people lose perspective. They forget who they are. The guards hoped to exploit this state of isolation and exhaustion in their mandate to “reeducate” or “transform” the inmates.
The practitioners were pressured every day to sign statements renouncing their beliefs. They were told that if they just promised to give up their faith, they would be released, and the torture would end. Of course, it was just a ploy, and the only thing waiting for those who “transformed” was new pressure to aid the guards in the torment of others.
Finding light in the darkness
To keep the light in their hearts aglow, Falun Gong practitioners would memorize the poetry and writings of Li Hongzhi. They hid copies of handwritten passages on scraps of paper and passed them around from cell to cell, to help each other.
Zeng recounts the power of these secret teachings in the following excerpt from her book:
I lay on my bunk that night forcing myself not to fall asleep. My bed was directly opposite the open door, and the little sentry and police on night duty could wander in at any point on their twenty-minute rounds. The camp guards also made periodic patrols, as much to check on the little sentries and police as the inmates.
I bunched up some clothing at the head of my bunk and, sheltered by the little nest this made, I opened out the wad of paper Song Mei had slipped to me. It was all crumpled and torn, clearly having passed through many hands. Both sides were covered in closely written characters, written with a ballpoint pen. There was no heading and I couldn’t make out an ending. In the dim light I started reading:
“Your current performance as Dafa disciples is magnifi-cent. All of this is your goodness (shan) made manifest, and it is what evil fears most, as those who attack goodness are bound to be evil. The actions they are now adopting in the persecution of Dafa and its students are extremely evil and shameful, and they fear these will be exposed. You must let the world’s people know about their evilness …”
On that crumpled slip of paper was a new article written by Li Hongzhi. It had been more than a year since Zeng had read anything from her Teacher. She wrote more copies on slips of stolen paper to circulate to the other inmates, and she made a promise to herself that she would get out and tell the world about what was happening in the camp.
The treasure of connection in Jennifer Zeng’s life
“The most precious moment for me was when I was allowed to spend some private time with a fellow practitioner I knew before I was sent to the camp,” Jennifer Zeng says.
“He was tortured very badly in the male camp. He wasn’t allowed to sleep for 12 days and nights in a row. That was the record at the camp at that time. After failing to ‘convert’ him, the police sent him and several other male practitioners to the female camp to try their luck.”
Somehow, he had convinced the guards to let him see Jennifer Zeng in private after they had met. Perhaps hoping the connection would give them leverage over the two difficult inmates, they allowed them to speak to each other without harassment for a little while.
They told each other what they had been through and about their hopes for the future. They discussed the principles of Falun Gong, and when he told her to “have faith,” she knew she could survive as long as she held onto her belief in truthfulness, com-passion, and tolerance, to know that she was a good person, and that Falun Gong had helped her to become an even better person.
“At that moment, I felt so much warmth and was so empowered. I decided right then to escape China and to write a book, but I buried the intention deep in my heart, daring not to speak about it with anybody,” she says.
Zeng kept that intention as a little secret fire in her chest, a light and a source of warmth in the cold. It kept her going and gave her a way out.
Compassion spreads even in the smallest deeds
“Sometimes when the vicious police officers ordered the other inmates to torture us, they protected us instead,” Jennifer Zeng says.
What the guards never realized is that to the prostitutes and drug addicts who made up the rest of the camp’s population, the practitioners were the best people they had ever met. They shared their food even when rations were few. They showed kindness even to the people who persecuted them. They taught the Falun Gong exercises to the destitute souls around them and gave them hope even when the practitioners had no hope for themselves.
“Once the police tortured me for an entire night and didn’t allow me to sleep. The next day, they asked a non-practitioner to watch over me and not let me sleep. But she had secretly been learning Falun Gong from me and even had some articles of Master Li’s that I wrote down for her. She took the risk of allowing me to sleep while she stood at the cell door to watch out for the police. This compassion and kindness showed me the nature of the universe, and in the darkness of the labour camp, it warmed my heart.”
Without those small acts of kindness from other inmates or clandestine nights reciting outlawed poetry to each other, Zeng might not have made it, she says. She often cries when discussing how close she came to getting lost in that place.
But she made it out. In 2001, Jennifer Zeng fled to Australia and later the United States. Her journey to freedom is one of miracle after miracle. Just surviving the camp seems miraculous, not to mention surviving with her conscience still intact. She was then issued a passport, even though former detainees of the labour camp system are rarely granted that freedom, and within five months she managed to get approved for a visit to Australia, where she immediately sought asylum and a publisher for the book she had been dreaming of.
Jennifer Zeng’s ongoing fight for freedom
As the physical scars healed, she spent her days writing and advocating for the release of others. The psychological scars, it seemed, would never fade. Rather than succumbing to the trauma, however, she used those dark memories to fuel her work of exposing China’s human rights abuses.
Jennifer Zeng continues to practice Falun Gong today with an appreciation for her freedom rarely found among those of us fortunate enough to have grown up in free societies.
She has a passion for the truth and remains dedicated to helping others who suffer as she once did. Her work today consists mainly of educating the West about the nature of communism and the threat it poses to the world. Living in the United States, she thought she was free from those threats, but the growing popularity of socialist thought and other cultural phenomena in the West, she says, are reminiscent of the communist society she narrowly escaped. She has even faced censorship herself after posting videos on her social media accounts that discussed links between the Chinese Communist Party and U.S. officials.
The story of Zeng’s persecution is more than just a tragic tale of something that happened long ago and far away. It gives us a lesson in the value of faith, courage, and freedom. It shows the extremes of humanity, both the evilness and the kindness that people are capable of.
Jennifer Zeng says that freedom in its truest sense is to embody the principles of goodness yourself, because this is how we were created—it’s who we really are.
“The most important thing in this world is to understand what you should do with the life the Creator has given you,” she says.