By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
Yongsheng "Jason" Wang sits at the worn wooden table that serves as his desk. The 39-year-old physicist spends his days in a dark bedroom, writing and faxing countless letters to members of Congress, begging U.S. politicians to help stop China's persecution of Falun Gong practitioners.
A clothesline stretches over his head from the closet to the window; the wall is covered in his three-year-old son's purple crayon scribbles. A slab of plywood serves as a headboard on the full-size bed in the corner; there is no mattress on the baby's bed. On the bookshelves are dozens of copies of the 2002 Falun Gong Report, which has graphic pictures of people shocked, burned and brutally beaten to death.
Jason was raised on the Jiangsu River. But today he lives a semi-reclusive life in a ratty, one-bedroom apartment near the University of Houston, where he once was a stellar, straight-A graduate student.
Jason followed a college classmate to Texas; his friend said America had more advanced technology that Jason could study and take back to China. Jason's parents expected him to get his Ph.D. in physics and then return to his hometown of Nanjing, where he could teach, write and conduct research at one of 50 universities.
Instead, after graduation, Jason sold his textbooks and bought boxes full of Falun Gong brochures, pamphlets, reports and informational videos. He spends his days locked indoors, trying to memorize the teachings of Falun Gong leader Li Hongzhi. Jason studies news reports of Falun Gong practitioners being persecuted worldwide.
Almost every evening, and all day Saturday and Sunday, Jason plants himself in front of his enemy. Wearing a bright yellow Falun Gong T-shirt, he practices the five yogalike exercises on the grass in front of the Chinese consulate in Montrose.
Jason applied for asylum, but his request has not been granted. The INS has formally charged him with overstaying his visa and wants to remove him from the country.
So Jason spends his days waiting and worrying that he and his wife and three-year-old son will be deported. Once they arrive in China, they expect to be arrested at the airport, sent to a labor camp and tortured to death.
Ten years ago, Li Hongzhi, a government grain clerk in northeast China, created Falun Gong. Formally known as Falun Dafa, which means "great law wheel," Falun Gong loosely translates to the energy-harnessing exercises and practice of the law. Falun Gong combines ancient Chinese quigong exercises, Buddhism and Taoism, with a dash of supernatural spirituality.
Master Li, as he calls himself, claims to be a more powerful, more meaningful messiah than Jesus Christ. He even changed his birth date to that of Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism.
Like most fundamentalist religious leaders, Li declares that his way is the only path to redemption. Li teaches that the world is full of condemned souls, but if people follow his five easy exercises, they can climb the ladder he built to heaven.
Sounding like a late-night TV skin-cream commercial, Li preaches that practicing Falun Gong produces a delicate, rosy-white complexion. He promises that wrinkles miraculously disappear, women long past menopause resume menstruating, and the entire body feels light. After practicing Falun Gong, Li says, "all of the illnesses that ordinary people get are not allowed to occur in your body."
"It cultivates your spirit and heart," says structural engineer Howard Song, a Houston Falun Gong practitioner.
While doing the exercises, most practitioners visualize a shining ball of sunlight spinning inside their stomach. Master Li promises to personally instill a mini-universe below each practitioner's intestines. The glowing falun (wheel), represented by a spinning yellow swastika, rotates clockwise, sucking up good energy. He claims that practitioners can harness this energy and stop speeding cars.
Zhuan Falun, the Bible-like collection of Li's lectures, reads like an only-you-can-help-you self-help book. He says no one can make a person practice Falun Gong, because it won't work unless a practitioner truly believes it will. Doing the exercises for a week or two can temporarily make a person feel better, but illnesses will return. He demands total commitment; he doesn't want halfhearted disciples.
Li asks practitioners to relinquish materialistic attachments, jealousy and competitive urges to lie, cheat and steal to get ahead. He says everyone should love their fellow man, but Li doesn't tout a particularly open, accepting faith. For instance, he equates homosexuality with homicide.
If people follow his dogma, Li says, their bodies will be purified in time for the apocalypse. And the end, Li says, is coming soon.
Jason was raised in Nanjing, China's Houston-sized Silicon Valley. Capital of the Jiangsu province, Nanjing is one of China's premier scientific research hubs. Jason earned a master's degree in physics at Nanjing University, then spent eight years teaching at the Nanjing Institute of Posts and Telecommunications. There, he met and married engineering student Jinxia "Gina" Wei.
The couple moved to America in 1996. While Jason studied physics, his wife obtained a master's degree in electrical engineering. Now they study how the Chinese government continues to torture other Falun Gong practitioners. The Falun Gong Society reports that more than 10,000 people have been sent to labor camps, where at least 1,600 have been tortured to death.
Jason and his fellow protesters are the ones who need to be stopped, says Zhuofan Yang, spokesperson for the consulate. The Chinese government discredited Falun Gong, deemed it a cult and banned it three years ago, Yang says. "He should abide by the Chinese law," Yang says.
The consulate refused to renew Jason's passport because he refused to renounce Falun Gong. Last month, his student visa expired; without a valid passport, he cannot obtain a work visa.
The Chinese government refers to Falun Gong practitioners as "victims" or "addicts." Government officials maintain that Falun Gong was outlawed as a response to public outcry for protection from this evil cult.
Despite the Houston Press's leaving five messages a day (until the embassy's media officer's voice-mail boxes were full), phone calls and requests for interviews about Falun Gong were ignored.
When I stopped by the Chinese consulate and asked to speak to someone about Falun Gong, the man at the front desk laughed nervously and looked frightened. He had hurried discussions in Chinese with several other men, who each looked worried and said that Falun Gong was a bad, evil, illegal cult and other than that, they didn't want to comment.
When the consulate's spokesperson was finally contacted, he knew exactly who Jason was. "This is old story," Yang said. "Do you want to write something? Or do you want to learn something?"
Both, I said. And asked Yang if he was free to meet in person.
When? Yang asked.
Seven minutes later, when I arrived at the consulate, the man behind the front desk said that Yang wasn't there.
He left, the man said. And he didn't expect him back.
I called Yang as soon as I returned to the office, two miles away. Yang answered the phone. He said he had suddenly left the building and was suddenly very busy. He said he would call back, but he didn't. I called him again and again; each time he said he was busy, maybe for the next three days, maybe for the next week. He promised to call back, but he never did.
Official memos posted on the Chinese embassy's Web site declare that Falun Gong has "ruined lives, destroyed families and harmed society."
The Web site states that Falun Gong fanatics have plotted more than 100 sieges, planned to overthrow the government, and tried to kill family and friends. The site proclaims that practicing Falun Gong has warped minds, caused 650 cases of mental illness and disabled 144 people.
On July 22, 1999, China's Ministry of Civil Affairs declared the Falun Dafa Research Society and the Falun Gong organization illegal. Li fled the country and now lives in hiding in Queens. An international warrant was issued for his arrest.
The Chinese government first became aware of the mass Falun Gong movement when 10,000 people peacefully demonstrated the exercises in Beijing. By then, the Falun Gong Society claimed to have more than 70 million members. Time magazine reported that government officials felt threatened because membership rivaled the number in the Communist Party. Plus, Chinese officials discovered that former high-ranking party leaders and military officials practiced Falun Gong.
Party leaders were wary because quasi-religious groups have previously tried to overthrow the Chinese government. Most Falun Gong practitioners maintain that it is not a religion, but that's not how the Chinese government sees it. Technically, China's constitution guarantees religious freedom, but most Chinese citizens are atheists, because religion is considered antisocialist. When the party took over 50 years ago, Buddhist temples and Christian churches were closed.
The Web site says Li's doomsday prophesies caused mass panic, and scared the public into submission. Fearing the apocalypse, practitioners turned to Master Li to lead them to safety. "He declared that the earth was going to be destroyed, and only he could delay the time of the explosion and take the people to Heaven," the Web site says.
Furthering the premise that Falun Gong is harmful, the Web site says Li's claim to cure and eliminate illnesses in the process of purifying the body was read by seriously sick people to mean that they don't need medical treatment, an error the government says has claimed 1,600 lives.
As a graduate student, Jason had piles and piles of required reading. But reading made his eyes hurt so badly he couldn't concentrate for more than 15-minute intervals. Student-health physicians referred him to specialists in the Medical Center. Jason says ophthalmologists couldn't determine exactly what was wrong with his vision and told him to come back when the problem got worse.
Crying, Jason told his wife he didn't know what he was going to do. Then he saw an ad for a free nine-day Falun Gong class in Chinatown. After two weeks of doing the exercises, Jason says, his eyesight improved and he could read for four-hour stretches. Armed with his personal testimony, Jason recruited his wife and mother. His brother, a computer scientist, said he didn't believe in Falun Gong's supernatural, superstitious aspect. Jason's father resisted until after a stomach- cancer operation, when Jason convinced him that Falun Gong could help him to heal.
But Jason's father quit practicing a few weeks after he began. Before banning Falun Gong, the government arrested 20,000 people during an anti-superstition campaign. "His head is full of government influence," Jason says. He says his father stopped practicing because he remembers watching his friends be tortured to death during the Chinese cultural revolution. "He has a very deep memory of how cruel, how brutal the government is," Jason says.
Shortly after Falun Gong was outlawed, Jason's mother, Jizhen Han, traveled from her home in Nanjing to Beijing (a journey equivalent to traveling from Houston to St. Louis). Before she could appeal to the government to lift the ban on Falun Gong, she was arrested and placed in a mental institution. There, Jason says, she was injected with nerve-damaging drugs that prevent her from sitting, sleeping, walking or talking without pain.
Jason flew to China, where a psychiatrist told him that his mother's mental illness stemmed from her Falun Gong practice. After two months, Jason's father asked the doctors to release her for the Chinese New Year. The day she arrived home, police officers asked her to sign an oath swearing that she would never again advocate Falun Gong. She did.
The next day, officers reappeared and demanded that she sign another statement promising never to practice Falun Gong again. When she refused, a police officer said she clearly needed more mental health care and carted her back to the psychiatric ward.
She was released two months later, and Jason's parents obtained visas and plane tickets to fly to the United States for Jason's son Darrell's first birthday. At the Shanghai airport, police officers refused to let Jason's mother on the plane. "Her name is on the blacklist," Jason says.
And so is his, he says.
An active, outspoken advocate for Falun Gong, Jason has appeared in the Houston Chronicle, the local Chinese newspaper and on nearly every television news station. He led the UH student Falun Dafa Society, and teaches free classes in public libraries throughout Houston, Beaumont, Spring, Galveston and Corpus Christi. He's traveled to Falun Gong conventions in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. He met Master Li twice, and has written dozens of letters to nearly every member of Congress. Jason even went to Washington, D.C., to speak to politicians in person.
On Tuesday, February 22, 2001, a month before his passport expired, Jason went to the consulate and paid the extra fee to expedite his passport renewal. When he went to pick it up, he was told it wasn't ready.
Jason says he spoke for two hours with a man at the consulate who told him that as a scientist, he shouldn't believe in superstition and supernatural beings and multidimensional worlds.
"He tried to persuade me to give up Falun Gong," Jason says.
When he would not, the man refused to stamp or return Jason's passport.
Nine months later, Jason's 32-year-old wife applied to renew her passport. She says a man from the consulate told her that since she was young and naive and inexperienced, he was willing to give her a chance to change her mind, renounce Falun Gong and be a good Chinese citizen.
She refused. Without her passport, she said, she wouldn't be able to renew her visa, work, pay the rent or buy food. "We can't survive," she told him.
She says the consulate representative told her she was responsible for the consequences, and to call him when she changed her mind.
The Wangs' living room wall has large posters of Master Li wearing orange monk robes, sitting in the lotus position inside a giant lotus blossom. On the bookcase is a framed photograph of Master Li when he spoke at a conference in Los Angeles three years ago. In the bedroom, there is an ornately framed eight-by-ten of Master Li wearing a white polo shirt beside a fountain in Chicago, and another photo of the master wearing a suit and tie. There are no pictures of family or friends.
Jason's father won't speak to him. He says his son is destroying his family and begs him to quit sending his mother Falun Gong materials because her rearrest is imminent.
Jason's brother recently e-mailed him that it is their father's greatest wish that Jason and his family return home for the Chinese New Year. But Jason's brother wrote that he hopes Jason never comes home. When Jason visits, he brings both the police and trouble with him.
Jason's request for asylum has been ignored and not granted. He sent a two-inch-thick application in February and mailed a second copy in March. At the end of April, after a staff member from Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee's office phoned to check on Jason's application, the Houston asylum office of the U.S. Justice Department wrote Jason a letter stating that he had not established that he's a refugee and proved any past harm.
Because Jason did not begin practicing Falun Gong until five years ago, after he had arrived in America, he cannot prove that he was persecuted in China -- because he wasn't. Plus, the asylum office said he didn't establish that there is a "reasonable possibility" of future persecution.
"There's certainly ample evidence for future prosecution," says Amnesty International's Zimmerman. "If he's sent back to China, that would be a serious miscarriage of justice."
Jason gets a second chance to reurge an immigration judge to grant him asylum. Local Falun Gong practitioners spoke with an immigration attorney in Florida on Jason's behalf, but he wanted a $20,000 retainer, which Jason couldn't afford. Since neither he nor wife Gina has a valid work visa, neither of them has a job. They are living off the little they saved from their graduate-student stipends, and friends are supplementing the rest. Jason qualified for free legal aid at the YMCA, but it was three months before an attorney accepted the case pro bono.
Immigration attorney Tony Vu Dinh took the case on the Friday before Jason's Monday-morning hearing. Dinh asked the judge for an extension, and the hearing will be rescheduled next month, Dinh says. (Until then, Dinh declined to comment on the case.)
The easy way for Jason to end his problems would be to sign the declaration promising to never practice Falun Gong. Then the consulate would happily stamp his passport, change his visa, and he could stay in the United States.
"That would be easier," Jason says. "But we prefer truthful."
Since the three tenets of Falun Gong are truthfulness, compassion and forbearance, he says, it would go against his beliefs to lie. "We cannot lie," Jason says. "We cannot say Falun Gong is not good, because we know Falun Gong is good. That is not truthful."
Roberts says that would be "such a big lie" it would "stain his soul forever."
Jason and wife Gina continue to openly practice Falun Gong and write letters to members of Congress. They worry about what will happen if they are sent back to China. Because their son was born in the United States, he technically could stay; they don't want to leave their child alone, but they also don't want to take him to his death. They have read stories about an eight-month-old boy who was killed when his mother refused to give up Falun Gong.
Gina mailed Falun Gong pamphlets to her family, but they said they never received them. She asked her mother-in-law to take to her brother and four sisters copies of Master Li's lectures, but they refused to read them. When she calls home, Gina's family members take turns crying and begging her to quit practicing Falun Gong. They cry, they yell, she cries, too.
Two weeks ago was Gina's mother's birthday. When she phoned during the celebration at her sister's house, everyone asked her, When are you coming back? When are you coming home?
"They know that I cannot come back," Gina says.