Falun Gong practitioner Zhang Yanhua was arrested in 2001 and held for seven years in a prison in Northern China, where she was tortured. HEQ speaks to Zhang about her experiences
Zhang Yanhua, like many other Falun Gong practitioners, was arrested for printing and distributing material about Falun Gong. In November 2001, Zhang was arrested and kept in a women’s prison in Harbin, Northern China, where she was held for seven years. After her release in 2008, she was arrested again in March 2017 and detained until 4 July 2017.
Zhang has now found safety in the Netherlands, where she has continued her practice of Falun Gong.
What does Falun Gong mean to you?
For me, Falun Gong means hope and brightness. It helps to me understand that truthfulness, compassion and tolerance is what is needed in my life. It’s the resource of my courage, my sense of righteousness and my inner peace. Falun Gong brings me health. It’s like a road that leads me to find my true self and live a new life.
What was your life like before you were arrested?
I started practising Falun Gong in 1992. Just seven years later, in 1999, the persecution of Falun Gong started. Before I was arrested my family was relatively rich, we enjoyed a harmonious family life and I was in a very good relationship with my family members. Then I was imprisoned in 2001 for seven years.
How and why were you originally arrested?
In 2001 we were in one of the practitioners’ homes. At that time all the Falun Gong books were burned by the authorities and we didn’t have any books on Falun Gong; so, we downloaded the Falun Gong material from a website and we were making those materials. Then about 10 policemen broke in through the door, beat us and arrested us. They just broke in and arrested us – there was no official warrant, no permit of arrest.
Chinese law says that the person cannot be kept in the police station for more than 24 hours. After we were driven to the police station, I was kept for five days; then I was transferred to the detention centre and formally arrested.
Can you describe your experience within the police station and the detention centre?
In the police station, I was tortured. They used a very thick book to [beat] my face and head until the book was broken and then I was hung up by handcuffs. I was battered, then I was stretched: I was tied up on an iron bench, my four limbs were tied and stretched for a long time.
In the detention centre, the criminals beat me. I told one of the guards that the inmates beat me and the guard said: ‘you don’t work, you don’t obey the rules: that’s why they beat you.’ I said: ‘you are breaking the law,’ and he replied: ‘yes’.
I was forced to sit on a very small stool for a long time with my legs bent at 90-degree angles, and crossing or stretching my legs was not permitted. I was forced to stand still for a very long time; and when I went on hunger strike in protest, I was force fed.
In 2007, while I was on a hunger strike, they took my blood three times. I was not told why they took my blood or what it was used for; they just forced me to be there and took my blood away.
I think the cruellest punishment for me was the brainwashing. I was forced by several guards and other criminals to watch the videos slandering Falun Gong.
I was imprisoned in my hometown of Qiqihar City, Harbin, in Northeast China, which is very cold – in winter the temperature is around -30°C. I was forced to stand still outside for more than 10 hours with no coat, no gloves, no scarf; I was just wearing very thin clothes and I was frozen.
In 2017 in the detention centre in Harbin, I didn’t obey an unreasonable order: as a punishment, the guard directed some criminals to strip off my clothes. Then they poured two buckets of cold water over my head and down my body. I couldn’t breathe. It was winter, it was so very cold.
How were the other prisoners treated?
The other criminals were not treated like Falun Gong practitioners. There was no torture for them, there was no brainwashing for them. The other prisoners would have to do long hours of labour – I know some of them had to work for over 20 hours a day. If they didn’t meet their quota, they would be beaten by the guards.
Were there any other religious minorities with you in the detention centre?
I was kept separately from other minorities. They kept me with criminals who’d committed theft, robbery and murder. They intentionally kept the Falun Gong practitioners and other religious believers separately. So, all believers, no matter what you believed, would be separated.
How did prison affect your medical health?
After the imprisonment, I was very weak. I suffered problems with anaemia and cardiac failure. In 2017, I was so weak they thought I almost died. They thought I was critically ill, so they released me.
How has your health changed since your release?
After I was released, I restarted my practice of Falun Gong. I regularly practised the exercise and meditation. I studied the main books of Falun Gong and eventually I regained my health in about two months. I just practise Falun Gong and I think I almost recovered to my best condition.
Since your release, have you been in contact with any other Falun Gong practitioners?
I have contacted one or two practitioners in China; they say the situation has become worse and worse. The Falun Gong practitioners are tightly monitored by the Chinese Communist Party; they use technology to follow and control everyone. There is no freedom at all, practitioners of Falun Gong are all worried about their situation and worried that they might be captured at any moment.
Please note, this article will appear in issue 12 of Health Europa Quarterly, which is available to read now.