NEW YORK—Beijing’s days were always a bit dusty and gray in Zhang Yijie’s memory. That day was no different.
A division-head at the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation, she had just gotten back home from a month-long business trip in Germany. It was afternoon and there was no time to lose. As she put down her luggage, rather than grabbing lunch, she went straight for her phone. She was eager to touch base with her group of friends with whom she studied Falun Gong teachings and practiced meditative exercises daily.
But there was no one to be found.
Then, an urgent phone call rang from her director Shi Guangsheng to her husband, who also worked at the ministry. He sprinted to another room, shutting the door behind him.
All of this made Zhang feel uneasy. Standing on tiptoe outside the door, she heard that a group of Falun Gong practitioners had gone to Zhongnanhai, the compound of the top Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership.
Go to the demonstration and tell all foreign trade ministry staff attending the event to leave immediately, the director told her husband.
The day, April 25, 1999, would eventually see around 10,000 adherents from all over the country congregate mostly along the red walls enclosing the government complex on Fuyou Street to appeal for their right to freely practice Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa.
First introduced to the public in 1992, the spiritual practice spread by word of mouth across the country, with between 70 million and 100 million people practicing by 1999. Adherents could be seen doing the practice’s slow meditative exercises every morning in parks across China. Yet the practitioners had begun to feel more and more pressure from authorities in recent years, with the practice’s books banned from distribution, state-owned programs spewing propaganda vilifying the discipline, and the public security bureau ordering a thorough investigation into the practice.
The Chinese regime would later portray the April 25 event as a provocative protest in order to justify an all-out persecution campaign targeting Falun Gong, which would be launched in July the same year—and which continues to this day.
But Zhang, who soon jumped on her bike and rushed toward Zhongnanhai, saw nothing threatening about the adherents’ demeanor that day. With pride, she and many others who were there recall the long, straight rows of practitioners lined up neatly along the street. Many were reading books or sitting on the ground to meditate. Some, holding plastic bags, made rounds to collect trash from the demonstrators.
One simply feels different when among such a peaceful crowd, Zhang said.
“When have you seen a petition like this?” Zhang, now in the United States, said in an interview with The Epoch Times. “The pedestrian paths and the main road were all clear. There was no shouting at all, not a single scrap of paper on the ground.”
Shi Caidong, who was working on a master’s degree at the state-run Chinese Academy of Sciences at the time, was one of three delegates who met with Premier Zhu Rongji that morning to explain their requests.
Zhu reaffirmed his support for their freedom of belief and arranged for four officials to meet with them, including his vice secretary in chief and the state petitioning bureau director. The three delegates delivered three major requests: to release the dozens of practitioners from the nearby city of Tianjin who had been beaten and detained two days prior, to allow the publication of Falun Gong books, and to restore an environment in which they could exercise in public without fear.
The officials accepted a few copies of the practice’s main book of teachings, “Zhuan Falun,” and promised to relay the situation to the top leadership of the CCP.
The masses gradually dispersed in the evening when word got out that the Tianjin practitioners had been set free.
“If the ‘besieging’ was real, would Zhu Rongji appear so composed when he came out?” Shi said, rebutting the state media’s characterization of the event.
Tensions grew in the afternoon when riot police appeared, carrying rifles, but none of the demonstrators stirred, according to Kong Weijing, another delegate.
Zhang stayed until dark and left quietly after most of the petitioners withdrew.
Some practitioners with insider knowledge later told her that the regime had originally prepared to use violence on the demonstrators that evening. She credited the crowd’s extraordinary tranquility for circumventing a possible repeat of the Tiananmen Square massacre—the regime’s bloody suppression of student protesters, which had taken place just down the road a decade earlier.
“They couldn’t find any excuse for a clampdown,” Zhang said.
Sticking to What’s Right
The second day after the appeal, official orders were sent to companies nationwide alerting ordinary citizens about what had taken place.
It was the first time that Luan Shuang, a human resources director in a transportation firm in the city of Shenzhen, had heard about Falun Gong.
Years earlier, Luan, then still in college, learned in shock about how the Chinese regime gunned down unarmed youths in Tiananmen Square. With the brutal killing still fresh in her memory, she was struck by the bravery of the Falun Gong practitioners in coming forward.
As with other political movements, Luan, like everyone else, had to submit written promises to their superiors distancing themselves from the incident and declaring it wrong to stage a protest or parade in Beijing. “No one would go at all,” she said.
“I wouldn’t have gone even if they gave me a bonus for it—wouldn’t that be putting an end to your own career?” she recalled thinking at the time.
Determined to find out why people would take such a risk, she asked for a Falun Gong book from a coworker who happened to be a practitioner. After reading it once, she made up her mind to practice.
She described the values emphasized in the book as a beam of light into her “muddled” life.
“I know now that I can use the standard of ‘truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance’ to evaluate everything,” she said, referring to the core tenets of the practice. “So as long as something is right, I will stick to it to the end.”
Despite the officials’ conciliatory stance on April 25, the regime had deemed the practice’s popularity a threat and began a statewide campaign just three months later, aiming to wipe it out. In the years since, several million practitioners have suffered detention for persisting in their faith, according to estimates from the Falun Dafa Information Center, and unknown numbers of adherents have been killed using various forms of torture.
After meeting with the premier during the appeal, Shi was targeted by the Party committee at his workplace, which began monitoring his activities. Law enforcement officers combed through files about his past that very night, although they didn’t find any issues.
Zhang, the foreign trade official, paid a dearer cost. Over seven years, she experienced seven arrests and spent 28 months in a labor camp, where she was beaten, starved, force-fed, and deprived of sleep—the longest stretch being 42 days nonstop. When the grueling session was over, her hair had turned white and her teeth had become loose. “The fact that I survived was proof of Falun Dafa’s wonder,” she said.
This was in sharp contrast to her pre-persecution life, when she held a lucrative government post and had a perfect family, with a daughter and a son both about to go to college.
“Many people could work their whole life without reaching where I was,” she said. “At that time, if I had agreed to stop practicing, I wouldn’t have lost anything.”
Luan, who was still new to the practice, similarly faced a wrenching choice. As a 34-year-old, she was living the white-collar success story, enjoying a life that many her age wouldn’t dream of. She had recently moved into a 4,300 square foot seaside mansion, ready to enjoy the fruits of her hard work.
She could practice secretly inside her house without letting anyone know. Or she could speak her mind and risk it all.
Luan chose the latter.
In 2001, the human resources director went to Tiananmen Square to protest the persecution—the very place that two years earlier she said she “wouldn’t have gone even if they gave [her] a bonus” to protest.
Luan was thrown into various detention centers and endured three months of torment. She slept on blankets that she suspected were never washed as they emitted a strong odor. While she was not beaten, she worked long hours with no break making Christmas lights that her fingers couldn’t straighten after the shift ended.
She managed to come out mostly intact, but others were not so fortunate. A detainee had told her that another Falun Gong practitioner, a foreign language teacher from the same city as Luan, was driven to insanity there.
The Party also expelled her from its membership, cutting off the economic and political privileges associated with the affiliation. Her company organized a “denunciation meeting” to announce the expulsion. During the meeting, Luan was made to endure an endless stream of criticism about her faith from company higher-ups.
Luan maintained a bright smile as her superiors announced the decision in front of dozens of her colleagues.
“This evil Party can’t tolerate good people. Even if you don’t expel me, I would have to get out of it anyway,” she remembered telling herself at the time.
While Luan’s company didn’t fire her outright, she was only assigned the lowliest of jobs. She eventually submitted her resignation.
Recounting their journeys long after resettling in the United States, the adherents exuded an air of sereneness incongruent with their past suffering.
They had made the right choices, they said.
“The belief in the truth, when it’s elevated from an emotional to a rational level, transcends any suffering,” said Zhang, who made her escape through Thailand in 2006.
Zhang saw her life as a “legendary” one. “Whatever ordeals and circumstances, I have seen them all and been through them all,” she said.
On April 18, they gathered with about 1,000 other practitioners in New York for a parade and rally to commemorate the historic demonstration of peaceful resistance and to “say no” to the CCP’s continued repression of their faith, they said.
“If everyone was like those at the April 25 appeal, Chinese society would be better off,” Luan said, smiling as she was 20 years ago. “Because of April 25 … I finally became one of those good people who stand for justice, which I had aspired to be since I was young.”