She starred in “Xiaozhen’s Story,” now her life is at risk. Others are in a similar situation in Madrid. They need immediate help.
by Massimo Introvigne
A well-known performer tried to commit suicide at Madrid Barajas Airport on November 3 by cutting her wrists rather than being deported back to China, where she would face imprisonment, rape, torture, and possibly death. She is Li Yanli, a member of The Church of Almighty God (CAG), a Christian new religious movement that is both heavily persecuted in China and well-known for its artistic productions. CAG movies have won awards from Christian film festivals’ juries that did not agree with the movement’s theology but were won by the quality of the films.
Arguably the best movie produced by the CAG, and surely the most awarded one, was “Xiaozhen’s Story,” released in 2015. It is a musical film about the story of a girl who feels betrayed by her friends and sinks into a life of materialism and sin, symbolized by the fact that all characters wear animal masks. Then, she gradually understands her situation and gets back in touch with her deeper self and with God.
The CAG performer playing Xiaozhen, Li Yanli, became internationally famous and starred in more than 80 CAG films. This also made her one of the most recognizable faces of the CAG, which came at a price. In China, the CAG is banned, and participating in any CAG activity is a crime punished with heavy jail penalties. CAG inmates in Chinese jails are often tortured and some have been killed. The CCP is particularly disturbed by the success of CAG movies, and those it managed to arrest who participated in their production were sentenced to heavy jail terms, as documented by court decisions published by the Chinese authorities themselves. Li Yanli, as one of the most acclaimed and recognizable CAG performers, is at even worse risk. She is in the list of China’s most wanted and the police routinely harasses her parents and relatives trying to learn where she is.
In fact, Li Yanli is one among several CAG refugees who tried to flee to South America. When there, however, they were told they cannot stay in countries that happen to have good political relations with China. Having no visa, they could only buy a ticket to China, and they bought one allowing them to change flights in the airport of Madrid Barajas. They put their hope in the fact that Spain is a country with unimpeachable democratic credentials and planned to deliver themselves to the Spanish authorities while changing flights, seeking asylum in Spain.
Unfortunately, their plan did not work out. Spanish airport police did not take their situation and the fact that their liberty and their very lives would be at risk in China into account. They tried to force them to board their flights to China anyway. Li Yanli knew that jail, rape (which is routinely inflicted on CAG detainees), torture, and possibly death awaited her in China. She would rather die than be repatriated.
On November 3, after she had been escorted by the Spanish police to her flight to China, Li Yanli tried to commit suicide on the plane by cutting her wrist. The Spanish police stopped her, and her wound was summarily dressed. The police still insisted on forcing her to go back to China with the flight. They did not stop until the flight crew refused to allow her to continue the flight citing security concerns. Currently, Li Yanli is being kept in the T1 building of the Madrid Barajas Airport. “You will surely be repatriated to China in a few days anyway,” the police told her.
“I cannot go back to China. I am sure I will be tortured and killed there,” Li Yanli told “Bitter Winter” speaking from the airport. “I have no way back,” she said. “I am in pain, and I am desperate. I would rather die than be sent back to China.” She has even prepared her last will and testament.
She is not alone in this situation. Li Guiyuan, another CAG devotee, is also stranded at the Madrid-Barajas Airport. On November 1, the Spanish police tried to repatriate him to China by force, even though he repeatedly told them his life would be at risk there. He requested the Spanish police to send him to any place, as long as it is not China. But the police ignored his imploring requests and still tried to put him in a flight to China. Unexpectedly, he fainted and fell on the ground with foaming at his mouth, which stopped the police from getting him aboard. But he is still in danger of being repatriated at any time and was told by the police he will be handcuffed and boarded on a flight to China by force as soon as he is fit to travel.
We understand that airport police have rarely the possibility of examining cases and situations in detail. However, that the CAG is heavily persecuted in China and that just being a member of the CAG, let alone a well-known public face of the movement, leads to arrest and worse has been proved through hundreds of Chinese courts’ published decisions. Objections to granting asylum to CAG members have been debunked by both scholars and courts of law in most democratic countries. On July 27, 2021, the United Nations Committee Against Torture (CAT) rendered a decision against Switzerland, which had tried to deport a CAG member, to whom asylum had been denied, to China. The CAT ruled that CAG members are “at risk of torture” in China and should not be deported there.
Note that seeking asylum abroad, thus damaging the international image of China, is regarded by the Chinese authorities as a crime in itself, for which additional jail penalties are imposed. Both “Bitter Winter” and human rights organizations have repeatedly documented that CAG members whose asylum applications have been wrongly rejected in democratic countries were arrested upon their return back to China and sentenced to jail terms.
Li Yanli, Li Guiyuan, and other CAG members currently at Madrid Barajas airport need immediate humanitarian help. “Bitter Winter” has been told that airport police does not take humanitarian concerns into account and follows its own strict rules. But we can hardly believe that nothing can be done, and that Spain is determined to send innocent human beings to torture—a most likely event affecting forcibly repatriated CAG members according not to “Bitter Winter” only but to the United Nations’ Committee Against Torture—, rape, and possibly death.