They go in and out of prisons, often for long periods, suffering torture and abuses. Their only crime is to follow a spiritual path.
by Marco Respinti
The persecution of the practitioners of Falun Gong exercises, or disciples of Falun Dafa teachings, is not a sad story confined in the past, to be piously remembered at anniversaries. It is a bewildering current and recurrent event, especially because its victims are guilty of one “crime” only, pacifically and harmlessly following a spiritual way. The case of Ma Xiuyun and her husband Tang Pingshun exemplifies it well.
Ma was born on August 14, 1957, Tang on April 14, 1955. They lived in Beijing, Chaoyang District, and were both practitioners of Falun Gong. When the black day of the movement, July 20, 1999, came and open persecution exploded, Ma was arrested. She ended up in different forced labor camps all over China. The reason was laughable. In August 2000, she had participated in a pacific demonstration in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, to protest the government’s decision to ban Falun Gong.
Arrested, she was sent to the Chaoyang District Detention Center, where she remained for seven days. Police authorities released her, believing she had been sufficiently scared, but Ma returned to Tiananmen Square on October 1, 2000, to ask again justice for Falun Gong in that iconic place. Arrested again, she was again brought to the Chaoyang District Detention Center, where she remained for five days. Her calvary was only beginning. She was now a known Falun Gong practitioner, one of those persons law enforcement agents regularly visit and harass, with not even the excuse of a false charge.
The Chinese regime regularly holds the so-called “Two Sessions,” now led by President Xi Jinping, a meeting of the National People’s Congress (or the national legislature of the People’s Republic of China, PRC), and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (a political advisory body functioning as a central part of the CCP’s United Front strategy to create a false impression of political pluralism). Repression becoming usually harder on the eve of these events, during the “Two Sessions” of March 2001, policemen of Taiyanggong station (Taiyanggong being a township on the north of Chaoyang District) took Ma to Chaoyang District Detention Center as a preventive measure of “public security.” To “talk,” they said. As a result, she was detained for twenty-eight days.
A new visit from the persecutors came in May 2001, when two women knocked at Ma’s door to check, they claimed, the gas pipes of her apartment. When she opened, four previously hidden men jumped from behind, violently dragging her away on a white van. At this point, information on her fate, gathered by “Bitter Winter” from reconstructions made from distance, are not yet clear. There are two versions. One is that she was arrested twice in May: the first time she was brought to an unidentified place (the peasant complex in Huairou District, a rather remote area in north-eastern Beijing, is a possibility). There, she protested and went on a a hunger strike, and then either escaped or was let go, only to be arrested a second time after a short time and brought to the Beijing Legal Training Center, a facility for re-educating inmates to the ideological orthodoxy of the regime. The other chance is that, abducted from her home, she was arrested only one time and spent her whole period in detention in two different places, being moved after ten days from the first unidentified detention place (or the peasants complex) to the Beijing Legal Training Center.
Yet, Ma is a champion of endurance. Released again, on October 1, 2001, she returned to Tiananmen Square. This time, many policemen were there, controlling every move of every passers-by. Ma began to walk, with no visible sign of any protest. But she has been followed by law enforcement agents in disguise, who eventually abducted her again, dragged her into a car, and drove to the Beijing Public Security Bureau Tiananmen Area Branch.
Then, she was moved to the Tuanjiehu police station, where a police official repeatedly slapped her with no evident reason, before sending her first to Taiyanggong police, then to a secret place. This was a building with three underground levels, where Ma remained for ten days. It was a totally unhealthy place, to the point of frequently getting the police officers themselves sick. This urged the authorities to move the detained woman yet another time, to a flat designed for elderly people of the Taiyanggong detention complex. The secret building, with unhealthy levels, could be simply a part of that complex as well.
After a month in custody there, she was re-sent to the Chaoyang District Detention Center, where, after thirty days, she was sentenced to one and a half years in a labor camp. Ma endured again, until she yearned for release. But freedom was again a short dream. On March 30, 2005, police broke once more into her house, sending her as a known and “notorious” Falun Dafa disciple to meet an “old acquaintance,” the Chaoyang District Detention Center. She was sentenced to another two and a half years in a female labor camp in Beijing. Since she did not stop practicing Falun Gong even there, she was punished with sleep deprivation. She would be allowed to rest only if she accepted to submit herself to re-education to CCP doctrine.
Ma refused, and torture entered the scene. For three months, she was compelled to sit on a stool from 5:30 am of one day to 2:00 am of the following. She was denied food beyond basic subsistence and the normal use of restrooms. She could not change her clothes and could receive no visit. More humiliation came when she was moved to a particular working team, where inmates worked almost as slaves in the stables, collecting cattle droppings and feeding pigs, or watering the terrain during the hottest hours of summer days.
Then release finally arrived—but again for a brief period. On May 24, 2008, during the Beijing Olympic Games, Ma was sentenced to two and a half more years in a female labor camp in Wuhan, Hubei province. Again, details are sometimes difficult to ascertain. The facility could be the Sunshine forced labor camp located at Mahu Special No. 1 in the Hongshan District of Wuhan city. She was once more deprived of sleep, ordered to stand every day from 6:00 am to midnight. In summertime, that torture took place in the restrooms, where the smell was nauseating; at wintertime, she was moved to the aisles of the building, where it was very cold. She endured this for two years and four months, working countless hours, with scarcity of food, and the Ma to buy any extra to eat at the prison shop. A special exemplary punishment came when Xiuyun was sent to stand outside in the sun for five continuous days.
As for her husband, Tang Pingshun was arrested in 2017 and detained for thirty days. He was guilty of distributing materials on the Falun Gong practices. He was then sent to a re-educational facility.
After his release, he was constantly visited by police agents and personnel of the now closed (or renamed), and ill-famed, “Office 610.” The CCP says that Office 610 was closed on March 19, 2018, but more likely, as per testimonies on the ground, its central structure was just reorganized and changed its name, while its local branches still operate. Those visits are typical of the “knocking on door” campaign, launched by the CCP in Spring 2017. On sensitive dates and political/ideological anniversaries, the Party sends team of agents, usually two, to the home of known Falun Gong practitioners. This is to make them feel the state’s constant pressure or to investigate whether they are still believers.
On June 9, 2022, one of these teams knocked on the door of Ma Xiuyun and Tang Pingshun to arrest them both yet one more time. They confiscated many of their personal belongings, including computers, printers, books, and paintings. But COVID was saturating the air everywhere and so they were released after three days. Only a few months elapsed, though, and on October 12, in sight of an important event, the 20th National Congress of the CCP (16–22 October), a squad counting more than twenty police officers took them to their “home away from home,” the Chaoyang District Detention Center.
On December 8, the Chaoyang District prosecutor took on their case, indicting them on the “evidence” of crime offered by the objects that were confiscated in June, i.e. totally harmless Falun Gong educational material, and Falun-Gong-branded calendars.
The couple is still suffering. After five months in jail waiting for their trial, on March 15, 2023, they were brought to court. Their lawyers immediately asked for their case to be dismissed as unfounded and unproven, only to receive a rejection. A few days later, May 24, Ma Xiuyun and Tang Pingshun were both sentenced to one and a half years in prison and a fine of 4,000 renminbi (more than 550 US dollars) each. They are waiting in the Chaoyang District Detention Center for their appeal to be accepted. There is still time to save them, if those who have the power to do it will exert that power.