New Yorker Renounces Falun Gong
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BEIJING (AP) _ Reports that Falun Gong followers were being tortured in Chinese jails prompted Teng Chunyan to risk all and come home from New York City. Now she too is in prison but insists she cherishes every moment there.
In a prison interview, her first with a Western news organization since her arrest in May 2000, Teng said she has undergone a radical ``mental transformation.″ No longer a crusader, she says Falun Gong is a cult that brainwashed her.
``I really treasure each day of my time here,″ said Teng, dressed in a blue prison uniform. ``I think it’s all the start of a new life. It’s given me many opportunities to learn things that I didn’t know before.″
Her friends are shocked. They suspect that 38-year-old Teng, who lived in the New York City borough of Queens and ran a successful acupuncture clinic on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, has been abused and forced to recant.
What else, they ask, could prompt such a change of heart from a woman who would rise before dawn to practice Falun Gong’s slow-motion exercises daily in parks?
``I don’t understand how a person could change totally,″ said Janet Xiong, a New York City government employee who practiced with Teng. ``I think she must be brainwashed.″
The interview with Teng was given in response to an Associated Press request. Questions had to be submitted in advance. Prison officials sat in on the meeting, which also was monitored by foreign affairs and security officials.
Such constraints make it difficult to judge how freely Teng was speaking. But the interview gave insights into how China is dealing with a movement it has labeled a dangerous cult, and its efforts to discredit its leadership and drive away followers.
The prison where Teng shares a third-floor room with five other former Falun Gong followers opened in December 2000 and holds 102 women. Officials say most were convicted of such economic crimes as theft and corruption.
Its high walls are topped by barbed wire. Security cameras and armed guards keep watch. Inmates are up at 6 a.m. and in bed by 9:30 p.m.
Teng, a Chinese citizen who moved to the United States in 1990 and had permanent U.S. residency, returned to China early in 2000 on a self-appointed mission to expose Beijing’s efforts to crush Falun Gong.
Chinese leaders banned the group in July, 1999, fearful that its multimillion-member following and organizational prowess threatened communist rule.
Thousands were confined to prisons or labor camps. Human rights groups and Falun Gong supporters abroad said dozens were dead from torture and abuse.
Police detained and punched, kicked and spat on followers who protested on Tiananmen Square, the huge plaza in the center of Beijing.
Operating under the pseudonym Hannah Li, Teng tipped off foreign reporters about protests and helped them meet practitioners. Some had been detained in a mental hospital. One man said he was fed psychiatric drugs.
``She was very proud of what she did. She felt she did something noble,″ Xiong said in a telephone interview. ``I was impressed by her courage.″
After a brief visit to New York, Teng returned to China in May 2000.
This time, authorities were waiting. China’s official Xinhua News Agency said she was detained while entering from Hong Kong.
Friends say they had tried to discourage Teng from her second trip.
``I didn’t have a good feeling about it,″ said Gail Rachlin, a Falun Gong spokeswoman in New York. ``She just said, `I have to go there.′ She was being like Florence Nightingale, the savior of people.″
A Beijing court tried Teng at a closed hearing on Nov. 23, 2000. The U.S. State Department called it ``deeply disturbing.″ Seven weeks later came the sentence: three years in prison for ``spying and leaking state secrets.″
Teng said she resisted at first and only began to question her actions after 13 months in detention.
She was moved last June from a holding center to the First Division of the Beijing Women’s Prison, a new section of a large penal complex in Beijing’s southwestern suburbs.
``Only then did I really start my mental transformation,″ Teng said.
``In the detention center I met ordinary people. I saw their reaction to us and what I regard as the fairly extreme actions of some detained Falun Gong practitioners _ such as wanting to hunger strike or commit suicide.
``When I stopped standing on the side of Falun Gong and looked back on Falun Gong’s actions as an ordinary person I saw that politically it really had played a role of resisting the government.
``I felt very, very sad when I realized that I really did bring harm to the country, to society and to my family.″
Teng was interviewed in a prison reception room. She answered mostly in Chinese, switching occasionally into English.
She spoke coherently and looked relaxed, although physically she had changed.
As the pseudonymous Hannah Li, Teng wore her hair long and was elegantly dressed and made up. Now her hair was cut to collar length and looked greasy or gelled. She had rouged cheeks, lipstick, thinly plucked eyebrows and looked plumper, even a little puffy, around the face.
The New York chic that made Hannah Li stand out in Beijing was gone.
Her Falun Gong friends wonder what happened in the 18 months between her arrest and the November day when Chinese state media announced that she had shaken off a ``spiritual shackle″ and renounced Falun Gong.
Falun Gong, quoting unnamed witnesses who it said were detained with Teng, said she was abused.
``She was interrogated for hours on end on more than 50 occasions. She was forced to stand and squat in excruciating postures for days and nights at a time. And she was even fined 30,000 yuan ($3,600) as a `service charge’ for her own captivity,″ said a written statement issued by Falun Gong’s office in New York.
Falun Gong says practitioners are routinely tortured. By the end of 2001, it says, 334 had been killed, 500 imprisoned, more than 1,000 sent to mental hospitals and 20,000 detained in labor camps.
``They strip them of their clothes and hang them upside down. Crazy things to induce pain, almost to the point of death _ electric shocks, inside their private parts for the women; for the men in their mouths or their heads,″ Rachlin said.
The government says Falun Gong practitioners have committed suicide or died of ill health in custody. But it denies that followers are targeted for abuse. The government says it only imprisons hard-core organizers.
Teng said she hasn’t been tortured or seen it happen to others. She likened the prison to a school.
``The living conditions are very, very good,″ she said. ``We eat really well, like in a hotel and a little better than at home.″
``I absolutely don’t feel as if I have been brainwashed here,″ Teng said. ``I think I was brainwashed by Falun Gong. Through transformation I really have escaped from that previous brainwashed state and seen the truth.″
The U.S. Embassy in Beijing says its diplomats have not been allowed to visit Teng. The embassy said it requested access on behalf of her American husband. But because she is not a U.S. citizen she is not covered by a treaty letting diplomats see detained Americans.
Born the youngest of three children in Harbin in China’s northeast, Teng went to the United States in 1990, according to her mother, Qiu Yunfang.
She married a Russian Jewish immigrant in 1998, Qiu said. They have no children. Qiu said her daughter had begun the process of applying for U.S. citizenship before she was arrested.
Xiong first met Teng in the summer of 1998 when she showed up for Falun Gong lessons in the Queens Botanical Garden.
By early 1999, Teng was coming almost daily for two-hour sessions starting at 5:30 a.m. and was introducing acupuncture patients to Falun Gong, Xiong said.
Teng said she turned to Falun Gong for help with health and personal problems, to attain its stated aims of ``truth, compassion and forbearance,″ and ``to bring honor to my family, to my parents.″
``But the result was totally opposite,″ she said.
Now she talks about her ``transformation″ with the same fervor she once displayed for Falun Gong.
``We call this life after death. It’s a sad but exciting process,″ she said.
She is due for release in May 2003.
Asked whether she was counting the days until then, she replied in English: ``It will be a surprise to people _ I really don’t. I cherish every single day here.″