“Can I show you our family photo?” Lorrita Liu asks me towards the end of our interview. The 38 year-old from Xi’an City in Shaanxi Province in China reverently takes a framed photo from a bag and shows it to me.
“For me,” she says in broken English, “this is the only family photo.”
The photo shows Lorrita and her two adult sisters, her two young nephews and her mother. There are no fathers, no husbands. They are smiling in the photo, but underneath the smiles the members of this family carry a terrible suffering.
Lorrita’s father, Jialu Liu, passed away from a sudden heart-attack, brought on by intense persecution from Chinese authorities. “He suffered under pressure,” Lorrita says.
In the centre of the photo is the kindly face of Lorrita’s 72 year-old mother Yuhua Li, who had just been released from a brainwashing centre in Xi’an City the day before our interview. That was the fifth time the elderly woman has been arrested. She has been tortured, repeatedly beaten, shocked with electric batons, deprived of sleep for three days in a row and sent to a forced labour camp for one year.
Lorrita points to her sister, Chun xia Liu, in the photo. She is currently detained in Xincheng District Detention Centre in Xi’an City. She was arrested along with her mother on 22 March this year. That is the second time she has been arrested.
Lorrita’s 19 year-old nephew Eric Jia is also in the photo. He accompanied his Aunt for the interview to assist with translating as his English is more fluent. While most other 19 year-olds in Australia are worrying about their uni exams or playing computer games, Eric is worrying about whether his dad—Ye Jia—who is still in China, will escape a brutal form of persecution that could take his life.
Eric doesn’t know where his father currently is. He was released from detention last year and is doing all he can to disappear so the Chinese authorities can’t recapture him. “He was tortured,” Eric says. “He was locked-up on a bunk-bed and the police put chemicals in his mouth and he was vomiting blood. He was beaten by the prison guards.”
What has this very normal-looking Chinese family done to cause the Chinese government to persecute them so ferociously?
They are practitioners of a form of spiritual meditation based on ancient Chinese culture called Falun Gong, or Falun Dafa. The practice is based on the principles of truthfulness, compassion and tolerance and promotes physical and mental health.
It was Lorrita’s mother Yuhua Li—Eric’s Grandmother—who was the first in the family to practise Falun Gong meditation.
“She recovered from a serious illness due to Falun Gong,” Eric says.
“That’s how my whole family started practising because they saw the benefit.”
In 1999 there were an estimated 100 million Falun Gong practitioners in China.
Following its introduction to China in 1992 by founder Li Hongzhi, the Chinese government actually promoted the practice as they could see the health benefits to the population translating into savings for the country’s healthcare system. However, when the number of practitioners became more numerous than members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the government changed its tune drastically, instead seeing the meditation practice as a threat to the Party’s authority. Falun Gong was also considered a reversion to ancient Chinese culture, something the CCP had tried to wipe-out during the years of the Cultural Revolution.
And so in 1999 the brutal persecution of Falun Gong began at the behest of Jiang Zemin, then President of the CCP. This persecution, which continues unabated today, involves labour camps, brainwashing classes, and all forms of torture including sleep deprivation and sexual abuse.
After the persecution began, Eric’s father went to Beijing to petition for Falun Gong. This was the beginning of the family’s persecution. “He was the first one in my family to be arrested,” Eric said.
“If you’ve been to Beijing you get more punishment. He is the main target of the persecution in our family, plus he is a man. The third and fourth time he was arrested in 2002, when I was three or four, the police came to the house. My Grandfather and mum barricaded the door and didn’t let them in. My father thought if he kept staying at home the police will come and come again and our family will not have a restful life.”
Eric’s dad decided he needed to move out of the family home in order to allow his family to live without constant police harassment.
“So that night he jumped out of the window, from our third floor apartment because the police were sitting outside our door 24 hours a day. He was badly injured. It took him about three months to recover… He couldn’t come back home and we have very little contact with him. He’s just been released from prison and he’s still on the run because my Grandmother and Aunt were just arrested a few months ago.”
Eric’s Grandmother and Aunt have both been tortured while in detention.
“My Grandmother and Aunt were sleep deprived. They were beaten with electric batons and endured forced labour.”
He said his Grandmother had been subjected to a form of torture called the ‘Tiger Chair’, where she was restrained in an upright seated position for several days without food or water.
This persecution is being carried out despite the fact that there is no law in China making Falun Gong illegal. Eric explained that people are detained in houses referred to as “black jails,” meaning illegal prisons. At the brainwashing classes detainees are forced to watch propaganda videos demonising Falun Gong 24 hours a day.
Other minority groups are also persecuted by the Chinese government including Christians, Tibetans and Uighurs. In 2006 the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture concluded that 66 percent of prisoners of conscience in China were practitioners of Falun Gong.
But this awful story of persecution becomes even more horrifying with evidence emerging over the past 18 years that Falun Gong prisoners of conscience are being used as a living organ bank by the Chinese government and killed on demand for their organs.
After the government began persecuting Falun Gong and detaining practitioners in camps, the number of organs transplants in China suddenly skyrocketed.
Culturally, the Chinese people have not traditionally practised voluntarily donation of organs and the country has no proper organ donation system. The sudden increase in transplants was a mystery.
International human rights lawyer David Matas has been investigating forced organ harvesting in China over the past decade and co-authored a book with former Canadian Cabinet Minister David Kilgour JD, called Bloody Harvest: The Killing of Falun Gong for their Organs.
Both men are Nobel Peace Prize nominees. Matas and Kilgour estimate that tens of thousands of Falun Gong have been killed for their organs.
Through their research they discovered that Falun Gong members released from detention routinely report that they were blood tested in captivity, while non-Falun Gong prisoners were not. Clearly they were not being tested in order to care for their health because they were also being tortured. There had to be another reason for the testing.
Of course, for an organ transplant to take place there has to be blood type and tissue type compatibility and that is why in most countries it usually takes a long time to find a compatible organ for transplant. In China however, a transplant with a compatible organ can take place within 24 hours of a request being made.
The Chinese government has never satisfactorily answered the question of where all the organs are coming from, despite a request from United Nations Special Rapporteurs that they reveal the sources of their organs. The World Medical Association has requested that sanctions be placed on Chinese medical authorities.
Eric says his father was blood tested twice while he was in detention. When I ask him what is his greatest fear for his family members still in China, he says without hesitation, “Organ harvesting.”
He says one estimate puts the number of Falun Gong practitioners killed for their organs each year at 60,000 to 100,000. It is also believed that the organs are often extracted from people while they are still alive, as this is the most effective way to obtain organs for transplant.
Meanwhile, as Falun Gong practitioners have been detained, tortured, killed and harvested for their organs for the past 18 years, foreign governments have largely kept silent, with a few exceptions. That China is considered an important trading partner has no doubt had much to do with the silence.
The recent ABC Four Corners program, ‘Power and Influence’ (5 June 2017), highlighted how the Chinese government is able to influence and manipulate foreign media, business and politics, even here in Australia, using money as a means to suppress any criticism of the Chinese government.
Lorrita, her nephew Eric and his mother were fortunate to escape to Australia after being granted Protection Visas and then Permanent Residency.
Many others back in China are not so fortunate.
“For people who haven’t been jailed on the record, it’s easier to get a passport and leave China,” Eric says. “If they have been in jail and have something on their file, it’s basically impossible. Falun Gong are not allowed to go out of China. My father was not given a passport even when he was released from prison last year.”
Lorrita also said that it is extremely difficult for a Falun Gong practitioner in China to obtain legal representation to prosecute their case against the Chinese authorities because of the very real risk that the lawyers will be put in jail.
Eric and Lorrita are desperately hoping the Australian government will rescue their family members still in China.
They recently submitted a petition to the Australian government titled, “Help My Family.” They also hope laws will be introduced making it illegal for Australian citizens to travel overseas to have transplants using illegally sourced organs.
“I hope more people will be aware of this issue and speak up about it,” Eric says. “It’s been such a long time. People have been killed for 18 years, people who believe in truthfulness, compassion and tolerance. This should stop as soon as possible.”
“In China there are many families like us,” Lorrita says, still holding the photo of her family.
“Many thousands of families, but I think we are lucky here. We can speak freely. Many families in China, they have lost children, husbands, wives. They can’t do anything. Just suffer the persecution. I think Australian people are very kind so I think they can stand up and help Falun Gong.”