Petite, pleasant and utterly grandmotherly, Logan Park resident Helen Chen doesn’t look as if she’d be a threat to anyone – much less the People’s Republic of China.
Jingjiang Chen (Helen is her “English name”) has felt the heavy hand of police brutality. She experienced it – and torture – in her homeland of China. As a helicopter circled overhead, monitoring a protest that originated in Bottineau Park, she recounted her story for the Northeaster, with her son as her interpreter.
Chen, 72, was born in Hubei Province, in the capital city of Wuhan. Her father was a highly respected professor before the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949. Her mother was a practicing Buddhist. The Chinese government controls every means of communication, including school textbooks. Under communist rule, Chen was brought up with no religious beliefs or moral teachings.
Until 1996, her life was rather ordinary. She married an art teacher, Shanhua Wan, and gave birth to a son, Cheng Wan, who was born during China’s one-child-per-couple policy, which began in 1980. At the factory where she worked, she broadcast propaganda messages to her co-workers. In time she moved up in the factory hierarchy, working as an inspector and later in the office. “If you go along and do what the government says,” she said, “you can get along okay.”
She added, “But everybody lies all the time. The only thing people believe in is power and money. It’s the only thing they see.”
Throughout her adult life, she was bothered by various illnesses. “The only time I felt good was when I was pregnant with Cheng,” she said. She tried qigong (pronounced chee-gung) exercises but they didn’t make her feel better.
One day in 1996, she wanted to go shopping for clothes. She asked her husband if he wanted come with her. “He said, ‘No, I want to stay home and draw.’”
As she walked through the shopping district, she heard a man call her name. She ignored him and walked on. Soon a man stood before her. “‘Ni hau (hello),’ he said. I answered, ‘Ni hau.’ ‘Do you still practice qigong?’ he asked. I said, ‘No. It doesn’t work, and it’s too expensive.’” The man began to tell her about a new exercise regimen that was sweeping the country. “He said it was free. I found that hard to believe.”
He told her about a series of videos produced by Li Hongzhi, who founded the movement, and suggested she watch them. It was a nine-day course, and Jangjiang watched them all. She also acquired a copy of Li’s book and read it cover to cover. Falun Gong (also known as Falun Dafa) combines qigong exercises with meditations taken from Buddhist and Taoist traditions. She was impressed with the moral teachings that underpin Falun Gong: Truthfulness, compassion and forbearance (self-restraint). “I wanted to be good,” she said.
As she wrote to the Northeaster in January 2015, “Every day, I did its five simple exercises, meditated, and followed Master Li’s teachings: I held myself to a high standard, thought of others first, and when in conflict, I looked for fault on my own part.” One day, she said, she fell ill with a high fever and black liquids poured out of her body. The next day she awoke feeling better than she had in years. Her husband, Shanhua, also began to practice Falun Gong, and his health improved, too.
Despite her good fortune, Jingjiang kept her Falun Gong practices to herself. Soon it seemed as if everyone in China was practicing Falun Gong. For a while, it was even encouraged by the Chinese government. But things changed.
By 1998, the Chinese Communist Party estimated there were 70-100 million practitioners throughout China, more than the entire membership of the CCP. Jiang Zemin, former general secretary of the CCP, saw this as a threat to the communist party and decided to crack down on Falun Gong. On July 20, 1999, he launched a persecution campaign.
An agency was formed with the encouragement of the CCP, the 610 Office, named for the day it was founded in June 1999. In the beginning its purpose was to “transform” practitioners of Falun Gong. It has since expanded its “mission” to include “house church” Christians, Buddhists, and Muslim Uighurs, a Chinese ethnic minority. According to the World Organization to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong, the 610 has branches in all the Chinese cities, villages, governmental agencies, institutions, and schools. It functions outside the Chinese government and has been likened to the Gestapo.
Jingjiang could remain silent no longer. She began passing out literature that contradicted the government’s claims about Falun Gong. She used her broadcasting skills to spread the word. She even wrote a letter to Jiang Zemin, telling him how Falun Gong had improved her health, and suggested that if everyone practiced it, workers would be more productive.
She was arrested and confined in various “re-education centers,” but refused to denounce Falun Gong. She went on a hunger strike and was force-fed. She was then sent to the Wuhan Women’s Prison.
In 2000, Shanhua was asked to have a “conversation” with the local police department. But he resisted the pressure and refused to lie for the government. He was demoted at his work place, Shamian School. He was transferred from teaching a senior high school art class to teaching a first-year art class in the elementary school, despite opposition from parents. Many of the senior high school students at the school took private lessons from him in order to get his mentoring.
While Jingjiang was moved from place to place, Shanhua was harassed by the 610 Office in Shashi, the district in which they lived. “Several guards riding motorcycles followed my husband on his way to work and home,” she said.
Cheng Wan was attending the University of Minnesota at the time. “It was common to study for a year and go home,” he said. “My parents told me, ‘Don’t come back.’”
A vice president at the police office warned Jingjiang that their phones were under surveillance, and their conversations with their son recorded and controlled. Shanhua’s health began to decline under the pressure.
Jingjiang spent three years in the Wuhan prison. When she refused to make gift items for export, she was punished. She told of one time when she was chained to a wall by her wrists with her arms behind her back for 15 days. Blood pooled in her legs, and they turned black. Efforts to brainwash her continued, but she remained steadfast in her beliefs.
Blood was forcibly drawn from her at regular intervals, and she underwent numerous regular physical exams. She said one doctor told her “Falun Gong are the healthiest people.” She didn’t understand the meaning of it until after she was released from prison and learned that Falun Gong were being killed to “harvest” their organs – many times, while they were still alive – for transplant.
A lively internet black market sprang up, with hearts going for $130,000-160,000; lungs, $150-170,000; kidneys, a mere $62,000. Corneas were $30,000 apiece. Patients seeking a transplant were given two-week waiting periods vs. months or years of waiting for a voluntary donation in the U.S. and other countries.
While his mother was imprisoned, Cheng began working with Falun Gong practitioners in Minnesota to persuade lawmakers to lobby for her release. Several, including former Senator Larry Pogemiller, who represented Northeast, came to her aid. Former U.S. Senator Mark Dayton appealed to Colin Powell, who was secretary of state at the time.
When Jingjiang was released from prison in 2007, she returned to Shashi to take care of Shanhua, whose health became steadily worse. He passed away in July 2009.
It soon became apparent that she needed to leave China – quickly. “A kind insider secretly passed on a tip through another Falun Dafa practitioner that the Shashi 610 office was planning to force me to join those brainwashing classes again,” she recalled. “The ex-administrator of the Shashi 610 office, Jialong Yang, had told some arrested Falun Dafa practitioners that they would not let me go abroad because ‘she would release the truth to the public.’” With help, she was able to obtain a passport and a permit to go to Hong Kong, then Thailand.
In Thailand, she saw something she had never seen before: Kindness from a police officer. “There was a festival of some kind, and I went to see it,” she said. “It was hot, and crowded. A little girl was crying because she was thirsty. The police officer got a paper cup of water and gave it to her. That would never happen in China.”
Cheng nodded in agreement. “Cops in China do whatever they want, whenever they want. They don’t need a reason.”
In 2014, the United Nations granted her refugee status, and she moved to Minnesota to be near Cheng and his family.
Asked what she likes most about America, she gave a one-word answer: “Freedom.”
More about Falun Gong
• Falun Gong, or Falun Dafa, is a spiritual discipline in the Buddhist tradition. It consists of gentle exercises similar to Tai Chi, meditation and moral teachings. It was started by Li Hongzhi in 1992. There are Falun Gong adherents in 70 countries outside of China.
• Freedom House, a U.S.-based, U.S. government-funded non-profit non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights, independently verified 933 cases of Falun Gong adherents sentence to prison terms up to 12 years between Jan. 1, 2013 and June 1, 2016.
• In 2009, David Kilgour, a member of Canada’s Parliament, published “Bloody Harvest-The Killing of Falun Gong for their Organs.” He and co-author David Matas were awarded the 2009 Human Rights Prize of the International Society for Human Rights in Switzerland for their work in raising awareness of state-sponsored organ pillaging in China.
• An international tribunal met in London in 2019 and determined that some of the more than 1.5 million detainees in Chinese prison camps were being killed for their organs to serve a booming transplant trade worth at least $1 billion a year.
• In the U.S., Falun Gong practitioners founded The Epoch Times, a conservative weekly newspaper that tracks all things Chinese. The sample copy provided to the Northeaster contains articles such as “How the Chinese Communist Party Endangered the World” and “Lawmakers Concerned With Chinese Drone Maker’s Overtures to US Law Enforcement.”
Cheng Wan said the paper itself does not represent Falun Gong. “It grew out of the need for truthful reporting of what is actually happening in China, especially with human rights abuses. Several journalists on the ground in China were arrested and imprisoned in the first year of publication.”
• Falun Gong is also behind Shen Yun, the Chinese dance theater troupe that combines ethnic dances, folk tales and stories from China’s history. “My family goes to see the show every year,” said Cheng. “Every year there has been content about the persecution in China. The persecution that is portrayed on stage is happening in real life. This is what my mom experienced. I understand that some media reports may characterize this as anti-communist propaganda, but I feel that is not a fair perspective. The CCP is doing these things. The persecution is happening.” Shen Yun’s ubiquitous ads are paid by local Falun Gong groups.
• In the U. S. Congress, both the House and the Senate have passed several resolutions condemning China’s forced organ housing and demanding an end to the persecution of Falun Gong.
• On March 4, 2020, a resolution was introduced in the Minnesota House of Representatives calling for an end to the genocide and forced organ harvesting from Falun Gong practitioners in China. Among its 35 sponsors were Mary Kunesh-Podein (41B) and Mohamud Noor (60B). It did not go any further because of the COVID-19 shutdown.
Below: Logan Park resident Jingjiang (Helen) Chen and her son, Cheng Wan. (Photo by Cynthia Sowden)