"Zhuqiang" didn’t want his picture taken or his real name used, because he says that the Chinese embassy in the Hague keeps an eye on him. These are the leaflets he gave me.
A few weeks ago, I met "Zhuqiang" in a park near my house while he was sticking up posters of people meditating. I asked him why he was flyering all the trees and he explained, in a combination of broken English and even more broken Dutch, that he was about to meditate.
I didn't understand how surrounding yourself with photos of other people meditating had anything to do with inducing your own pure state of consciousness, and we started conversation. He told me he'd fled to the Netherlands from his home in China a little more than five years ago because he is a member of Falun Gong, a Chinese spiritual discipline founded by Li Hongzhi in 1992.
Falun Gong isn't a violent organization in any capacity, he explained, but because it’s managed centrally and has quickly gained millions of followers, the Chinese government has considered it a threat. Deciding to deal with that apparent threat with a deterrence campaign, the Chinese government has prosecuted and imprisoned members of Falun Gong since 1999.
Zhuqiang was keen to tell his story, so I met with him a couple of days later at the same place we'd first bumped into each other. Almost directly after I shook his hand, he pulled down his collar and showed me his scars—reminders, he said, of the various tortures he'd endured in the labor camp that he'd been sent to as punishment for his beliefs. "I was arrested in 2002 when the police saw me doing qigong—exercises that are part of Falun Gong," he said. "I believe in the teachings of Falun Gong and did the exercises because I was ill. Qigong can make you healthy again, but the police took me away and locked me up without checking anything."
Due to exhaustion, he lost all sense of time during his imprisonment, but thinks he spent longer than two years in a labor camp. When he was admitted, the guards asked him to sign a contract stating that he would never have anything to do with Falun Gong again, including exercising qigong. Zhuqiang refused to sign it. "I didn’t get any food or drink or sleep for days—when I fell asleep, they kicked me until I was awake," he said. "I wasn't allowed to speak to anyone else. A month in, I got very ill and my whole skin was covered in abscesses. Then I signed the contract."
Immediately after Zhuqiang signed his freedom of belief away, he had to start working. He estimates that he was made to work around 20 hours every day, but he can't be certain. Together with other Falun Gong members he was instructed to make fake flowers, like the ones you sometimes see in Chinese restaurants.
Activists protesting against the murders of Falun Gong practitioners (photo via)
"The other prisoners and I had to work very hard," he said. "When I talked to the others, the guards beat me up. Sometimes I'd fall down because I was too tired to stand on my feet. That would lead them to beat me up or give me electric shocks." After a 20-hour working day, the prisoners were often forced to run. "I don’t know how long that took, but if you didn’t run fast enough you were hit with a bat. After running we were given mantou [Chinese steamed bread rolls], but they were always old and full of mold. After that, we went to sleep in a cell with 12 others."
After two years in the labor camp, Zhuqiang could no longer walk. He was of no use to the camp, so they let him sit out the rest of his sentence at home. "My mom stood by the prison gate every day to ask if her son could be freed. She gave almost all her savings to make sure I could get home," Zhuqiang recalled. While at his mother's home, he was being watched extensively. "There was a car in front of our door 24/7. I could never leave the house, and the curtains could never be closed," he said.
A few months later, Zhuqiang started feeling a little healthier and devised a plan to help him gain his freedom. He figured out his guards' daily rhythm, noting down the time they would usually get tired and nod off. "When I saw them falling asleep one day, I took my chance," he said. "I'd asked my mother to buy women’s clothes, lipstick and a wig for me. I put that all on quickly and walked out of the house, to a friend who would help me escape China."
Zhuqiang hasn’t seen his mother since. He calls her once a month, but they have to be careful about what they say because her phones are probably tapped. Fortunately, the police haven't bothered her yet.
After fleeing his home in drag, Zhuqiang snuck into Hong Kong. He lived in a shelter there for a few weeks, before other Falun Gong members helped him reach Bangkok, where he spent the next three years living in another shelter. "Then the Dutch government gave me a ticket to come to the Netherlands," he told me. "I was so grateful."
It's been almost five years since Zhuqiang landed at Amsterdam airport and was taken to a center for asylum seekers in the city of Amersfoort, Utrecht. A year later, he got a house in Amsterdam, near Westerpark—the park where I met him. He has a residence permit and talks a lot about how grateful he is to live here, but to say that all his problems have been solved would be a lie. He can’t find a job because he doesn’t know the language, and he's ill—a hangover from his time in the Chinese labor camp. (We sometimes have to take breaks in our conversation because he feels a stinging pain in his head.)
"Because of the electric shocks in the labor camp, I get constant headaches. I don’t sleep well, either," he complained. He's also found blood in the toilet or on his sheets when he wakes up, but he's yet to consult a doctor as he doesn't have the money. He has to register himself as a citizen, which so far has been almost impossible for him to do.
When he went to the city hall with his Chinese identity papers, Zhuqiang was told that his documents needed to be translated by an agency. Without any stamps from an official agency, according to the city hall employee, the translation is not valid, which means Zhuqiang wouldn't be able to register himself. "They gave me the phone numbers of three agencies. I called all three of them, but one of them was already closed, the other one only does translations from English to Dutch, and the third one I can’t afford," he sighed.
A "Stop the Persecution" Rally in New York, 2007 (photo via)
When I called the Amsterdam municipality building to ask what Zhuqiang should do, a woman told me that there was a chance he could hand in certain documents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (IND), such as copies of the interviews he gave when he first arrived in the Netherlands, and a copy of his landlord's passport. That sounded like a lot of intentionally difficult procedures all piled on top of each other, even to a local like myself, which made me wonder how a refugee who doesn't speak the language would ever make a successful application.
I told Zhuqiang that we could go to city hall together and find out if there was an easier way, but he refused. "The man at the city hall said I could only come back if I have the stamps from a translation agency, and I don’t have them," he said. "I don’t want him to get mad at me. Maybe he'll kick me out of the country."
I wasn't able to convince Zhuqiang that a pissed off municipality official wouldn't be capable of throwing him out of the country, but he insisted he should only go back when he has his stamps. On the phone again, the woman said that it would be "easier if he already had his papers stamped at the Dutch embassy in China." I told her that he didn't really have the time for that between fleeing the guards outside his mother's home and sneaking his way into another country.
Update: After this article was originally published on VICE Netherlands, a kind soul offered to help Zhuqiang get his papers translated and officially stamped for free.