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An Independent Path (Part 1)

December 30, 2013

“Shun” (舜) is a legendary leader of ancient China—one of the “Five Emperors”—who lived in 23rd-22nd century B.C.; it is also my name. Actually, my parents originally named me “Xin,” after the protagonist in the Japanese television show, Oshin. They hoped that like the protagonist, I would persevere despite any setbacks, independently fighting for my life goals. But as “Xin” tends to be a girls’ name, my grandfather chose a more domineering character for me.

I was born in Guangzhou in 1990, into an era of rapid economic and social development. As an only child, would I become a “Little Emperor,” or would I, as my parents hoped, independently fight for my life goals?

My father’s position as a policeman required him to travel frequently, and my mother worked as well, so the nursery school they chose for me was a “depository”—where children could also stay overnight. Actually, I really did not like sleeping in the nursery, because I wouldn’t get to see my parents at night. Perhaps to avoid hurting me, every time I asked my mother why other children could sleep at home but not me, she told me, “This way you can develop your independence.” “Independence.” What is “independence”? How would I, a three-year-old, know? But this uneasiness was quickly overshadowed by life’s joys and amusements.

When I think of the nursery school, I remember everyone sitting together to watch television after dinner. I remember that starting at 5 p.m., we would begin our “meals mixed with TV.” At that hour, the Hong Kong channels would begin broadcasting cartoons. We watched them all: the Cantonese “Jade” channel, Hong Kong’s ATV channel, even the English-language “Pearl” channel and the international channels. If it was possible to watch it, we watched it. Then we watched Hong Kong news and TV dramas. We watched all the way until 9 p.m. Then lights out and we went to sleep.

But my deepest impressions are of two things. Around 1997, I forget exactly when, one of the nursery’s “aunties” gathered us to watch the broadcast of a leader’s death. At the time, I didn’t know who this “leader” was, I just saw Auntie quietly wiping her tears. It wasn’t until much later that I learned the leader’s name was Deng Xiaoping.

A few months later, the television reported that Hong Kong had returned to China. My whole family sat together in front of the television, watching the handover ceremony. When the British flag lowered, and the Chinese flag rose, I felt that my motherland was indeed very powerful. I laughed with my father at the soldiers of the Hong Kong British Forces,[1] who walked sluggishly as if they hadn’t eaten. The People’s Liberation Army was completely different. Watching the heroic PLA soldiers brave the downpour to garrison in Hong Kong after the ceremony, I was reminded of what we had learned in nursery school about the PLA’s heroism during the War of Resistance against Japan, bravely beating back the enemy. I was filled with a kind of ineffable respect for the PLA troops.

Starting in 1998, Guangzhou began its so-called “Small Change in One Year, Medium Change in Three Years, Big Change in Five Years” comprehensive development project. Because of this, my family temporarily moved into a dirt-walled, tile-roofed single-story house. My mother, who practiced Falun Gong, also moved her practice spot from Shamian Park in Guangzhou’s Yuexiu District to one near Haizhu District where we had moved to.

That time was arguably the heyday for Falun Gong; Falun Gong practice spots were in every corner of the city. Large practice spots were located in gymnasiums and parks, small ones in residential districts. Many retired Falun Gong practitioners, like my grandmother, would travel to numerous practice spots in a single day because they had time on their hands, the training was good for the body, and they could make friends. So, changing practice spots was not a big deal for my mother.

When I was five, I also began to practice Falun Gong with my mother off and on. Because Falun Gong taught “truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance,” to me it was the same as trying to be a good person, so I was happy to practice with my mother.

But a good thing doesn’t last forever. At the end of 1999, the Communist Party of China formally began its crackdown on Falun Gong. Many of the people who practiced with my mother were astonished at this. After the large-scale sit-in protest for peace by Falun Gong practitioners in Beijing, the government began to carry out interrogations of pedestrians and tourists near Zhongnanhai and Tiananmen. My curious mother, hoping to contribute something to Falun Gong, took a trip to Beijing that year—and was detained by the Beijing authorities. When my father heard this news, he immediately called upon his coworkers. Through government connections, my mother was returned to Guangzhou a month later. The incident was, you could say, a close call.

Although the country’s persecution of Falun Gong began in 1999, the suppression in Guangzhou at that time was actually fairly mild. My mother and I continued to go to the park to practice every morning, even hanging banners disseminating the truth about Falun Gong, and so on. When park management people saw us, they would simply admonish us. There wasn’t any forced teardown or expulsion. This situation lasted until the self-immolation incident in early 2001.

In 2000, the Guangdong economy had developed to quite some scale: construction of Subway Line 1 and the inner ring road had been completed; Guangzhou’s cable TV network was very stable; and the Internet had become integrated into the lives of the ordinary people of Guangzhou.

Prior to the end of 2000, my mother was able, through watching Hong Kong television news, to understand the latest developments in Hong Kong and the world. In particular, she was able to keep up on news about Falun Gong. But after a technical upgrade of the cable television network, every time the Hong Kong news broadcast involved topics classified as sensitive by the mainland, it was preempted by a pre-recorded Hong Kong public service advertisement or some mainland-produced program. Previously, one could use a regular TV antenna to view Hong Kong television, but now all non-cable signals were blocked, so they could not be viewed. This was the first time I experienced the power of information control.

As the pace of the Internet’s integration into the lives of average residents quickened, dial-up Internet service promotion booths sprang around the city. After being inundated with Internet service promotions, my family bought its first computer in early 2001, and went online.

In the beginning, we thought we could only access domestic websites, and overseas sites would charge international long-distance rates. It was only after I took a risk, logging onto the TVB website, that I discovered that there was no geographic restriction on the Internet. Once we knew this, my mother began to use the computer to register for websites like Minghui, where she could access the latest news and information about Falun Gong. With my help, she began to use a printer donated by a friend to print out Falun Gong dissemination materials. Because I frequently helped my mother use the computer to assemble and edit materials, I gradually became the computer expert of my class, able to easily resolve all of the problems with my classmates’ computers.

My mother often used her free time to post fliers in public spaces. She would usually buy some printable stickers to put on buses and pedestrian bridges, which increased their visibility. Around Chinese New Year, she would also put the materials in red envelopes, and then, when she rode the bus, pretend that she dropped them, taking advantage of people’s greed and the psychology of “finders, keepers,” to let passersby gather them up.

As the saying goes: “When you walk next to the river often, how can your feet not get wet?” Finally, at the end of 2001, my mother and her friends were picked up by a plainclothes policeman while distributing materials. I remember that day—though I have already forgotten the exact date—was a regular work day. In the morning, I went to school as usual. Because my father was on a work trip, my mother was the one picking me up from school. So when school let out, I waited for her until 7 p.m., after all the other students had left. She never showed up. At that time, my homeroom teacher, who had finished her meetings and was preparing to return home, saw me and helped me call my mother. But no matter how many times I called, my mother’s phone was off. No one picked up the phone at home either. Finally, we got a hold of my father’s friend in his work unit, who got in touch with my father. Then my father used his friend’s public security guanxi and finally found out that my mother had been arrested. Because it happened so suddenly, no one had notified our family or the school. My mother seemed to have just evaporated. So I had to spend that night in the school dorm.

Because I had seen on the Internet, and my mother also spoke about, the kind of treatment Falun Gong practitioners suffered in prison after their arrest—that night I couldn’t stop crying. Many of my classmates came to comfort me but I didn’t say exactly what had happened. I just said something had happened in my family and I could not go home. In actuality, I knew in my heart the treatment my mother would get. After some time, I began to accept this reality—I became stronger, and after finishing that day’s homework, I passed that night peacefully. I knew then that from that moment on, I would have to be strong, and could no longer rely on my parents to take care of me.

In the year that my mother was in custody, my father was frequently pressured by his superiors, who, at the same time, sent him away on frequent business trips. My father, mentally and physically exhausted, held my mother responsible for everything. When he returned from work, he would often speak to me about being denied for transfers, and would end every conversation with something like: “Your mother is responsible,” as if those words were as essential as salt is to cooking.

At the end of 2002, my father took me to some place, saying we were going to see my mother. The place was in a very remote part of Guangzhou; even though we could take a bus there, it was a two-hour trip from my house. The structure of the building was very ordinary, and it seemed to have more than ten floors. The sign on the door said something like “Nursing Home.” I followed my father into the elevator and we took it to the floor just below the top floor.

Getting out of the elevator, I saw that the environment was totally different from the relaxed atmosphere of the nursing home downstairs. There were thick, anti-theft bars everywhere. In front of the elevator was a reception desk and a guard wearing a public security uniform. After we signed in, several police officers took us to my mother’s room.

After greeting my mother, we talked about a lot of things. I asked my mom a lot of questions about her experiences during the past year. But my father said nothing after greeting her—he just stood on the balcony and smoked. My mother told me a lot about her experiences in that year—everything seemed rather positive. But I could sense in my mother's words there was another side to her stories that she did not want to reveal.

The short meeting ended; it wasn’t until we had left the nursing home that my dad told me the place was a Reeducation-Through-Labor (RTL) facility. The “nursing home” on the lower floors was actually just used as a cover. Ordinary people could not go to the top floors.

A few months after the meeting, around the start of 2003, my mother was released. In the same year, I graduated from elementary school and entered junior high school.

After my mother’s arrest, there was a period of time that I did not go on Falun Gong-related websites. First, because I was afraid visiting these sensitive sites would cause questioning, and, second, due to the intensified blockade on the Internet, I was unable to access many sites that I had previously visited easily. After my mom was released, she received some computer software from a friend that could circumvent the Internet blockade, and she told me that this blockade may be related to the so-called Golden Shield Project, which included the “Great Firewall of China.” The Golden Shield Project filtered out sensitive information from the Internet, but by using that software, we could access all of the blocked sites.

Following her release, I rarely saw my mom, and my father and I moved out of our original house. My dad said the move was because he had requested a divorce from my mother when we met her in the RTL camp, and that he wanted to draw a clear boundary between himself and her.

“Drawing a clear boundary”—this strong and powerful action could indeed help protect oneself during the time of the Cultural Revolution, but, given the particularly developed mind-set of people in the 21st century, it seemed to have lost its magic.

A few weeks after my parents formally signed to draw a clear boundary (divorce), my dad came home with a few packs of new uniforms looking unusually dejected. After un-wrapping the new uniforms, he said to me: "Next week I’ll start working for the traffic police brigade. You see, this is all your mother’s doing. . . ." Following the divorce, my father’s work unit could not wait to remove this thorn in their side—they transferred him to the traffic police brigade, a section most receptive to new people. From that point on, my dad’s work became even more exhausting.

My mother’s living situation was unstable after the divorce; she often stayed at her friend's house, or spent the night at my grandmother's. My mother’s mobile phone number was the only form of contact between us. This was because we had heard using mobile phones could reduce the risk of her being arrested again. So, prior to every meeting, my mother and I had to first call each other and make plans over the phone, and then determine a location to meet.

On one normal school day in my first year of junior high school, the grade prefect and homeroom teacher suddenly pulled me out of class and took me to the student activity room. A uniformed police officer and a rather unfashionably-dressed woman were sitting inside. After I sat down, they began to talk to me. At first, they just asked me how I was doing lately, and other sorts of obviously rote questions. Before I had even said a few sentences, they immediately turned to the real questions: what type of people my mom was meeting with, where she was living, whether she was still practicing Falun Gong, and the like. Of course, all my answers were "I don’t know," or, "This is her personal matter, I can’t say," and so on. They continued to ask me nonstop, without the slightest sign of easing up, and I really did not want to waste any more time with them. So I gave them my mother's phone number. Only with this did they give a smile of satisfaction, and finally returned me to class.

After these events, I basically lived a relatively calm and peaceful life. I went to classes in the morning, and, because my dad's work became increasingly busy, in the afternoon, I went home to cook and do homework by myself. Mom and I would meet from time to time, but my dad did not want me to see her often—he was afraid that if my mother was being tracked or suddenly picked up, I would be pulled in.

In this unpredictable society, calm was unlikely to last long. In my second year of junior high school, probably around 2005, on my way home from school I received news that my mom was arrested again. At the time, I was totally unsurprised. Maybe I had become accustomed to this kind of thing, or maybe it was some sort of sixth sense, as if I had expected something like this to happen.

Following my mom’s arrest this time, my dad wasn’t like he was the last time—trying to negotiate for her release and the like. After all, he had drawn a boundary. And I lived as usual. When I had time, I would surf on YouTube—at the time it wasn’t blocked; I used software to get on some blocked sites and read news and commentaries.

Once, I saw news about organ harvesting online. At first, I thought it might just be some silly, erroneous reporting. But when the voices of doubt online slowly decreased over time, I began to worry about my mother in prison—a feeling of fear that I would never see my mother again. But thank heavens, my mother was at last released safely around 2006, and my worries for her were finally wiped clean.

After her release, frankly, I didn’t see my mother many times. I always felt she was busy doing something, but I did not know what. In late 2006, I received an overseas phone call—it was my mother. She told me that she had already left China, and was in another country.

An Independent Path (Part 2)

English translation by Human Rights in China


[1] Officially called British Forces Overseas Hong Kong.

About the Author

Ah Shun (阿舜), born in Guangzhou in 1990, is a “cross-generational,” straddling the “post-‘80” and “post-‘90” generations. He lives in New York City.

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