Published: The Sunday Star-Times, July 2018
Falun Gong is either an evil cult bent on undermining China or a benign spiritual practice that's being persecuted the world over. But in New Zealand, its practitioners still fear the long arm of the Chinese regime. Harrison Christian investigates.
It was the end of Daisy Lee's loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party: a black and white photograph her partner had kept hidden for years.
In their apartment in the northern city of Qingdao, Lee was talking to her husband about the Tiananmen Square protests. In 1989, troops with tanks and machine guns opened fire on pro-democracy demonstrators in the Beijing square, killing at least several hundred people; perhaps as many as 10,000.
Steve Ma had been a student in Beijing at the time, and Lee was scolding him for it.
"You students in Beijing did crazy things," she said. "You smashed cars, set them on fire, made trouble and were violent towards the Beijing people!"
In response, Ma showed his wife an old photo taken with a miniature camera by one of his roommates at university. The picture was little more than an inch wide, but Lee could still make out the blood on Tiananmen Square, and a young person's severed head.
The 1989 incident has always been a highly censored political topic. But Ma had kept that photo, if only for himself; a grim reminder of the day many of his classmates lost their lives.
"He'd been hiding it even though we'd known each other for several years," says Lee. "The fear of Government was such that he couldn't even trust me, his wife."
As the bonds between China and New Zealand grow stronger, so, too, have concerns that Beijing is exerting undue power here. Last year a Newsroom investigation revealed National MP Jian Yang's background as a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) member with ties to military intelligence. A 2017 report by University of Canterbury professor Anne-Marie Brady concluded that China had co-opted New Zealand's Chinese community and infiltrated our political elite.
Chinese consular authorities keep a close eye on all community activities, Brady wrote in her report, especially in Auckland. The "remarkable" control over the city's Chinese population has been achieved through a "united front" strategy: a web of pro-Beijing community and student groups, politicians, Chinese-language media and schools.
Lee says it's bad news for her and other Chinese New Zealanders who the CCP views as dissenting voices.
It was 1994 when she saw her husband's photo from Tiananmen Square; in the years following the protest, many educated Chinese began to sense it was time to get out of the People's Republic.
The couple and their four-year-old son came to New Zealand in 2002. Arriving at Auckland Airport, Lee saw a sign promoting Falun Gong, a spiritual exercise and meditation practice similar to Tai chi.
She was surprised to discover Falun Gong had followers outside China, where it had been banned as an "evil cult".
Lee's father was a practitioner. When the Chinese government began its crackdown on Falun Gong in 1999, he was retired, but his former state employer came knocking. He was made to sign a contract renouncing the practice, and to hand over all his spiritual books. He believed the exercises helped a heart condition, so he kept doing them with the curtains closed.
In New Zealand, Lee started reading the pro-Falun Gong newspaper, the Epoch Times, where she currently works as a researcher. These days she practices Falun Gong herself but claims the Chinese government is trying to stop her.
Falun Gong is one of the "Five Poisons" – or groups the CCP considers a threat to its stability – along with pro-democracy activists, Uyghurs, Tibetans, and advocates for Taiwan independence.
In April, Lee gathered with other Falun Gong Aucklanders at a demonstration in Aotea Square.
The event was disrupted by a group of Chinese protesters, whom Lee believes were paid to be there by Auckland's united front organisations. She provides a photo that appears to show a protest organiser taking signatures and giving out bank deposit slips.
One of the protesters was Yan Junren, the vice president of the Peaceful Reunification of China Association of New Zealand (PRCANZ).
'I AM ASHAMED OF THEIR ACTIONS'
Junren is proud of the deep and varied history of Chinese martial arts. He says the first choice for physical fitness in China is Tai chi, which has many schools around the world.
Falun Gong has no place in that history, Junren says – and he feels ashamed when he sees them protesting or handing out flyers. Since he migrated from Suzhou in 1999, he has loved living in New Zealand, except for all the reminders of Falun Gong.
"It is wrong. They are completely confused people who have been brainwashed."
In a video of the April protest, Junren can be heard saying in Mandarin through a loudspeaker: "Are you blind? So many countries and so many political parties are supportive of the Chinese Communist Party. Are you deaf?"
The video also shows protesters carrying identical signs surrounding a pākehā girl as she performs Falun Gong exercises.
Asked about his participation in the protest, and whether protesters were paid, Junren says: "The majority of our overseas Chinese love their country of origin. All anti-China activities will be challenged by the forces of justice!"
He says Falun Gong practitioners who protest outside Chinese embassies around the world are responsible for "vicious attacks" on the CCP.
"All countries in the world are respected and protected in any city in the People's Republic of China! Does the New Zealand government not feel ashamed about this?"
He has a strong message for Falun Gong practitioners in New Zealand: "Don't you feel ashamed that you have taken the pension given by the Chinese government in one hand, and the anti-China and anti-Communist organisation's allowance in the other, defaming your country of origin in other parts of the world? You're smearing your own mother, but your motherland has not forgotten you!"
Anne-Marie Brady's report said Chinese operatives had organised counter-protest groups to shout down pro-Falun Gong, pro-Tibet, or other groups critical of China.
Brady also described PRCANZ as the organisation "most closely connected" with the PRC authorities in New Zealand; "one of a growing number of united front organisations in New Zealand and other countries which the Chinese government organises, supports, and subsidises".
Junren says his organisation never meddles in local matters and had been approved by the New Zealand Government to participate in cultural and economic exchanges.
Falun Gong can be off-putting to Western audiences. They trumpet miraculous health benefits or hold out placards and brochures alleging live organ harvesting from practitioners in China. Meanwhile, their claims about ongoing persecution in countries like New Zealand can have the tenor of paranoia.
But the party line against Falun Gong is no less extreme. The Chinese Consulate's website has a dedicated section to the group, which says it "practices cult leader worship, spreads fallacies, exercises mind control, ruins human lives and endangers society".
The truth probably falls somewhere between the two sides, while their noisy public encounters are largely incomprehensible to everyone else.
The Chinese Embassy denies any involvement in measures against Falun Gong practitioners in New Zealand.
"China does not interfere in other countries' domestic affairs," says the embassy's second secretary, Song Hailong.
"At present, China and New Zealand relations enjoy a sound momentum of development. Both sides are working together to strengthen a comprehensive strategic partnership, on the basis of mutual respect, equality and benefit."
National's Chinese MP Jian Yang says freedom of speech and religion is a "fundamental value of New Zealanders".
"Everyone has a right to protest, and they do so freely, and many New Zealanders would have seen Falun Gong protests," Yang says.
He added that any questions about counter-protests were a matter for their organisers.
Labour's Chinese MP, Raymond Huo, declined to comment.
'YOUR FAMILY ARE TRAITORS'
In 2007, Sanpu He escaped out the window of his cell at a "re-education centre" in Zhengzhou City, China. Sanpu had spent a year and a half plotting his escape. He knew that directly after lunch, all the guards at the centre took a half-hour nap. So one afternoon he used a stash of tools to cut through the wire mesh outside his window. Then, with an umbrella opened over his head, he simply walked out the front gate.
From there he got on a bus, snuck through Burma to Thailand, and was granted United Nations refugee status in New Zealand. Now, the 69-year-old joins dozens of other dissidents to demonstrate outside Auckland's Chinese Consulate every morning.
Sanpu once worked for the CCP. His post was in the internal organisations' division of the provincial propaganda department in Henan Province. Simply put, he was in charge of looking after retired officials; making sure they were loyal to the party until they died.
But in 1999, he found himself on the receiving end of the party's jealous rule over public life. Sanpu was one of many government officials who practised Falun Gong and had to be cleansed from the party's ranks.
He was arrested and sentenced to two years and three months in a labour camp in Zhengzhou City. He was tortured with electronic batons; he can still recall the smell of his own burning flesh. When he refused to eat, he was force-fed through a rubber tube.
Later he was sent to a re-education centre known as Baimiao, where he spent a further two years until his escape. By 2009, he was safely in New Zealand and reunited with his wife and daughter, who had fled here three years earlier.
Dressed in sneakers, a yellow raincoat and cap, Sanpu cuts an unassuming figure on Great South Road, performing Falun Gong exercises to passing traffic. He is not the only person standing outside the consulate who came to New Zealand as a refugee, nor is his experience of incarceration unique for a Falun Gong practitioner from China.
A 78-year-old woman describes being arrested four times and sentenced to three years at a women's prison in Liaoning before she fled to New Zealand. Many of the practitioners here are elderly; the oldest is 83.
Sanpu claims the regime that once held him captive is now monitoring him on New Zealand soil. He alleges that his wife, also a practitioner, was recently handing out Falun Gong materials in Auckland when she was approached by a Chinese man who told her, "Your family are traitors," and "We have had information on you for ten years".
"I worry," says Sanpu in Mandarin. "The CCP does not only persecute Falun Gong; they are also a threat to the entire world. It has infiltrated democratic countries in various ways to influence their politics, and ultimately achieve their evil goal."
'THE COLD WAR NEVER ENDED'
"New Zealand is finished," says former Chinese diplomat Chen Yonglin. "It has already lost."
Yonglin was once the consul for political affairs at the Chinese Consulate in Sydney. He almost sparked a diplomatic incident when he walked out of the consulate in 2005 with his wife and daughter.
Speaking from his home in the Sydney suburbs, the 50-year-old claims his chief role at the consulate was surveillance and countermeasures against the "Five Poisons" in Australia, especially Falun Gong. The goal was to turn all ethnic Chinese people into de facto supporters of the CCP.
"Any forces hostile to the Chinese Communist Party, the job needed to deal with."
Chen, like Lee's husband, was a student in Beijing in 1989. He linked hands with other demonstrators in an attempt to block the advance of soldiers into Tiananmen Square. Machine gun fire wounded several of his classmates.
After the protest, he graduated from foreign affairs college. He wrote a "letter of regret" over his actions, and was sent for re-education on Marxism and the party doctrine before he could begin work as a diplomat. In 2004, it was a fear of having to send his daughter back to China to undergo similar brainwashing that made him walk out of the consulate for good.
Now, living under a permanent protection visa from the Australian government, Chen says he'll spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder. Soon after his defection, he became convinced China had dispatched a three-man hit squad to kill him; an alleged plot against his life that never eventuated.
"I have to be very cautious always because China's power reaches all around the world. And I can't hide," he says.
"So when they infiltrate Australia, I feel it threatens my future, my family's future and the Chinese community's future."
The Chinese diaspora was once a haven and source of funding for pro-democracy movements back in China. Now, Chen says, it toes the line with Beijing.
He says migrants in New Zealand may never be rid of the CCP – especially when they depend on Chinese-language media, China-controlled social media platforms like WeChat, and even cellphones built by Chinese telco Huawei.
"The Cold War never ended," says Chen. "This is the second phase of the Cold War, and the whole world will be very different if the Western countries lose."