Jailed for joining Falun Gong, forced to pack 8,000 chopsticks daily.
Xiong Wei spent two years in a Chinese labour camp. Her crime was membership in the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.
In Prague for a July 20 exhibition and candlelight vigil commemorating the 10-year anniversary of the Chinese government's banning of Falun Gong, Xiong recounted her experiences that quickly took her from work in Germany to a daylight kidnapping on the streets of Beijing.
In practice, the Falun Gong movement, rooted in Buddhism and Taoism, involves a series of spiritual and physical exercises. It was founded in 1992 by Li Hongzhi professing the principles of "truthfulness, compassion and forbearance." The movement resembles a religion to some, but shuns daily worship. However, out of the 144 countries where Falun Gong is active, China is the only one to prosecute members. The movement claims 100 million followers, while the Chinese government counts 70 million. According to the United Nations, two-thirds of torture cases in China are directed at Falun Gong adherents.
Xiong's beliefs lead to her detention at a Chinese women's labor camp. Following massive public attention and a campaign for her release led by former-German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, she left the camp in January 2004, two years after being arrested in Beijing for passing out promotional leaflets. Xiong had previously lived in Germany for 10 years, studying at the Technical University in Berlin, and later working for the German energy company Buderus, which transferred her to Beijing. During her final year in Germany, she discovered Falun Gong and found it helped her cope with home sickness, depression and numerous health issues.
"My skin was really bad, and I was really tense, and only a few weeks into [practicing] Falun Gong, I started feeling a lot better. I couldn't believe it," she said.
Back in Beijing, Xiong was so enthusiastic about the effects that she felt compelled to spread the word. She ordered a printer and software that allowed her to access Falun Gong Web sites, which are banned in China, and started producing the leaflets that would later lead to her arrest.
On the day of her arrest, three men who turned out to be undercover police officers grabbed her in broad daylight and stuffed her in the trunk of a car.
"They didn't even tell me that they were undercover cops," she says, adding that Chinese police are offered financial bonuses for arresting Falun Gong members.
After spending eight hours in a cell built so that she could only stand up against a wall, Xiong was transported to the women's labour camp in Daxing, a Beijing suburb, where she was made to pack between 6,000 and 8,000 chopsticks per day. Penalties for perceived misconduct increased in severity during her two years and ranged from sleep deprivation, to being forced to sit in a crouched position for up to 18 hours while being denied bathroom access. The US State Department estimates that half of all Chinese in work camps have ties to Falun Gong. Xiong managed to avoid the most severe forms of torture because, from the beginning, her case was high profile, generating an outpouring of letters and support from the International Society for Human Rights.
"The guards knew that they couldn't leave any visible marks of torture on my body, because it might later have gotten international attention," she said.
Nonetheless, years in the work camp took their toll. "I lost 14 kilograms [31 pounds]. When my brother saw me after I had been released, he asked me if I had had surgery on my face," Xiong said.
Now, five years after her release, Xiong lives in Frankfurt, and says China feels "like one big prison." She speaks of her experiences in the Czech Republic and former East Germany, because, she says, the totalitarian past allows people to note common experiences and follow her story with perspective.
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