While her father languishes in a Chinese prison, Danielle Wang fights for his freedom from the United States
The last time Xiaodan Wang saw her favorite red sweater, she was watching CNN as her father was sentenced to 16 years in prison. It was Xiaodan’s first glimpse of her father, Zhiwen Wang, in over six months, but there was no mistaking her sweater even for a moment. The bright color, a piece of clothing taken from his home hurriedly by family members after police took him from his bed on July 20, 1999, was peeking out from underneath a borrowed jacket.
Her father in CNN’s international broadcast of his trial was a man tattered by months of surviving life in police custody. His once-black hair was gray and matted, and his face looked tired and bruised. The thin summer pants he wore were barely enough protection against the cold December weather—but his spirit was clearly intact. Xiaodan could see it. The red sweater stood out like a secret message between parent and child saying to her, "Don’t worry, daughter. They haven’t broken me.”
When you meet Xiaodan, her quiet, gentle demeanor and soft-spoken tone of voice belies the tragedy she has experienced. A civil engineer in Texas, Xiaodan could easily be missed among the many faces of foreign immigrants in the United States. "Eight years,” she answers quickly when asked how long she’s been living in the United States. "And you can just call me Danielle.”
There is a lot of history in Danielle’s eyes, far too much for someone so young. At age 28, eight years after her father’s illegal arrest and initial detention, she is solid and focused as she tells the story they share.
Their remarkable journey began during her childhood in Beijing, China. It was there that her father raised her, and was also where she first learned of the meditation practice called Falun Gong (also known as Falun Dafa).
Zhiwen, a rural engineer, lived a quiet life, and raised his young daughter with the help of relatives. After he and Danielle began to practice Falun Gong in May, 1992, their entire family’s life took a turn for the better. Soon, even Zhiwen’s father saw the positive changes in the lives of his family members and took up the practice. Miraculously, the elder man’s gray hair turned black again, and his chronic health problems cleared up as he practiced the five gentle exercises of Falun Gong with his only son and young granddaughter every morning in a Beijing park.
The Wang family was not alone in their discovery of the extraordinary practice. So many people were learning Falun Gong by 1995 that the environment in China was noticeably more harmonious. Practitioners of Falun Gong’s principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance were everywhere helping others and spreading compassion. By 1998, a government survey found that there were 70-100 million people practicing in China.
During these first five years, Zhiwen became a volunteer Falun Gong contact person in Beijing.
According to Danielle’s stories, Zhiwen dedicated his life to helping others. Whenever someone was having difficulty and needed a helping hand, Zhiwen was there. He lived to help others, and young Danielle grew up seeing her father’s selflessness.
Danielle left Beijing in 1998 to live in America with her mother, where she finished high school and then earned her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering—a family tradition passed down from grandfather and father. She has not seen her father since, except on CNN.
In the dawn hours of July 20, 1999, according to eyewitness accounts from neighbors, Zhiwen was kidnapped from his bed by police and taken away in waiting police vans. Practicing Falun Gong in China had literally become a crime overnight, and he was one of the thousands of practitioners throughout the country targeted for immediate arrest.
Watching from afar in America, Danielle says she found it impossible to imagine why her government would strike out at kind-hearted people. Remembering that time, she looks sad and thoughtful. "The country I grew up in was so bright, but Jiang Zemin [then leader of the Chinese Communist Party] showed its dark side," says Danielle. She still struggles to understand why her gentle and selfless father was taken away and has been held for so long, like a common criminal.
After Zhiwen’s disappearance, day after day the entire family tried everything they could think of to find out where he was being held, but to no avail. There was no word on his location or condition, and across the country Falun Gong practitioners were being crowded into jails and prisons, detention and brainwashing centers, and mental hospitals.
One day about three months after his disappearance, Danielle and her mother received a certificate of arrest from the Chinese police. They knew he was alive, but nothing else. They continued to wait and wonder for three more months. The only comfort to Danielle during this time was the knowledge that her father was strong enough mentally and physically to endure the situation. More than that, she knew that he would never renounce his beliefs, nor retaliate against any police brutality.
Finally, on December 27, 1999, an international CNN newscast aired the show trial of four Beijing Falun Dafa Association volunteers, and Zhiwen was among them. The men were obviously bruised from being beaten they stood in judgment for practicing Falun Gong and following truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance.
An aunt of Danielle’s who was at the trial tried to approach Zhiwen to comb his matted hair, but was pushed away by the police. Zhiwen was given a sentence of 16 years in prison, and sent to Tianjin, and was later he was moved to Tianhe, a notorious labor camp in the northeast of China where he remains today.
The little news that filters out of China to Danielle and her family has been vague and disconnected. Rare letters are allowed through from either side—she has received two from him in the last 8 years. Sometimes news comes through that he was forced to sit on a small bench for seven days straight without food, water, or sleep. They hear that he has been continually tortured to renounce his belief in Falun Gong, but steadfastly refuses to succumb. One day Danielle’s mother got a phone call from China—it was Zhiwen. The entire conversation was about their daughter.
Since her father’s sentencing in 1999, Danielle has worked to appeal for help from the U.S. government and sympathetic supporters. She has written letter after letter to the president and met with her congressional representatives, organized a human rights walk from Houston to Washington D.C., and held press conferences and two hunger strikes to bring attention to the persecution of her father and countless other Falun Gong practitioners like him.
Perhaps most significantly, Danielle continues to practice Falun Gong. The tragedies of the past never stop her from being the positive, selfless person her father raised. She cannot return to China yet, but continues to fight for those who have no voice there. And she lives in hope that the next news of her father will be of his release.
For more information, visit http://freezhiwen.org