International Appeal on Tiananmen Square

Thirty-six Westerners from around the world suddenly appeared at Tiananmen Square in Beijing with a message that astounded onlookers in China and around the world.

That was 20 years ago, on Nov. 20, 2001, making international headlines more than two years after the Chinese Communist Party launched an unprecedented campaign of terror against Falun Gong, known as Falun Dafa.

Following photos, the mysterious individuals from Europe, Australia, the United States, and Canada sat down to meditate. Behind them was a bright yellow banner that read, “Truth compassion tolerance” with accompanying Chinese characters—the main tenets of Falun Gong.

But the banner didn’t stay up long.

About 30 seconds later, throngs of uniformed and plain-clothes police officers and Chinese Communist Party paramilitary forces swarmed across Tiananmen, pushing tourists aside and confiscating cameras. Police quickly used physical violence as they drug away the peaceful protesters.

“A young lady from France was grabbed by the throat and choked,” Canadian Falun Gong practitioner Zenon Dolnyckyij—who himself had wrapped a smaller banner around his leg that read “Falun Dafa is good”—recalled.

While the Chinese Communist Party never confirmed exactly what had happened, it’s believed to have shaken the regime at its core. Seemingly out of nowhere, three-dozen Westerners appeared at Tiananmen, the symbolic heart of the regime’s power—the same place that, just a decade earlier, was the site where 3,000 were massacred. Before, it was only Chinese Falun Gong practitioners who appeared there.

And Beijing’s police didn’t spare the Western practitioners the brutality meted out to their Chinese counterparts. Practitioner Leeshai Lemish was taken to a small interrogation room and was beaten.

In the face of China’s worldwide propaganda campaign and the threat of extreme violence, why did 36 Westerners gather there?

About The Journey to Tiananmen — On the sunny afternoon of November 20, 2001, 36 Westerners from 12 countries met at the Tiananmen Square – without knowing each other’s names, they gathered for a group photo and waited for the cue to begin…

Why Tiananmen Square?

Protesting in Tiananmen Square was a final option for Falun Gong practitioners, the last in a series of attempts to appeal to the Chinese government. 

Lacking any option to appeal to the Chinese government, Falun Gong practitioners then resorted to appealing directly to the Chinese people and the international community by protesting at one of China’s most famous landmarks: Tiananmen Square.  Practitioners from around the world soon joined them to show the depth of international support for their efforts.

Last Resort for Chinese Practitioners

The Falun Gong protests in Tiananmen Square started in late 1999.  Practitioners appeared on the square almost daily, often holding up banners that said “Truthfulness, Compassion, and Tolerance” (the guiding principles of Falun Gong), and shouting statements such as “Falun Gong is good! Stop the persecution!” 

The retribution they met with was swift and fierce.  Protesters were quickly arrested by uniformed or undercover police officers, and were often beaten (sometimes to death) in public before being taken to jails and labor camps for further abuse. 

One Swedish practitioner who would later protest in Tiananmen Square, Lilian Staf, witnessed protests in the square, an experience that would inspire her to go herself. 

Once the police captured the protesters, she said, “I watched those beasts beat the defenseless practitioners… I could not believe how cruel they were. None of the Falun Gong practitioners retaliated. On that day a female Falun Gong practitioner was beaten to death on the square.”

Support Coming from the West

Soon, many other Falun Gong practitioners around the world desired to protest in Tiananmen Square to show international support for Falun Gong and to provide moral support for practitioners suffering in jails and labor camps.  A group of 36 of these practitioners – volunteers from the U.S., Germany, France and many other countries, who were entirely self-organized –  decided to hold a joint appeal on the square.

“Their entire life is bombarded with persecution, from their workplaces to their schools; they’re dehumanized in the eyes of Chinese society. There’s nowhere else for them to go except into the public to show their innocence. If they go for legal representation their lawyers are persecuted. So they go to Tiananmen Square. And as Westerners, we must support them.” — Joel Chipkar, a Canadian practitioner who joined the protest

Their plan was to pose as tourists and while gathering for a group photo, display their banner.  Chipkar would film the gathering using a hidden camera in his backpack strap that was connected to a camcorder. Paulina Watson, an American, planned on visiting China at the time and decided to take photos of the event. 

At 2pm, the group gathered and quickly unfurled their giant banner.  Those not holding the banner sat in front of it in one of the Falun Gong meditation positions.

The regime’s forces reacted quickly. 

Police cars swarmed around the group to block tourists from seeing the banner. Policemen tried to snatch away the banner, but the practitioners held fast.  “I said, ‘I’m not going to let them take this banner,’” said Kay Rubacek. “And they started pulling me and pushing me; they were ripping my hair and pulling my bag to try and make me fall over.”

As the struggle for the banner went on, Zenon Dolnyckyj, a Canadian, rushed out of the police cordon with a smaller banner of his own.  As the police chased him down and then tackled him, Dolnyckyj shouted to stunned tourists “Falun Dafa is good!  The whole world knows!  Canada knows!  America knows!  Europe knows! Falun Dafa is good!” 

Soon, though, the police overwhelmed the practitioners and forced them into vans, often quite violently.

“They had [Dolnyckyi’s] shirt down over his head and down over his shoulders and arms, so he couldn’t move and he couldn’t see,” said Australian Kate Vereshaka.  “And they were all crowded around him beating into his bare back.

“At that moment, I think all the courage I had mustered up, all the plans that I’d had for how brave I was going to be – they were out the window for a little bit.”

The practitioners were taken to the Tiananmen Police Station.  They were forced into a tiny cell, where practitioners could see bloodstains on the wall.  Sounds of terror echoed from the distance.

“I heard womens’ screaming in the basement,” said German Peter Recknagel.  “It was very disturbing… They were really screaming out of fear or as if they were being beaten or pushed to the floor.”

Soon the detainees were separated, where they were assigned guards and taken into interrogation rooms. Some practitioners refused to cooperate with the illegal interrogations and requests for their passports, and the police responded with violence.

“When they saw that I wasn’t going to give them my passport, they began to beat me,” said American Leeshai Lemish.  “My jaw was dislocated and I could barely talk for the rest of the day.  [The police officer beating me] picked me up by the nose and threw me back down.

“I could see in his eyes that he hated that I was a Westerner.  His eyes said, ‘If you weren’t a Westerner I would kill you right now.”

They were then taken out of the police station to a place that German Monika Weiss described as “a type of secret service hotel.” There the police again interrogated the practitioners, and then tried to force them to sign police reports that were written in Chinese.  Some felt that hidden cameras might be filming, and the act of them signing of the papers could be portrayed by government propaganda as them confessing to crimes.

When one practitioner, Dr. Alejandro Centurión, ripped up a police report that he felt that he had mistakenly signed, police shoved his head backward and began to shout at him. 

Recknagel stood up and said in Chinese, “We see what you are doing and we will tell the world what you are doing if you keep on hitting people.” 

The police officer immediately grabbed Recknagel, pushed him up against the wall, and said, “Do you know what it feels like having to die?”

Fortunately, the violence didn’t escalate from there, and the CCP, knowing full well that they had no legal reason to arrest or hold the protestors, simply put them on a plane out of China. 

News of the event spread like wildfire in China, and even state-run media was forced to cover it.  The protest became an inspiration to Falun Gong practitioners throughout China.

Zhe Wang, a practitioner detained in a labor camp in Tianjin, said that he heard the news being played on a police officer’s radio.  “[When I heard the news] I laughed and laughed until tears came out,” he said. “It gave me so much encouragement… It touched me so much to know that there were fellow practitioners who would put aside their own safety and come to help.”