Opinion: On International Women’s Day, Let’s Not Forget the Women Jailed in China

By  Crystal Chen | Mar 08, 2023

Editor’s Note: The Falun Dafa Information Center is sharing this article by Falun Gong practitioner and torture survivor Crystal Chen on the occasion of International Women’s Day. Ms. Chen escaped China and now lives in the United States. She has no formal affiliation with the Center.

China is home to the largest population of political and religious prisoners in the world. From ethnic Uyghurs and Tibetans, to protesters and Falun Gong practitioners, China’s police stations, jails, and other detention facilities are filled with hundreds of thousands—or more—people who have been deprived of their freedom simply because of what they said, what they believe, or who they are.

One underappreciated fact is that many of these prisoners are women.

Some are elderly grandmothers or parents of teenagers. Others are young women at the prime of their life—in their 20s or 30s—whose careers have been brutally interrupted by the Chinese Communist Party’s repression. Many have small children at home. In custody, they suffer humiliation, physical torture, and sexual abuse at the hands of police, guards, and even other prisoners.

I should know, I was one of them. I was 27 years old and working as an assistant to a corporate executive in southern China when I became an enemy of the state.

It was 1999. My mother and I had practiced Falun Gong for several years. The meditation and spiritual practice—with its slow-moving qigong exercises and teachings encouraging truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance—was very popular back then. There were Falun Gong meditation sites in parks throughout Guangzhou. Several people at my workplace practiced. State media and government agencies had endorsed Falun Gong.

On July 20, 1999, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) abruptly reversed course, banning Falun Gong and launching a vicious campaign to eradicate it.  I went to Beijing to peacefully appeal for my right to meditate. I was detained at a sports stadium with tens of thousands of others.  I was shocked, but at that point, the full cruelty of the persecution was beyond my imagination.

After that my life turned upside down. I lost my job, had my home searched and my property confiscated. I was arrested and sent to a labor camp.  Guards threatened me with torture if I didn’t give up my belief in Falun Gong.

I decided from day one that I would never give up my belief.

When I was held at a detention center in Hebei Province, guards handcuffed me to a radiator pipe with my toes barely touching the ground and left me there for three days. A police chief groped my body while I was hung from the pipe. At another detention center, a guard threatened to send me to a different location, where I would be raped.

I was thankfully spared that horror, but other women were not, subjected to sexual abuse at the hands of police.  I saw many women tortured in horrible ways, only because they practiced Falun Gong. My mother was shocked with electric batons in her armpits and inner thighs until she fainted. Guards poured water on her body to make the shocks more intense. She could smell her own skin burning and was left with permanent scars.

The worst torture I experienced was at a detention center in Guangzhou. When I refused to stop practicing Falun Gong, the director brought four male guards into my cell. They pinned me to the concrete floor and began force-feeding me an all-salt mixture, which could kill me.

I was later sentenced to two years in a labor camp without even a trial.

In 2004, I decided to escape to Thailand through Burma. It was a harrowing journey. But each step of the way, sympathetic strangers helped me survive. One young man hid me in his boat to avoid Burmese soldiers, and then led me through the jungle.

Without his and others’ help, I never would have made it to Thailand, and eventually America.  

I am so overwhelmingly grateful for the kindness shown to me by these strangers and by all the people who helped me to settle in America. It has made me feel that despite the rights abuses I suffered in China, there is hope in our shared humanity.

On International Women’s Day, we mustn’t forget the women across China who are still sitting in jails and detention centers simply because they tried to peacefully exercise basic rights. Their lives are at risk. Since 2019, the mothers of several Chinese Americans, jailed for practicing Falun Gong like I was, have died in custody.

The CCP tried to take everything from me—my life and my most deeply held beliefs—but it didn’t succeed. Now the Party is trying to do the same to countless other women. We must stop them.

Crystal Chen has worked for news outlets and human rights groups since coming to the United States. She lives in Houston, Texas with her husband. Her story is one of several featured in the award-winning documentary Avenues of Escape.

Read more about Crystal’s journey and resilience below.