TROY -- After months of torture and surveillance in China, Ahiua Xu arrived from Shanghai on Monday morning, and is safe in the home of her daughter, Jennifer Zhou of Troy.
Jennifer Zhou and her husband, David Xie, greet Jennifer's mother, Ahiua Xu, at the airport. Xu, a Falun Gong practitioner, fled China after months of torture. Falun Gong has been banned in China since July 1999.
The 64-year-old retired engineer and mother of four sat on Jennifer's burgundy leather sofa and pulled up her pants legs to show the bruises where she said electric shocks had been administered near her ankles. Her daughter sat nearby cringing.
Xu's crime: Publicly practicing the controversial slow-motion exercises known as Falun Gong, which were officially banned in China in July 1999.
Since then, hundreds of practitioners have been arrested and detained in China, and at least 15 deaths have been reported while the practitioners were in police custody.
President Clinton admonished Chinese President Jiang Zemin about persecution of Falun Gong members in September, but Jiang insisted that China does not repress religion, only illegal cults.
Xu, one of 100 million who practice Falun Gong worldwide, said she was not trying to make a political statement with her use of Falun Gong, but was simply searching for a cure for her many illnesses.
"My doctors had told me my body was like a machine, and all the parts had gone bad," she said. "They had given me no hope. But it has been two years since I began practicing, and I no longer suffer from high blood pressure, heart problems, painful joints, and the lump in the back of my neck is gone." Practitioners claim the exercises and meditation eliminate illness and create peace of mind.
Falun Gong, a combination of five exercises and a philosophy which espouses truthfulness, compassion and tolerance, is considered a threat to communist rule in China, where it originated.
When Xu first began practicing outside with a group from Eastern China University of Science and Technology near her home, the government had not yet cracked down on it.
"Then one day I went to the park to practice, and the police told us the parks would be closed and we could no longer practice," she said.
What followed were months of surveillance, where police would enter her home, search it and stay all day.
"I even had to ask permission to go to the bathroom, and then I could not close the door all the way," she said. "That was because they thought I might try to escape." When she confronted a policeman who was beating a practitioner in the streets, she too was beaten by the officer, thrown in the back of a truck and taken to a detention center.
"The authorities gave me shock treatments after they left us in a detention center without food and water for three days. I couldn't eat anything when they finally did feed us," she said through interpreter Tim Sun, 29, an EDS software engineer who directs Falun Gong workshops in Metro Detroit.
"So they strapped me down, force-fed me through a tube in my nose, and then applied the shock treatments as punishment," she added.
Stories of Xu's mistreatment are all over the Internet, but this is the first time she has spoken publicly about her experiences.
"I still fear what may happen to the other practitioners if this gets back to China, but I feel I must let the public know what is really going on," she said, punching the air for emphasis.
Authorities restricted her from leaving Shanghai, but she requested permission to visit a relative.
"They told me I had to return by Nov. 30, but I already had a passport and a visa, so my daughter and son-in-law sent me a ticket, and I escaped," she said. She does not plan to return to China until the policy changes, which means she plans to stay with her daughter for the long haul. Both her daughter and son-in-law are General Motors Corp. engineers.
While banned in China, Falun Gong is gaining popularity in Metro Detroit.
The mayors of Troy, Farmington Hills, and Rochester Hills issued proclamations declaring Falun Dafa (or Falun Gong) day in October. Sterling Heights, Roseville and West Bloomfield will issue their proclamations on Dec.
Falun Gong changed Xiaoling Zhangs life.
The 26-year-old doctoral student at Ohio State University used to be uneasy.
Her marriage was troubled and she couldnt sleep. But through Falun Gongs rhythmic movements and meditation exercises, Zhang has found focus.
"I find my life harmonious and more meaningful," she said.
Zhang and others are offering free workshops on Falun Gong in the next few weeks throughout Northeast Ohio. They also want to raise awareness about what practitioners of Falun Gong face elsewhere. The Chinese government has banned the group, labeling it a cult.
"Maybe this persecution is big advertising, but on the other hand this persecution is very brutal," said Zhang, who has been practicing Falun Gong for about two years. "Actually, we are neither religious nor political. We are for self-improvement."
Compared with tai chi and yoga, Falun Gong, also called Falun Dafa, is a mixture of slow-motion exercises and Buddhist and Taoist concepts, which members say promote health and morality. Membership estimates vary from 2 million to 100 million worldwide.
Zhang and other practitioners estimate there are about 40 Falun Gong members in Columbus, about a dozen in Cleveland and a handful more in Cincinnati, Dayton and Akron.
"I was really moved and struck how effective it was on health improvement," said Qing-Qing Qiu, a physicist who lives in East Cleveland. "Thats why I started to do the practice."
The Chinese government takes a dimmer view. Zhang Yuanyuan, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said the group was a cult and blamed it for everything from murder to mental illness. Mind control, Yuanyuan said, is a common tactic.
The group thrives overseas, in part, because of the indifferent attitude of countries like the United States, he said.
"But most of overseas Chinese communities are not with them," Yuanyuan said.
"They thought they were weird. They thought they were strange people."
Yuanyuan claims his government has arrested roughly 100 followers for crimes such as racketeering and manslaughter.
Human rights organizations and group members say the government has jailed more than 10,000 practitioners and has killed at least 80. The Chinese banned the group out of fear that its size was a challenge to the governments power, they say.
Zhang said the main purpose of the upcoming seminars is to teach the "truthfulness, benevolence and forbearance" that is the Falun Gong credo. But there also will be information about its battles with the Chinese government.
"When more and more people are aware of this persecution and more righteous people show their support, then the persecution in China will stop," she said.
What Is Falun Gong? See "Falun Gong 101", by Massimo Introvigne
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