DORAVILLE, Atlanta — When Sam Lu was granted asylum in the United States in February 2001, he vowed never to return to his native China and to a Communist regime that, he says, incarcerated him for his religious beliefs.
Ten years on, Lu — a practitioner of Falun Gong, a religious practice long banned in China, and a production manager with the group’s bilingual newspaper, Epoch Times, says he and thousands of other Chinese asylum seekers in the United States long to reconnect with the family they left behind.
„If the communist party breaks down,” he said flatly in an interview with New America Media in the Atlanta suburb of Doraville just south of downtown, “that means I can go back.”
Such words may sound fanciful in light of China’s rising political and economic clout, though cracks do exist in a system highly dependent on the Community Party of China’s (CPC) integrity and legitimacy. Intermittent ethnic strife, a restive labor movement and an increasingly bold military unafraid to challenge Party policies – hinted at by the recent test flight of an advanced spy plane that caught the nation’s top leaders off guard. These are just a few of the challenges facing Beijing’s leaders.
Still, as Ian Johnson of the New York Times writes on President Hu Jintao’s recent visit to Washington, China is “here to stay,” with trade ties overshadowing talk of human rights, the two forming key points of contention between the on-again off-again rival powers. So where does that leave Lu and others like him?
“If the media here and in other parts of the world would not shy away from exposing the torture and abuses that communist leaders commit against many innocent victims in my country,” he said, “they (CPC) will soon be weakened.”
Because the Chinese government still blocks access to the Internet, Lu said there are people in China, including some of his own friends, who are currently missing or have suddenly disappeared after they openly showed opposition to the communist party’s political system.
Such statements, while difficult to verify, echo similar accounts from human rights activists, including Gao Zisheng, a self-taught lawyer who, in 2006, was arrested and allegedly tortured for offering legal help to Falun Gong practitioners. Gao’s current whereabouts are unknown. An interview conducted in April before his disappearance was recently published on-line by the Wall Street Journal.
Lu recalled the day in June 2000, one day after his 31st birthday, when he was arrested by Chinese police officers. Traveling to Beijing from his native Shenzhen Province, just across the water from Hong Kong, to make an appeal on behalf of a fellow Falun Gong member incarcerated four years earlier, Lu says he suddenly found himself being carted off to prison.
“Two hours later, the police told me that they were transferring me to a labor camp in Guangdong Province,” he said, adding that no one explained on what charges he was being detained or offered legal counsel. “It was very scary.”
In prison, Lu says he and the other inmates were “treated like animals,” forced to work from sunup to well past sundown on only two meals a day. The worst, he says, was being cramped along with others into a tiny cell with no ventilation.
“Each cell was about 300 square-feet with about 20 to 28 people in it,” Lu said. “You can only sleep on one side like a fish.”
Thanks to a family connection with a well-placed party cadre, Lu was released two months later. “At that time I knew I had to leave China,” he said. “I will not be able to exercise my religious beliefs there. I will not be able to live freely.”
Lu first visited the United States in 1995 as a graduate student on a scholarship from Georgia State University. Now seeking to return, his prison record and his affiliation with the Falun Gong almost assured that he would not be granted a passport for travel outside China. Yet, as with most dealings in China, Lu’s connections again saw him through.
Thanks to a former co-worker with ties to Chinese immigration officials, Lu obtained a passport and eventually a travel visa to the United States where his application for asylum was later approved.
NAM was not able to obtain statistics on how many Falun Gong practitioners have sought and obtained asylum in the United States.
“Getting to where I am now was definitely not easy. I had to go through all those hardships,” he said. And while he considers himself fortunate, he says there is a hole that remains.
When Lu’s father died in 2006, his family kept it a secret from Lu for fear he would attempt to return to pay his respects. Devastated by the news, Lu did just that after he learned of his father’s passing, secretly flying to Hong Kong, which has maintained a semblance of political autonomy from the mainland since its handover in 1997, to meet with his mother.
“Of course, it was still very dangerous. But I was very careful,” he said.