A daring escape to freedom


Independence Hall on the Fourth of July. MATT ROURKE / Associated Press
Independence Hall on the Fourth of July. MATT ROURKE / Associated Press

By Yuwei Zhang

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that Philadelphia is one of America’s key cities to celebrate the Fourth of July. It’s the place where the country’s freedom began, right?

Each year that I play my waist drum in the Philadelphia Independence Day Parade, my mind flashes back 10 years, when I was in China and had to leave behind my husband and newborn daughter to escape to America.

I recall secretly wiping away my tears so that my mom would not notice the depth of my sadness. I remember telling my daughter, who was fast asleep, “I promise you a bright future, but for now, mommy has to leave you here in China.”

People often ask me, “Why did you leave your child back in China?” Well, that’s intimately connected to my 10-plus-year journey to freedom, which I’ll explain in a minute.

I recall reading a New York Times article last year about an Oregon resident who unpacked a box of Halloween decorations that she bought, only to find a letter written by a Chinese labor camp prisoner with the last name “Zhang.”

As I read the article, I had chills running up and down my spine. The scenario depicted in the article was eerily all too familiar.

Not only do I have the same last name as the imprisoned inmate in the article, but I was also persecuted for practicing Falun Gong, just as he was.

For those who are not familiar with Falun Gong, it is a Chinese spiritual practice that consists of meditative qi-gong exercises and teachings based on the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance.

While I was a medical school student in China, I suffered from insomnia as well as severe back and abdominal pain. This definitely interfered with my studies.

I had almost given up hope of finding relief from my suffering when my husband suggested that I try practicing Falun Gong. Soon after I began the practice, my back pain and other stubborn ailments completely disappeared.

Of course, I was very happy, and who wouldn’t be? So I shared my experiences with all of my friends and relatives.

However, in 1999, China’s then-Communist Party chief, Jiang Zemin, initiated the persecution against Falun Gong, fearing that the popular practice was a source of ideological competition for the Communist Party.

I was later arrested by state security agents in China and locked in a small cell surrounded by male inmates. I often looked out the window, seeing birds flying and young girls my age walking about, oblivious to the fact that I was imprisoned simply because of my spiritual beliefs.

I wanted to cry out, “I am innocent. Please help set me free!” I also thought about throwing a piece of paper out the window with the words, “Please help rescue me!” scribbled on a piece of notepaper, similar to what Mr. Zhang had done in the article.

I was also locked up in a tiny cell with two people watching me around the clock. Every guard who passed by my cell verbally abused me. Sometimes, I was tortured for not writing down derogatory statements about Falun Gong. I was also forced to watch completely fabricated stories that slandered Falun Gong. I was heartbroken and thought that I would either die in prison or suffer a nervous breakdown.

When I was finally released, I secretly obtained a visa to the United States. (Chinese authorities don’t favor Falun Gong practitioners leaving the country.) I couldn’t hold back my tears. The one word that filled my heart was freedom. It was hard to imagine being free after having been without freedom for so long. I kept asking everyone in the visa office, “Is it true? Did I really get a visa to go to the United States?”

My family brought me to the airport, still fearing that the Chinese police would stop me there. After I had checked in, I walked directly to the plane.

My mother later complained, “Why didn’t you even look back at me?”

“Because I still couldn’t believe that I was finally escaping China,” I told her. “I only believed it was true when an immigration officer in the United States stamped my passport.”

Although Americans enjoy the right to “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” these rights simply do not exist in China.

I now live in Baltimore with my husband, 10-year-old daughter, and 3-year-old son.

Yuwei Zhang is a research scientist at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. yuwei_zhang@gwu.edu

Original article