Publisher’s Note: National Review has brought out Here, There & Everywhere: Collected Writings of Jay Nordlinger. You may order the book here. It has eight chapters — and we are making one piece per chapter available on NRO. We are doing this every Tuesday — hence, “Tuesdays with Jay”! The chapters are Society, Politics, People, The World, Cuba and China, Golf, Music, and Personal. For the pieces drawn from the first four chapters, go here, here, here, and here. And this week’s piece is from the chapter on Cuba and China. It was originally published in the National Review of April 24, 2006.
Charles Lee has a story to tell, and I have come to hear it, in a New York conference room. Dr. Lee has recently been released from a Chinese prison, after three years’ confinement. He is an American — a U.S. citizen since 2002 — and he talks like one: His conversation is peppered with “like,” as in, “If you tried to move, they would, like, hit you.” Dr. Lee is a remarkably composed and assured man. But he has been through a ghastly ordeal, which is no surprise, given the People’s Republic and its ways.
Dr. Lee was born in 1965, in the eastern province of Jiangsu. His parents worked in a cotton mill. He himself went to medical school in Guangzhou (Canton). In 1991, he came to the United States, for further study and research at the University of Illinois and Harvard. In 1997, he became a practitioner of Falun Gong, a system involving meditation and exercises.
When Falun Gong first became popular in the 1990s, the Chinese government supported it, as a means of promoting both health and traditional Chinese culture. But when they discovered just how popular it was — 100 million were practicing Falun Gong, they found — they banned it. That was in 1999. Since then, they have been waging a merciless campaign against practitioners of Falun Gong, seizing, torturing, and killing them. Indeed, these people might be said to be bearing the brunt of PRC brutality at the moment.
Dr. Lee decided to return to China to try to assist his fellow Falun Gong practitioners. He was especially concerned with countering the government’s propaganda against the movement; this propaganda is pervasive and constant. He first went in 2002, for three weeks. He was arrested, but managed to get out. He went again in January 2003, and this time he was not so lucky.
His intention was to execute a brazen plan: to tap into government television — the only kind of television there is in China — and broadcast a 45-minute tape about Falun Gong, detailing the government’s persecution of practitioners.
On landing at the Guangzhou airport, he was arrested. Right away, he started a hunger strike, as political prisoners have long done. The police kept Dr. Lee awake for 92 consecutive hours, badgering him, denouncing Falun Gong. On March 21, 2003, he had his trial — which he describes as a “show trial,” in which he was not permitted to defend himself. Like other such figures, he insists on his legal justification: The Chinese government has violated its own constitution, and so on. After this trial, he was sent to prison in Nanjing.
There, the ordeal began in earnest, but I will be light on the details — light on them without avoiding them.
He spent 130 straight hours handcuffed — painfully handcuffed — while trying to write a letter to an appeals court. He was subjected to constant anti–Falun Gong propaganda, which attacked his most deeply held beliefs. He endured “reeducation sessions,” or “condemnation sessions.” He was not allowed to perform his Falun Gong exercises, of course, and he was constantly surrounded by other prisoners, who served as enforcers.
As a foreigner, he says, he was supposed to be kept with other foreign prisoners. But he was kept with Chinese ones, most of them drug traffickers and the like. Some of them befriended him; but then they were replaced by “more vicious ones.”
During his three-year confinement, he went on hunger strike nine times, for a total of 50 days. Prison authorities force-fed him four times. Once, they left the tube in his stomach for 33 hours, for the sole purpose of torturing him. “It was agonizing,” Dr. Lee says. One is sure he is understating it.
He tells of another forced feeding: “The scene was so violent, the cameraman fainted, right on the spot.” Excuse me, the cameraman? “Yeah, the guy who was filming it. He was just a kid, green from the police academy.” They were filming it? “Oh, yes: They filmed everything. They do this so as to piece bits of video together later, for their own purposes.”
In late 2004, they forced him to sit on a bench, staring straight ahead, into a wall, all day long. He was allowed to sleep at night, but otherwise he could not move, and had to keep staring straight ahead. They made him do this for 48 straight days. “Your body starts to rot,” Dr. Lee notes. Eventually his heart began to fail, and he had trouble breathing. They then took him to a doctor.
At other times during the three years, he was made to work in prison sweatshops. He assembled Christmas lights. “The room was small, and it was crowded with about 60 people. The temperature was over 42 degrees centigrade” (108 degrees Fahrenheit). He also made bedroom slippers with Homer Simpson’s image on them. (Homer is the father on the TV cartoon The Simpsons.) You put your foot where Homer’s mouth is.
I ask, by the way, what he thinks of people in the Free West who buy those slippers. He says, “Oh, they just want the cheapest product. But I feel that, if they knew about my situation, it would bother them.”
I ask another question: What was the worst part of those three years? “My mother,” he says. Dr. Lee’s mother was very sick, and the authorities used her against him. This is standard practice for the PRC, especially where Falun Gong prisoners are concerned: They pressure family members to urge their loved ones to repudiate Falun Gong.
When Dr. Lee’s mother was dying, his brother called the prison, asking the authorities to let Charles see her, once more. They waited a day. Then they took him to his mother’s home. She had died an hour before. Dr. Lee feels certain they knew exactly what they were doing. (His family’s home was watched all the time, as all such homes are.)
Did Charles think that he himself would die? “Yes. There was constant pressure. Constant pressure.” He says that his experience was like that of Prometheus, who had his liver eaten out, every day. “They said to me, ‘We will make living worse for you than dying.’ They were very good at mental torture,” as well as physical. “Some people mention the concept of ‘the genocide of souls’ — they kill your soul. They let you become a nobody.”
You may ask where the U.S. government was in all this — Dr. Lee was, and is, after all, a U.S. citizen. He says he had monthly visits from a consular official. The official, much of the time, would report back to Dr. Lee’s fiancée, Yeong-Ching Foo, who was in the United States. Throughout the three years, she worked tirelessly in Dr. Lee’s behalf, in the tradition of Avital Sharansky, and others. Miss Foo is with us, by the way, in this New York conference room.
Dr. Lee is grateful for the consulate’s support, and so is Miss Foo. But her gratitude is tempered by aspects of the State Department’s dealings with her. She says that they warned her not to make too much of a fuss over Dr. Lee’s imprisonment, lest his situation become worse. And to this day, they both say, the U.S. government has never said a word — a public word — about what happened to him.
Dr. Lee notes that the PRC’s leader, Hu Jintao, will visit President Bush in Washington on April 20. He says it would be nice if our president “raised the issue of Falun Gong.”
As his prison term neared its end, Dr. Lee’s treatment got better, as often happens with such prisoners: Regimes want them relatively fit and sane, when the world sees them. And Dr. Lee considers himself extremely lucky: He would have had it far worse if he had not been a U.S. citizen. Other Falun Gong prisoners have been hung from ceilings, their bodies brutalized by electric truncheons. And then there’s the fingernail torture.
Charles and Yeong-Ching will be married soon. It has not been easy, reestablishing their relationship. He has been through a lot; so has she. And what will he do with the rest of his life? “That’s a good question. I’m not sure.” But whatever he does, he says, it will involve helping his fellow Falun Gong practitioners. “They are suffering so much, and they have such lies told about them constantly.”
Would he consider going back to China, to face the state again? “Yes, I will go back, if I have the chance.” But why? Given the past three years, why on earth? “If we Falun Gong practitioners don’t help other Falun Gong practitioners, who will? We have to be the first ones who stand up.”
He says it with a conviction that brooks no further questioning.
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NR senior editor Jay Nordlinger’s new collection, a beautiful 528-page hardcover, is a must for your personal library, and also makes a great gift. We’re making Here, There & Everywhere available for the special low NRO Bookstore price of $21.95. You save $3, and shipping and handling is free. Click here to order. You can also have Jay’s signature and personal inscription, if you like. There is a box to make that request.
Here’s what Mark Steyn, Columnist to the World, has to say about Jay and his book: “Unlike most of us political pundits, Jay Nordlinger has many other strings to his bow. In fact, most of us don’t even have a bow, but Jay does: You’re as likely to find him at Bayreuth or Salzburg as at a political convention. Or at Augusta National. He has what British politicians term a ‘hinterland’ — a vast array of interests beyond politics that most normal people call ‘life.’ He writes brilliantly about music, and profoundly about golf, and very perceptively about those strange little linguistic tics that seem to pop up out of nowhere and catch the spirit of the age. For his fans, this long overdue Nordlinger reader is a virtuoso display of his rare versatility, on subjects from Rummy to Rosie, Cuba to comedy, ethnic cleansing in Iraq to ‘erotic vagrancy’ in Hollywood. He is a Jay of all trades and a master of . . . well, almost all (we have a few musical differences).”