Ma'ariv Featured Article (A Weekend Magazine of Israel): To a Chinese Prison and Back (Excerpted)
30 November 2001
36 practitioners from all over the world, among them an Israeli, Leeshai Lemish, succeeded in demonstrating on behalf of the rights of Falun Gong in the heart of China.
Lemish decided to travel to the ill-famed Tiananmen Square in order to participate in meditation protest, even though he knew that in doing so he risked his life or could possibly disappear in the labyrinth of a Chinese Prison. Initially his parents tried to dissuade him from doing so, but quickly they began to assist him to prepare for the complicated operation. Leeshai was arrested and abused by the Chinese authorities.
At ten minutes before two in the afternoon on 20 November, Leeshai Lemish, together with a co-practitioner, approached the appointed meeting place in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the capital of China, where 12 years ago tens of students were killed during protests against the government [note: Democratic student movement for reform and anti-corruption]. 36 practitioners from all over the world, many of whom had never met one another and knew that they were to meet in the square. All shared the Chinese meditation practice of Falun Gong through which they develop their bodies and minds, a practice outlawed by Chinese authorities two years ago.
Without speaking they aligned themselves in rows and then sat down in the lotus position in order to begin one of the Falun Gong meditation exercises--an act that could cost them their lives or long years of imprisonment in a Chinese prison.
Many visitors in the Square gathered around and watched as some of the practitioners unfurled a large banner on which was written "Truth, Compassion, Tolerance". The tourists seem to understand that this incident was not likely to end peacefully as several hundred meters away were the buildings of the Chinese government. As usual, there were many black uniformed policemen in the Square, and they assumed there were many more plain-clothes police there too, as according to rumors there are as many as four undercover police for every tourist. Suddenly the Square was no longer quiet. Police began arriving from every direction and police cars stopped next to the practitioners. While all this was going on around them, the 36 continued to sit in the lotus position in total silence with their eyes shut.
The practitioners had planned to meditate in the Square for ten minutes, to disband quickly and to return home. But after three minutes they were being dragged forcefully to the waiting police cars.
From Baseball to a Chinese Prison
Leeshai Lemish, a 23-year-old Israeli who has been studying at Pomona College in California for the last year, came to Falun Gong through sports. "This all started when I was playing baseball for the Israel National Team. I was looking for ways to improve and noticed the influence of my thinking on my game. I was amazed to see the influence of the mind on the game. Soon after I read about a teacher of meditation who works with athletes. From him I learned that there is much more to our inner selves than success in baseball; it is about life itself and our understanding of our lives. I began practicing all kinds of meditation -- Yoga, Zen, Tai Chi, Visual Imaging, Vipasanna, among others.
"One day on my way to Tai Chi practice in Yarkon Park I stopped at a table with materials about Falun Gong and began speaking with Chang, a practitioner from China living in Israel. I quickly found that this is what I had been seeking, particularly the principles not included in other approaches about spiritual and physical self-improvement. I began to practice the exercises, to listen to video taped lectures and I was impressed by the strength of the work.
"When I came to America to study I found someone nearby with whom to practice. We passed out flyers inviting others to join us, and each day new persons came to learn about the exercises. It was then that I learned about the persecution of practitioners in China. I was really touched by their stories and plight and decided that I must do something to assist them. At first we did simple things like pass out flyers. Then we met with mayors and members of city councils in order to inform them of the activities of the Chinese consular staff in the States who follow our activities, harass practitioners and persecute family members still living in China.
"Last summer I helped organize an event in front of the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco. There, for each hour during 12 days, a different practitioner sat in protest of the death of one of the 317 Chinese practitioners whom we knew have been killed by the Chinese authorities for practicing Falun Gong meditation exercises.
".... I heard that practitioners all over the world were getting organized to go to Tiananmen Square. This is the heart of China where thousands of tourists visit each day. Since Falun Gong was outlawed in China two years ago, practitioners have been coming there from all over China to protest. Some have walked by foot for thousands of kilometers in order to stand in the middle of the Square in protest and to call out "Stop persecuting us", until they are arrested. So when I heard that there were others who wanted to go to the Square, I knew what they wanted to do."
"I began preparing myself a few weeks in advance. I tried to keep a clear mind, not submit to distracting thoughts and fears, and not dwell on questions such as 'what could happen?' Once one overcomes fear, its source doesn't exist anymore.
"We wanted the Chinese people to know that Falun Gong is being practiced all over the world and that persecution is not acceptable. We wanted the Chinese people to know that practitioners from all over the world have come to help and to explain that the government is lying to them."
Parents Join In
Leeshai's parents - Dr. Dafna Lemish, Chair of the Department of Communication at Tel Aviv University, and Dr. Peter Lemish - sought to dissuade him from taking part.
"As the details became known to us, naturally we sought to persuade him through rational arguments not to risk so much. We feared for his life, and told him that he was going to participate in a protest against a dictatorship that tortures and kills. We asked him if he didn't have fears about what could happen? For example, entrapment by placing drugs in his suitcase and then sending him to years of hard labor. There is evidence that the dictatorship in China has not only done things like this, but has pushed Falun Gong practitioners out of windows claiming that they have committed suicide.
"We argued that he was being na ve, and he responded by saying that they did not believe that with the Olympics approaching the Chinese authorities would do anything that would damage their international image, that their strength was in the fact that participants would be coming from many different countries, thus involving many embassies, and that media representatives from all over the world would be involved. And, the media did play an important role in the process. Falun Gong practitioners trusted that the worldwide media would be favorable, document the events, and give it wide exposure and that the pictures of their arrest would prevent the Chinese authorities from imprisoning them. For this reason, Dr. Lemish prepared a plan of action. "I tried other arguments, for example that the Falun Dafa Movement and humanity would be better served if he continued to be active in California and not wasting away in a Chinese prison. This didn't do any good either.
"None of our arguments were effective and I became convinced that not only would we not succeed in dissuading him, but that I did not have moral grounds to do so, especially after he said at one point: "Mother, imagine what the world would be like if Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi had given in to their parents' fears? I had to admit that I had no response to this argument.
"Certainly as a mother one doesn't want to think of her son in danger, but as a humanist, what could I possibly say to him? It is true that there would be no change without the courageous acts of those willing to risk their lives. He also told me, 'this is how you raised me." And, he is right. He grew up in an activist family aware of social events. From an early age he participated with us in protests in Israel and in the United States. So I can't possibly say to him these are one kind of actions, but when the real crunch comes listen to your mother and father who fear for your life. "Leeshai grew up in such a family and internalized our values. When I realized that I could not dissuade him and that he was prepared to be hit and sustain other forms of violence, I began to think about how to help reduce the dangers, how to get organized."
Operations Center in the University
"We decided that what we should do when his arrest became known to us was to let the media know immediately. This would make it all the harder for the Chinese authorities to hide him. Therefore I made a list of persons to call -- embassies, the emergency number at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, media persons, persons who know persons, etc."
"And as soon as we heard, I acted just as we planned. I didn't panic or let myself think for a moment about what could happen. I guess that in our last conversation with him, when we told him once again how proud we are and strong we are in our support of him, it was as if we were also strengthening ourselves. From the moment that we accepted the fact that he was going, I knew that I had to have total faith in him."
Early on Tuesday morning, about half an hour before the scheduled time in China, Dr. Lemish arrived at her office and put a "do not disturb" sign on the door. About ten minutes before her son was to start his meditation in China, she sought to be with Leeshai in his way. "I said to myself, what you should do now is to sit quietly, to concentrate and to think positive thoughts. I must admit that I tried, but didn't have patience. I called Peter who was working in England during these events. We strengthened one another and hoped for the best. And then I tried to work."
"About an hour and a half later I received a call from his girlfriend in the States. Leeshai called her from the jail to let us know that he had been arrested and was OK. Immediately I called Peter and we started to act. I said to myself, OK -- action time, and I began to follow the plans that we had prepared. Though I was thrust into this against my will, I was there and had to act to do everything possible to obtain his release, because to sit around, to do nothing or to cry would not help anyone.
"My first call was to the Emergency Office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They told me that if Leeshai entered China on his American passport then the United States would be responsible for him, and that perhaps this was better since they [the Americans] were a group and it would be easier to help attain a group's release. Peter was in contact with the American Consul in Beijing who told him that they were following the situation and explained that they could keep them for up to four days without allowing those arrested to speak with embassy officials. This was very difficult. We knew that he had been arrested and that no one had or might see him in the near future. I didn't have any idea how long this would continue, if he was safe, under what conditions he was being held. I prepared myself for the possibility that it would take a long time."
The telephones did not stop ringing in the Operations Center she set up in her university office, as calls came in from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the American Embassy, news desks of the newspapers and radio stations, internet sites, Peter from England, her son's girlfriend in the United States.
"At one point rumors were appearing that Radio China had reported that they had been arrested and were to be expelled. What most bothered us was that the Falun Gong site reported that 36 persons had been arrested but the Chinese reported 35 persons. We worried about the missing person. Actually there were all kinds of numbers and reports on various sites on the net. No one really knew what was going on and everyone was quoting one another. This went on for 24 hours. We imagined all kinds of things happening, but knew that since he was determined not to sign any declarations, that this might be the act that would send him to prison.
Leeshai: "During lunch I began to feel all kinds of fears, but I confronted them and started to settle myself down and gain inner quiet. I reminded myself of why we had come--to help others. This helped me to focus on their plight, not my own. After lunch we walked to the Square, found ourselves seats on the side and waited. Time passed by slowly and it was hard to prevent the butterflies from returning to my stomach. At ten minutes to two we started walking to the appointed spot. We saw some of them from a distance and knew that we would not be alone. It was reassuring to see people from all over the world, most of whom did not know one another, united in the mission we had come to fulfill. We met and shook hands. Then we simply sat down on the ground. We saw there were many people around us and they were all watching.
"We saw that some of the police were suspicious of what we were doing. I saw police cars approaching. We said "start" and took off our shoes. A banner was unfurled in back of us. We placed our right hand in front of our chests pointing to the sky -- in an ancient sign associated in China now with the fight for human rights.
"I closed my eyes. I heard the police sirens, the shrieking of tires, doors opened and closed, the racing steps of the police. I closed my eyes because I did not think I was doing anything wrong and I said to myself to remain there for as long as I could. I heard running all around me, felt myself smiling inside and I thought to myself -- here I am sitting in Tiananmen Square with 35 other practitioners from all over the world to bring our message to the Chinese and to citizens the world over. We all concentrated, were quiet and giving support to one another. Even though I was in the place where others have been murdered, I was tranquil.
"There was a lot of noise and confusion. Then I felt several hands on me. I didn't resist but I concentrated on pulling my weight to the ground. They pulled my right hand away, but I was able to return it easily, again to the human rights sign. I said to myself I am staying here, I am heavy, they cannot raise me. I did feel heavy but then suddenly I felt fear and at that moment they succeeded in raising me, causing me to stand up and then they dragged me to the car. As they did so, I shouted "Falun Dafa is good" over and over until they put me into the police car".
Beatings and Going Home
At the police station the practitioners were able in all the confusion to use their mobile phones and let the world know that they had been arrested. In the initial questioning they sought to explain that their actions were of good intention, but some were hit when they refused to sign statements written in Chinese.
One of the policemen grabbed Leeshai, hit him and shouted at him in Chinese. "I told him that I knew only a little Chinese and that I did not understand. He got angry, stood in front of me, cursed and shouted in English -- 'you came here to make trouble, respect me'. He hit me hard in the face and I said to him: 'why are doing that?" I repeated other sentences that I knew in Chinese. He went totally crazy, pushed me up against the wall and kneed me between the legs. He began to ask me questions, but I refused to give him information about the others or to speak poorly about Falun Gong".
At 23:45 the next night Leeshai arrived in Vancouver, barefooted - his shoes left in the Square when he was arrested -- hungry and tired. He called his mother and in a strong voice filled with happiness, he said -- "I am OK, it is over."
Don't Want to be a Weeping Mother
Leeshai and his mother came away from these events with different conclusions. It is not every day that a media researcher finds herself as one of the actors in an evolving media event, in the role forced upon her as the mother of a hero who has been innocently arrested and abused. This event will certainly provide her much professional material, for example for her research seminar on the image of women in the Israeli media.
"I learned a lot about myself in this event, about my son, about Falun Dafa.
In addition to this I found myself forced to be a spokesperson for Falun Gong. I began reading in order to speak intelligently, and I began to understand more and more. I cannot claim to practice the exercises, but I think all of this has influenced me. I do think of myself as a rational person, who works in the seat of rationality -- the university. Yet, we also know that science does not have all the answers to our many questions.
"When I hear about the experiences they had in the prison and how they influenced the soldiers guarding them, how they sustained physical blows and didn't feel pain, it causes me to question what we really know about the spiritual side of our lives. What do we really understand about all of this? I can't really dismiss it. For a long time I feared that we were being led into something to which we couldn't connect, that we would lose Leeshai, but in the meantime I only see positive things. Falun Gong has no guru, no money is being made on the side, there are no rituals, no religious ceremonies. I looked everywhere to find faults, but have yet to find any.
For his part, Leeshai believes that they achieved their goal. Millions of people heard the message that the world should not be silent in the face of Chinese persecution of Falun Gong.
"There is no rational reason to beat someone who sits in a public place under the banner 'Truth, Compassion, Tolerance'. How many people knew about Falun Gong a few weeks ago, and that it is simply a form of meditation? Many people now know what has been going on, and that is a change in consciousness that we have contributed. I believe that this will lead many people to step forward, to give witness to what we know is going on, to support efforts to tell the truth about human rights violations. That is what we sought to do, we risked our lives to bring forth these messages.
"..... as for the question about why an Israeli citizen should risk his life for human rights in China, he seemed to be prepared and answered quickly: "There are many things that are wrong in our world and I invest much of my time in many of them. But I think that the situation in China is special because there are two clear opposing forces -- a quiet group of people who seek peace, tranquility and to be good; and their total opposite. I decided to act because I have not found such dramatic opposites in any other conflicts. I practice Falun Dafa and it has changed my life dramatically. I am thankful that I have had the opportunity to act on its behalf. I wanted to contribute because I cannot imagine people being murdered today simply because they want to be better persons."
[Note: Both of Leeshai's parents are non-practitioners. Leeshai's father translated this article from Hebrew into English.]
Category: Falun Dafa in the Media