A look at the children left behind by persecutions in China
A look at the children left behind by persecutions in China
Four-year-old Luna Huang is accompanied out of a detention center in Bangkok, Thailand, by family friends. She was arrested with her father, Guohoa Huang, during a peaceful demonstration in Thailand in protest of the Chinese Communist Party’s violence toward dissidents, the persecution that killed Luna’s mother and forced Huang and Luna to escape China. Luna’s harrowing story compelled a filmmaker to create a stop-motion-animated short film, Rag Doll, that brings viewers into this rarely-seen, real-life atrocity.
The morning four-year-old Luna Huang received a police escort from a Thai jail cell to the Bangkok airport, she wore a pink and white sleeveless smock. In the cell, before the police arrived, her father smoothed Luna’s hair into pigtails and packed their possessions into their suitcase while Luna, a bright and athletic little girl, carried on her unbroken chain of questions, articulations, and pitter-pattering.
Guohua Huang and his daughter were arrested and imprisoned for silently protesting in front of the Chinese embassy in Thailand one month earlier.
“In our new country,” Guohua told Luna, “you’ll go to school, learn English, play with other kids, and on the weekends, we’ll spend time telling people what happened to Mommy.”
Guohua couldn’t help but be optimistic: they were being granted their freedom. The only thing missing that day was the same thing that’s been missing everyday: Luna’s mother.
When they got out of the police car at the airport, Luna did a little skip. It was an unusually exciting morning for a 4-year-old and she was happy to see her father in high spirits for once.
The policeman escorting them told them “Stop here” while he radioed to find out which counter he should bring them to.
Air New Zealand. When the Huangs were arrested, they were in danger of being extradited back to China, the country they had fled from. Until one New Zealand immigration officer heard of their situation and raced back from his vacation to fast track the two U.N.-registered refugees to Auckland and to safety.
“Dad! We’ll finally have a home!” little Luna exclaimed. His little girl’s excitement at this thought brought a stabbing pain to Huang’s heart. “She had been on the run all this time, not being able to live well for a single day,” he recalled through tears.
The Huangs are escorted straight from a detention centre in Bangkok, Thailand en route to New Zealand, January 15, 2006
Guohua and Luna Huang give an interview in front of a portrait of Luo Zhixiang. Luo was Luna’s mother.
Guohua Huang and Luo Zhixiang met in 1998 in southern China at weekly meditation practices they both attended. Young and energetic, they were both in their 20s, starting out in good careers that they enjoyed. He sold stained glass windows and she was an architect. Week after week, Huang came to admire Luo’s determined spirit and realized that her delicate features belied her true strength. They fell in love and married in 2000.
The year they wed was a scary one in China. Since July 1999, the country had been under orders to seek out and turn in practitioners of the meditation style they followed, Falun Gong, to communist authorities for mental transformation. Jiang Zemin, the head of the Communist Party at the time, ordered Falun Gong to be eradicated after the number of its adherents surpassed the membership of the Communist Party. He claimed Falun Gong was “a threat to the country’s stability.”
Guohua Huang and Luo Zhixiang were married in 2000, only months after the bloody persecution of Falun Gong began. Both found life-changing benefits from Falun Gong’s meditation and moral guidelines, Huang says, and worked tirelessly to end the crackdown. On the right, Huang and Zhixiang’s daughter, Luna, is held by her paternal grandfather.
But high-level sources such as those in the following 1999 Washington Post article debunked Jiang’s claim as propaganda: “the crackdown was undertaken to demonstrate – and solidify – the power of the Chinese leadership. Jiang picked what he thought was an easy target.”
Jiang’s crackdown put the Huangs squarely into the crosshairs. The day Falun Gong was banned, all television and radio stations nationwide played the same announcement: Falun Gong is illegal; its followers are now enemies of the state. People were astonished.
But the Huangs weren’t the type to cower. And those who were familiar with the practice wondered if this was actually all one big misunderstanding. They took petitions, letters and banners to government buildings all over China. But the regime was iron-fisted. Millions were sent to detention centres, jails, and labour camps.
When, after two years of intense crackdown, Falun Gong followers still refused to renounce the practice, Jiang and his faction began subjecting them to forced organ harvesting – the killing of prisoners of conscience for their healthy organs which are then sold to transplant patients. Read about the investigation into forced organ harvesting here.
Still, they persisted. Huang and Luo were arrested together during a peaceful demonstration in Beijing. Falun Gong was, in their eyes, a path to well-being and enlightenment that hadn’t been seen in China since ancient times. Huang says it gave them a profound understanding of life and priceless benefits. They couldn’t imagine standing by while it was being slandered, nor allowing their daughter to grow up in a country without freedom of belief.
When Luna was three months old, her mother Luo was arrested again for peacefully protesting. When Luo was released, she knew that trying to contact her family or see her daughter would only put them in danger so she stayed away in order to protect them. Luna continued living with her grandparents while her parents, Huang and Luo, along with millions of others like them, fought for their freedom and an end to persecution, brutality and state-led killings by the Chinese Communist Party. During this turbulent time, Huang was also wrongfully imprisoned for protesting and thus sadly, was not able to meet his daughter until she was a year old.
The third time Luna’s mother was arrested, she was three months pregnant with a sibling for Luna and healthy. But after two weeks of torture in custody, she died tragically. An investigation into her death was never allowed.
After her mother’s funeral, 18-month-old Luna continued to live with her grandparents. But Huang knew the only safe place for him and his daughter was somewhere the Chinese Communist Party couldn’t hurt them. He fled to Thailand alone and then struggled for another year to have his daughter safely delivered to him.
At first, officials refused to release Luna’s passport. They understood the power that one child’s story could have if the world heard it. And they wanted to use Luna to lure Huang back into China. But after a flood of visitors and phone calls in support of the Huangs’ rights, authorities finally gave in. A friend took four-year-old Luna by plane to meet her father in Thailand where they registered with the United Nations as refugees.
Luo Zhixiong’s body lies in state. Her daughter, Luna, 18 months old, and Luo’s mother-in-law look on. Only three weeks earlier, Luo had been alive, healthy and pregnant with her second child. She died after being subjected to a torture regimen designed to break her of her faith.
Luna Huang kisses a photo of her deceased mother. On the right, Guohua Huang, daughter Luna and Huang’s mother pose for a family portrait, one of the last taken before Huang and Luna fled China.
To read more about the ongoing persecution of Falun Gong and the many ways people have responded to it around the world, click here.
In a rare piece of footage captured in secret in China, Huang and his sister-in-law recount their final moments with Luo, Huang’s wife who died in police custody. The NTD Television news spot also includes an interview with young Luna herself.
Luna doesn’t remember her mother or her mother’s funeral but feels the pain of her loss every day. And she’s not alone.
China’s information blockade makes it especially difficult to estimate the true number of Falun Gong practitioners who have died from torture, forced labour, and forced organ harvesting, but recent investigations have put the number at least in the hundreds of thousands.
That means thousands of children will have lost one or both parents to China’s brutal persecution since 1999. An even larger number of parents remain locked in communist brainwashing centres, prisons and detention centres for years, unable to see or provide for their families.
Falun Gong children are also themselves direct targets of China’s persecutory policies. In September, 2013, a United Nations committee examined China’s adherence to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and expressed deep concern about the children of Falun Gong practitioners having been persecuted and discriminated against.
The Immigration & Refugee Board of Canada reported on a statement by the United Nations Association of the USA that children of Falun Gong practitioners “have become direct targets of police” and that, according to its information “at least five children, as young as 8 months old, have died from police mistreatment, dozens have been incarcerated, tortured, or subjected to forced labor, and hundreds have been expelled from schools.” More than ten years after that report, the violence continues.
Huang Xinyu was only a year and a half old when her mother was killed after being arrested in Beijing while appealing for justice for Falun Gong practitioners. Less than three years later, her father was beaten to death in a detention center for refusing to renounce his faith. She’s an orphan in the photo to the right (above), and now lives with her grandparents in Fushun City.
The night Pan Zhuangzhaung’s mother and grandmother were abducted by police from their home, the 3-year-old boy was left alone. His father, already imprisoned, soon died from the effects of torture. After her wrongful arrest, the boy’s mother was sentenced to nine years in Harbin City Women’s Prison, leaving her son effectively orphaned.
As far as we know, Xinyu and Zhuangzhuang haven’t left China, which means any type of electronic contact to find out how they’re doing could put them in danger. Chinese authorities have poured millions of dollars into the surveillance of computers and mobile devices in order to track the movements of their citizens. They’ve used this system to track down Falun Gong devotees for years. Luna’s successful escape and relocation is a rare case.
Huang Xinyu, 6 years old here, lost both of her parents in China’s brutal persecution against Falun Gong. Her parents both died in police custody after being arrested for peacefully appealing for their freedom of belief.
Five-year-old Pan Zhuangzhuang’s father died after prolonged torture in custody. The little boy lived without either parent for the nine years his mother was wrongfully imprisoned for her faith.
Xinyu, Yongqiao, Luna and the thousands like them inspired Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Leon Lee to make a film about a child of Falun Gong practitioners in China who is forced to face the persecution after her mother is abducted. “Luna” is the name of the main character in Rag Doll, a stop-motion animated short.
“I wanted to open people’s eyes,” Lee said, “to what’s happening to children like Luna in a way that transcends language, culture and age. That’s why I wrote Rag Doll without dialogue and set it in a world of stop-motion animation. It’s almost like viewers are inside a child’s imagination, which is a magical place full of hope that everyone on earth can relate to.”
An illuminating story and world-class stop-motion work by Academy Award winner Martin Meunier (Coraline) and veteran animator Richard Kent Burton (Coraline, Anomalisa) make Lee hopeful the film will attract millions of viewers and inspire people to help end the persecution.
Like many others, Lee feels “these crimes against humanity have gone on too long. Building more public awareness is the first step on the road to change.”
Watch how one filmmaker brought Luna’s and other children’s stories to life onscreen in the stop motion animated short Rag Doll, a film designed to raise awareness and open the world’s eyes to the reality these persecuted children face.
At the airport, on their way to New Zealand. New Zealand authorities saved the persecuted Huangs from possible deportation back to China, with only days to spare.
Luna and Guohua were happy, and also sad, to be leaving Thailand for their new home in New Zealand. They left behind close friends they wouldn’t see again, and Guohua’s fellow protestors were still in detention for their peaceful demonstraton.
Little Luna and her dad, Guohua, saw the crowd well before they reached the Air New Zealand terminal. Around 40 people were gathered, some wearing yellow shirts and holding signs. One sign read “Thank you New Zealand for taking Huang. Thailand: Free the jailed Falun Gong practitioners.” The pair’s departure was a triumph and a painful reminder.
Little Luna had just spent the last month being looked after by a family friend while her father sat in a detention centre along with five other practitioners registered as asylum-seekers with the United Nations. He was arrested while sitting in a meditative pose, protesting outside Thailand’s Chinese embassy. The practitioners were calling for justice after a policeman in China’s Hebei province raped two female Falun Gong practitioners. Guohua’s arresting officer made it clear that Thai police didn’t want to arrest them, but that the pressure from the Chinese embassy was just too much; they felt they had no choice.
“Today, I’m happy and sad.” Back in the airport, Falun Gong spokesperson Chen Hua crystallized the moment. “I’m happy because Guohua and Luna will ultimately head for true freedom! I’m sad because they were escorted to the airport by the Thai immigration police, and deported like criminals.”
In China, “ideological enemies” are treated worse than violent and drug-related offenders: often no bail is offered, no visitors allowed, and no lawyer or court date is ever assigned. While these ideological prisoners waste away in prisons, labour camps, and detention centres, their children are usually left in one of two scenarios: either an acquaintance, friend or family member collects the child, or they become wards of the state.
There is a third scenario. When one of Guohua’s fellow practitioners was arrested in China, her infant was left at home with no one to care for it. A neighbour found its body some time later. In other instances when parents are detained, their homeless children care for themselves on the streets, which puts them at high risk of abuse.
Liu Xiaotian found himself in exactly that scenario, alone with nowhere to go, the day his parents were arrested for practicing Falun Gong. When he learned that his parents had been taken, the police were on their way to grab him, too. The young teenager became terrified and ran.
Finding his home boarded up, he hid in a neighbour’s woodshed before walking miles to his uncle’s farm. His well-meaning uncle couldn’t risk harbouring him for long — the police had already come looking for the boy — so he arranged for Liu to hide in a friend’s warehouse in Shenzhen. Liu spent 13 months alone in the dark building, terrified that if he made a sound, the police would capture him. Every day he wondered if his parents were still alive and was terribly confused about why this was all happening. Every night brought nightmares.
The first known orphan of the persecution to escape China in 2003, Liu Xiaotian recounts his terrifying 13-month-long ordeal hiding from communist authorities before escaping to Europe.
Then his uncle found the means to send Liu to England where they had relatives. But, enroute, the boy’s smuggler abandoned him at a train station in Denmark. When Liu was found by Danish aide workers, they had trouble convincing him that he was no longer in danger of persecution and began the long process of recovering Liu’s mental health after his extreme isolation.
Liu is the first known child of the persecution to make it out of China, in 2003. Two years later, when it was deemed safe enough to contact his uncle, Liu learned that his parents had been killed in custody while he was still in China. His uncle hadn’t had the heart to tell him. Liu became a Danish citizen and found freedom in the end, but everyday he thinks about those who didn’t.
Rag Doll director Leon Lee sympathizes with Liu’s story and is glad things improved for him.
“I’ve come across two cases of 16-year-olds who were put into Chinese labour camps for their beliefs,” the filmmaker says. “I thought about how heartbreaking and easy it would be for someone like Liu, Luna or Xinyu to end up in a place like that, forced to assemble products against their will for inhumane numbers of hours. Labour camps are where prisoners of conscience face some of the worst torture, sexual abuse and highest rates of death.”
An ex-detainee who escaped China came across a European website that sells dolls she was forced to assemble in a Chinese labour camp. The real-life disparity between the doll’s sweet countenance and their horrific origins, as well as the accounts of teenagers held in forced labour camps, becomes a heartbreaking story point in Lee’s film Rag Doll.
These rag dolls might look cute, but a former Chinese labour camp detainee says she and hundreds of other dissidents were forced to assemble them by hand under inhumane conditions. This little-known rift in the fabric of reality — toys that brought pain and torture to their makers are marketed to bring joy to children — is explored onscreen in Leon Lee’s film Rag Doll.
After her father died from torture in custody, 16-year-old Xu and her mother, Chi Lihua, were fortunate enough to escape China and now live in the United States. Hear Xu’s whole story in the video below.
Liu, Xu and Luna are some of the rare child survivors who managed to escape from China. All three lost parents in the persecution, but are thriving in spite of everything. The vision that Guohua Huang shared with his daughter the day they left Thailand came true. Today, 15-year-old Luna excels in school, has become an English speaker, made lifelong friends in New Zealand, and she and her father work constantly to expose the persecution that killed the most important woman in their life.
Living without her is painful. Reminders are everywhere. When Luna sees her friends with their mothers and how close they are, the feeling of loss in her heart reaches flood levels.
“I didn’t have that relationship and I always wanted it.”
Through the years, on days when Luna’s grief overwhelmed her, she would go to her room where her father had hung a portrait of Luo on the wall.
“I would just stare at it for a few hours until I’m not that sad any more. I would always think ‘Why were you killed? That’s just so unfair, there’s just no good reason for why you were killed. And I really wish that she was still alive because she’s my mother and my father’s wife.’”
Luna says that growing up without her mom was “lonely because my dad had the job of both a mother and a father. He had to work and he also had to take care of me. I would be at home by myself so I had to be very individual and I had to cook for myself and clean and do all those things. It was quite stressful and frustrating especially since my father had a lot of pressure on him.”
The thing she’d most like to say to her mother if she could is that “‘father has worked really, really hard and I’m really proud of him. Thank you, Mom, for giving birth to me even though you were being persecuted at that time and you were beaten while you were still pregnant with me.’ She still protected me no matter what and I’m really thankful.”
Each week, Luna and her father practice the same meditation exercises that brought Huang and Luo together in 1998. Though they love living in the West as citizens of New Zealand, they look forward to the day they can return to a free China. But realizing that dream is an uphill battle. The Chinese regime’s dehumanizing propaganda about Falun Gong is still prevalent and persuasive.
“When I’m passing out flyers or trying to get people to sign the petitions, sometimes they will snarl at me, shout at me, tell me I’m insane, these things don’t exist.”
But Luna doesn’t let it deter her. “Because even if I get discriminated against, this still needs to be stopped. Even if a few people yell at me, that won’t stop me from helping and stopping what caused my mother’s death.”
The little girl who lost her mother, fled to Thailand, then to New Zealand, and inspired a film about children of the persecution, is bringing inspiration to people around the world. Hear Luna’s resolve and optimism first-hand.
Getting a definitive answer about how China’s persecuted children are faring is an impossible task. In addition to spreading misinformation, China’s regime carefully manages its national and international image with a Great Firewall to block the flow of information into and around the country. That’s one reason why Chinese people themselves aren’t clear on the facts. But thousands of human rights activists have been hard at work to expose the truth for almost two decades, and hope has never been stronger than it is today.
On June 1, 2016, young cyclists from around the world embarked on a 3,000 mile journey to raise awareness for and rescue five orphans in China targeted for persecution because they practice Falun Gong. They cycled and rallied their way across the United States, meeting with supporters at every stop. Starting in Los Angeles, they rode over 3,000 miles in 45 days and passed through 19 cities before reaching Washington D.C. for a special hurrah with national leaders. From there, the team traveled to New York City and addressed the UN General Assembly about the plight of Falun Gong children in China.
Like those cyclists, each of the young survivors we interviewed, Luna, Xiaotian and Xu, exhibited inspiring resilience and strength. We hope, with your help, their moving sentiments will break through ignorance, apathy and misinformation and shed light on these too-often overlooked events. The first step to creating change is to create awareness.
“Rag Doll is a heart-wrenching story that represents the cold truth faced by many children in China. I feel a deep sense of kinship with the main character because we both lost someone so important and irreplaceable, our mothers, to the gruesome persecution. I want to tell those children like me without parents in China to endure a little longer and be a good person. I also hope that the policemen in China would stop persecuting Falun Gong practitioners. Don’t make more children suffer the loss of a mother.” – Luna Huang
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