Surviving For A Reason
By Amber Williams
Crystal Chen’s soft voice echoed through the Senate chamber as she recounted nightmares of persecution by her own government for her religious beliefs.
In the prime of her 20s, Chen was sentenced to four and a half years of forced labor and torture in China.
“I was pinned to the concrete floor and force-fed an all-salt mixture which nearly killed me,” Chen said.
The room filled with lawmakers was silent.
“Some guards handcuffed me to a radiator pipe,” she continued. “I was left there for three days while a police chief groped my body.”
“My mother,” she said, “was arrested and then tortured to death.”
Another victim of persecution handed Chen a tissue.
“Thank you,” she said as state lawmakers sat speechless across the table.
Chen was among a group of victims of political and religious persecution who testified before the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services in support of Senate Bill 1040.
The legislation introduced in the 88th session of the Texas Legislature by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, would prohibit health insurance companies and other benefit plans from covering organ transplant procedures in which the organs come from a country known to engage in forced organ harvesting — namely China.
Chen is a practitioner of Falun Gong, a spiritual belief rooted in moral philosophy, meditation and gentle exercises. First introduced in the 1990s, the practice attracted 70 to 100 million followers in China by the end of the decade according to Freedom House, a human rights nonprofit. As Falun Gong gained traction, the Chinese government cracked down. In 1999, the government banned the practice, labeled it an “evil cult,” and began arresting adherents.
The Chinese government says it took these actions “to protect the human rights and fundamental freedom of the citizens and maintain public order.” However, Freedom House researchers cite the government’s fear of losing allegiance from practitioners as a more probable motivation behind the persecution.
Under the capitol dome, Chen found herself free to speak of Falun Gong and her fellow Texans who follow it.
“Today, many Falun Gong practitioners from Texas, including survivors of the persecution, are here to support the bill,” Chen told lawmakers as she motioned to a group of onlooking practitioners who quietly rose in unison.
Forced organ harvesting has threatened Chen and many other practitioners of Falun Gong.
Chen said during her imprisonment she was subject to blood tests used to determine if her organs were suited to be forcibly removed and sold.
“Had my blood type and tissue type been a match for an organ recipient,” she said through sniffles, “I would not be able to be here today.”
While the Chinese government has publicly denied accusations of forced organ harvesting, some doctors disagree.
One recent study co-authored by Jacob Lavee, a surgeon who founded the heart transplant unit at the Sheba Medical Center, found evidence of forced organ harvesting. Out of almost 3000 transplant publications by Chinese scientists, 71 showed “problematic declaration of brain death during organ procurement.”
According to transplant ethics, a donor must be formally pronounced dead before their organs can be removed. This adherence was not found in the 71 studies.
“In these cases,” the report concluded, “the removal of the heart during organ procurement must have been the proximate cause of the donor’s death.”
But the study is just one piece of a bigger puzzle revealing forced organ harvesting in China.
“We have thousands of little pieces of evidence,” said Torsten Trey, a medical doctor who founded the nonprofit Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting. “Maybe 100 pieces are missing, but I can see the picture.”
According to Dr. Trey, such additional puzzle pieces include irregular numbers of Chinese government-reported organ transplants, impossibly short wait times for transplant candidates and hundreds of testimonies from practitioners like Chen.
Although Chen’s practice of Falun Gong resulted in her persecution, it also brought her strength and hope.
Chen first learned of Falun Gong a few years before it was banned when her mother, laying half paralyzed from cancer in a hospital bed, insisted Chen bring her a book about the spiritual practice. Her mother then quit all medications, left the hospital and adopted Falun Gong’s spiritual and meditative practices. Eight months later, she walked again, cancer free.
“This is the real deal,” Chen said, describing her strengthened belief in Falun Gong following what she considered a miracle.
As Chen read the book for herself, she resonated with the core pillars of the spiritual belief: truthfulness, compassion, tolerance. Having grown up under an atheist government, she felt spiritually awakened learning about this practice.
By the time of her arrest in 1999, Chen was a firm believer in Falun Gong. Such a connection to her spirituality gave her strength through the horrors of torture.
When the guards forced burning salt into Chen’s mouth, she could not breathe. She thought she was dying.
But at that moment, Chen prayed for divine help.
“I am a Falun Gong practitioner,” Chen said, recalling her prayer. “I won’t give up my belief. I know I am doing a good thing.”
She finished with a simple request, “just help me.”
One of the guards pinning her body fainted onto the floor.
The chief police called off the torture.
Chen said her first-hand encounters with these spiritual miracles enabled her to stay true to her practice of Falun Gong even while facing “pure evil.”
“You will have the courage,” Chen said. “That is the power of your spiritual belief.”
Chen also credits divine power for guiding her to escape China when she was temporarily released from custody due to a potentially terminal heart condition.
The government’s plan was simple: wait for Chen to die at home or take her back if she recovered.
But Chen had a different plan. Seizing the opportunity, she slipped out of her house, bought a map and fled the country. She lived in Thailand for several years where she was granted refugee status before finally settling in the United States.
Although free now, Chen worries for those left behind.
“I was the lucky one to escape,” said Chen. “But what about (the) thousands and millions of them still being persecuted in China today?”
Freedom House researchers estimate 7 to 10 million people still practice Falun Gong in China. But this number is not known due to censorship caused by the repressive regime.
Since coming to America, Chen has worked with journalists, documentarians and lawmakers to illuminate the ongoing persecution through her own testimony.
“Let me thank you for your courage in coming out and speaking out,” Kolkhorst said to Chen and other witnesses. “I don’t think that most people in America could even imagine.”
“Her story is really sad,” said Zoe Wu, a Falun Gong practitioner who attended the hearing. But Wu said many more sad stories continue in China.
Chen said she believes there is a higher purpose to her mission of sharing her past at a time when many still face the horrors she once endured.
“I survived for a reason,” Chen said. “My story needs to be told.”