Falun Gong practitioners meditate in protest outside the United Nations building in New York City early Wednesday afternoon. They peacefully protest the Chinese government’s persecution and alleged harvesting of organs from its followers. Photo by Justin Hicks
East 47th street between 2nd and 1st avenue was besieged by green, white and red flags with deafening screams of “Free Iran” permeating the air while smaller, similarly passionate groups denounced the leaders of Zimbabwe and Turkey with guitars and brightly emblazoned signs.
In stark contrast amid the colorful flags and posters of political candidates, about 50 mostly Chinese men and women in yellow t-shirts silently meditated with eyes closed and hands folded in prayer-like poses as almost inaudible Chinese music lilted from a few small speakers.
Wednesday morning, in sight of the United Nations building, practitioners of a controversial Chinese religion named Falun Gong (or sometimes, Falun Dafa) quietly protested the Chinese government’s persecution and the alleged organ harvesting of its practitioners since its criminalization in 1999.
“It’s a peaceful protest,” Victoria Bondar, a 50-year-old protester from New Jersey, said. “We worry deeply about our fellow practitioners who have been killed and (had their) organ harvested. I feel terrible, horrible.”
One of their primary obstacles has to do with labeling. The Chinese government, their most vehement opponent, labels them prominently as an “anti-society cult,” but their supporters can’t seem to decide how to categorize their organization. Unlike religion, there is no deity, and unlike most cults, their Nobel Peace prize-nominated founder, Li Hongzhi, is largely absent. They call themselves a “self-cultivation practice.”
Even the benefits of Falun Gong vary by individual, ranging from the miraculous healing of chronic diseases like cancer to simply having a clear mind. But no matter what they believe, all practitioners meditate and adhere to the group’s core tenets of truth, compassion and forbearance.
“You have to follow these three principles to be good people,” Jane Dai, a Falun Gong practitioner and former resident of Guangzhou, China said. “Even though we face this brutal persecution, we are still peacefully resisting.”
Chinese police arrested Dai’s husband, Cheng Yong Chen, after he delivered a letter to government officials in Shanghai defending what he believed to be the medical and social benefits of the movement. When his plane landed back in the city of Gaungzhou, police were waiting for him. Thy jailed him and took his older sister, also a Falun Gong follower, to a labor camp where she spent the next two years. Dai and her family never saw Chen again.
“In China (there are) thousands and thousands of families like us,” she said. “[They] don’t have a chance to speak out, and their voices, nobody hears.”
Ms. Hsu, a 65-year-old protestor for Falun Gong, personally experienced persecution when she was 14 years old. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, she was barred from school and her mother from work. She did not want her full name used because of fear of retribution.
“My father was [a] captain in China,” Hsu said. “He was coming from Hong Kong back to China and lost his position, lost his money, [and the government] stopped payment to him [for] over 13 years.
The Chinese government outlawed the practice of Falun Gong to “protect human rights and the interests of the public,” according to the Chinese Embassy’s website. The site claims that mentally ill practitioners killed over 30 people and that the organization “exercises extreme mental manipulation on followers.”
“My personal understanding is that Jiang Zemin [was] jealous,” Hsu said. “The principles [are] so different from the Communist party. They like power; they like killing.”
Despite China’s stance, other countries and human rights groups have publicly denounced the government’s actions.
The United States House of Representatives passed a resolution in June 2016 which “demands an immediate end to the 16-year persecution of the Falun Gong spiritual practice,” while simultaneously condemning the practice of transplanting the organs of “non-consenting prisoners.” The Humans Rights Watch 2017 World Report also acknowledges that Falun Gong “continues to suffer state persecution,” in its review of Chinese abuses.
With issues like North Korea and the Iran nuclear agreement looming large in the minds of most United Nations delegates this year, it seems unlikely that the Falun Gong will be discussed. But the protesters will wait patiently and peacefully.
“We just hope that people will know the truth,” Dai said. “That’s why we are here. And you can see we are very peaceful, just doing the exercises.”
Agan is a small town located in Northwestern China, close to Gansu Province’s capital city, Lanzhou. For almost 600 hundred years, the town was rich because of its abundance of coal. But by 2000, after years of exploiting this resource, there was no more coal and the town went bankrupt. Thousands of people lost their jobs. Fifteen years later Agan is little more than a ghost town—young people have moved out, leaving behind their children with their old parents; the coal mine is abandoned and people are living in extreme poverty. This documentary navigates the living conditions of the remaining town residents.
Zishun Ning, a senior cinema studies major in Tisch School of the Arts at New York University from Guangdong Province in China, came to the U.S. two and a half years ago for the sole purpose of landing a job in the U.S. when he finished college.
But unlike domestic graduates, the 7,000 international students at NYU face much bigger challenges than securing a job here after graduating. They have to deal with restrictive visa requirements and limited jobs opportunities because of their limited visa status.
“I want to find a job here after graduation,” said Ning. “However, it’s not easy because not many companies are willing to offer working visas to international students and there is only a limited amount of visas being offered each year.”
Paula Lee, director of the Wasserman Center for Career Development at New York University, said because hiring international students is costly and time-consuming, it is less likely for companies with limited resources to hire international students.
“You might have to pay a few thousand but if I am a small organization, I might not have the finances to pay to hire international students,” she said.
After graduation, international students like Ning, have one year to work in the U.S. under the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, as long as their profession is related to their field of study. But, they must obtain a HIB visa to be able to work in the U.S. for a longer time before the program expires.
The H1B visa is a non-immigrant visa for foreigners to work in the U.S. for three years and can be extended for another three years at the discretion of the employer. If an employer decides to hire an international student, they must apply to the government for the visa on behalf of the student. When the H1B visa expires, a student must apply for another kind of visa or green card to retain legal status in the U.S. H1B visa holders are eligible to apply for green cards and to become citizens while still holding a H1B visa.
Ning said he wanted to start his career as a production assistant in the film industry to gain some working experience. Currently an intern at Deep Dish TV, Ning is worried he might not be able to get a job with an H1B sponsor visa before the program ends.
“The economy is bad,” said Ning.
Bangzheng He, a second year graduate student from Sichuan Province in China and a mathematics major at NYU, said he was not optimistic about the employment future in the U.S. for international students.
“I know some friends of mine, who are working right now under the OPT,” said He. “But the companies are not sponsoring them H1B so they probably have to leave and find another job which could sponsor them.”
Renjie Xie, a second year grad student from Shanghai, China, and a mathematics major, said the only way of securing a job in the states is by working hard and maintaining a positive attitude.
“When you are under OPT, you have to do as much as you can and do everything they want you to do,” said Xie. “My friend told me that it’s still a tough time, you can’t show your emotions, or lose your temper.”
According to the Open Doors report, which was published by the Institute of International Education in partnership with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the most popular majors for international students are business and management, which accounts for 22 percent of international students area of study, engineering (19 percent), mathematics and computer science (9 percent), physical and life sciences (9 percent), fine & applied arts (5 percent), and health professions (5 percent).
With one third of his classmates from outside the U.S.,He agreed that different course of study played a role in the employment situation.
“From what I heard, your major really matters,” said Bangzheng He. “Employers want to find the right people for the job.”
Ning said even though he wanted to apply for a green card and hoped to live the “American dream” — something that his parents and relatives expected him to do, he has learned that the process of making that dream come true is hard.
“I feel some pressure from my parents and relatives,” said Ning. “They wanted me to stay here for a few years. For them and for me, it was a waste of time if I went back to China with no working experience. In that case, they would say, ‘Why didn’t you just go to college in China?’”
Compared to Ning’s “American Dream,” Xie said he had a “Chinese Dream,” which was going back to China to build his career back home if staying in the U.S. didn’t work out.
“My parents and relatives asked me to find a job in the U.S. and stay here,” said Xie. “But for me, I don’t think that’s something I have to do because I think as long as there is an opportunity out there, I will go for it no matter where it is.”
Having been in the U.S. for five years, Xie said he has started looking at job postings from websites from big firms like Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch to smaller investment banks.
Lee also encouraged international students not to turn down potential opportunities that might exist in their home country.
“We say to international students that you need to be realistic, because not all international students will find a job in the U.S.,” Lee said. “You need to prepare and figure out what is the deadline, what is your plan B, and what is your strategy if your first choice does not work out.”
“I am not that against going back to China,” said He. “China is doing pretty well and there are also a lot of companies and good opportunities in China. So I can always work back home.”
Orla Lin, 35, a pharmacy assistant at Get Well Pharmacy in the Chinatown in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, immigrated to the U.S. 14 years ago from China’s Fujian Province. Lin, whose daily responsibilities include helping her mostly Chinese-American customers get their medications, said she planned to vote for President Obama because he had a more diplomatic approach with regard to U.S-China relations.
“Obama just looked differently from Mitt Romney when talking about issues on China,” said Lin. “I am confident Obama will maintain a good relationship with China as long as he wears the pants.”
Lin is representative of the support President Obama commands over his rival, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, among Chinese-American voters. According to a 2012 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 49 percent of Chinese-Americans identify as Democrats, compared to 26 percent who identify as Republicans. A telephone survey conducted by Lake Research Partners in April showed 59 percent of Asian-Americans planned to vote for Obama compared with 13 percent for Romney. This stark contrast is likely due to key differences between the candidates’ stances on immigration and diplomatic relations with China.
“I think Obama will continue to benefit the relationship with China if he is reelected,” said Sam Gao, 34, a first-generation Chinese-American immigrant working for Health Plus Amerigroup Real Solutions in Brooklyn. “I am not sure about Mitt Romney.”
Unlike Romney’s tough approach to China, Obama tried to maintain positive relations with China since he took office in 2008. At the G-20 Summit in April of 2009, President Obama announced the establishment of the “U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue,” which focused on cooperation with China in a wide range of areas including economy, trade, counterterrorism, science and technology, education and culture.
According to a White House press release, President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao agreed that “the United States and China have a need to work together, as well as with other countries, to promote the smooth functioning of the international financial system and the steady growth of the world economy.”
In a state visit to China in 2011, President Obama stated that he “welcomed China’s rise,” adding that “China’s peaceful rise is good for the world, and its’ good for America” — a viewpoint strongly disagreed by Mitt Romney.
In stark contrast, Mitt Romney accused China of stealing jobs from the U.S. and consequently, President Obama, for failing to be tough on China in a 30-second campaign ad.
“If you weren’t satisfied with the economic cooperation with China, you shouldn’t have anything with us,” said Fay Liu, 18, a second generation Chinese-American and student at Kingsborough Community College.
Liu expressed her dissatisfaction with Romney regarding what he called China a “currency manipulator” in the final debate on foreign policy and his hardball strategy with China, citing her dissatisfaction as a reason for the voting decision.
“I was not happy about it,” said Liu. “And a lot of Asian friends of mine criticized him for that.”
Junqiang Wu, 25, a Chinese-American living in Brooklyn, NYC, said one of the main reasons he supports Obama is because of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a memorandum issued by the President to allow U.S. immigration law enforcement prosecutors to practice prosecutorial discretion when charging individuals who came to the U.S. illegally as small children. He believed this policy would allow a large number of undocumented Chinese immigrants to stay in the U.S.
“His immigration policy benefited Chinese immigrants who came here without paper documents,” said Wu. “But now, they can stay here, have the chance to find a job, or even become a citizen.”
Working as a legal assistant for the Law Office of Giacchino J. Russo & Associates, Wu is concerned that Romney would repeal it if he took office.
“I will not vote for Mitt Romney,” said Wu. “What if he changed the policy to something that was harmful to Chinese immigrants?”
Zhiluan Yu, 30, a Chinese-American who supported President Obama, said he was satisfied with the past four years under the Obama administration.
Having been in the U.S. for ten years, Yu now owns a 99 cents store with his wife in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, both of whom came from Fujian Province in China for the “American Dream.”
“Now, I just need to enjoy my life with contentment,” said Yu. “I don’t want things to change backwards after the election.”