It was April 1999 when Wang Yifei decided to look deeper into Falun Gong, the spiritual discipline practiced by her parents and tens of millions of other Chinese at the time. Working as a journalist for China’s state-run media, she had heard rumors that the government was planning to suppress Falun Gong, and was concerned for her family’s safety.
The hearsay surprised her deeply. “At the time, I thought, if the government was going to move against any spiritual practice, it wouldn’t be Falun Gong,” Wang said many years later. “Falun Gong was publicly recognized, at the time, Chinese media — radio, television — were promoting it for the health benefits it was bringing to people,” Wang told NTD Television in a 2016 program where she was identified using a nickname, Wang Dafang.
Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, stressed personal cultivation and self-improvement according to the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. Introduced to the public in May 1992, it combined five sets of tai chi-like qigong exercises with moral teachings rooted in traditional Chinese beliefs and philosophy.
But the rumors were true. Three months later, on July 20, 1999, the Chinese Communist Party began a brutal campaign to defame and destroy the traditional spiritual practice.
2019 marks 20 years since the Party began its persecution of Falun Gong. On May 20, Fox 11 broadcast a short investigative report into the campaign, featuring never-before-seen footage shot secretly in Chinese labor camps where practitioners were held — including the camp where Wang Yifei’s younger sister, Kefei, lost her life.
The decision to target Falun Gong was made by then-Party boss Jiang Zemin, who painted the spiritual practice as an enemy of the Party’s ideology of Marxist atheism. Hundreds of thousands of practitioners were arrested and sent to jails and labor camps around the country to be “transformed” — that is, give up their faith.
Shortly after the persecution began, Falun Gong practitioners appealed to the government for understanding, only to be ignored and in many cases arrested. Wang Yifei and Kefei were among those who protested in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and were thrown into jail.
Yifei was released, but Kefei was not as lucky. In December 2001, after being transferred to the Hezuizi Labor Camp in the northeastern province of Jilin, the 34-year-old mother succumbed to injuries she sustained as a result of beatings and other forms of torture. The official cause of death was heart attack.
Falun Gong practitioners in and outside China have long campaigned to raise awareness about the persecution and bring it to an end. For Yifei and her husband Gordon, who live in San Francisco, this has meant holding the Chinese authorities accountable for Kefei’s death.
In 2015, the couple traveled to the Hezizui camp where Kefei was killed, asking to see her body so that an autopsy could be performed. The trip was in vain, as the camp staff demanded that the couple first acknowledge that Kefei had died of “natural causes.”
Gordon filmed an undercover video of his conversation with the camp staff. And in February, a family friend, businessman, and Falun Gong practitioner Yu Ming, escaped China to the United States, bringing his own footage with him at great personal risk.
Yu’s footage documented events and conditions in the notorious Masanjia Labor Camp near the city of Shenyang in northeast China, as well as the Benxi Prison, located in the same province as Shenyang.
He managed to get the videos out of China by bribing prison guards. The footage shows multiple Falun Gong practitioners who had been persecuted to death, or were on their deathbeds.
“If you’re ever caught doing this kind of thing, videotaping the details of what’s happening in these camps, you would lose your life,” he told Fox 11. “The Chinese Communist Party has a quota of people to be killed, and I am one of them.”
Swoop Films, an independent studio that has produced documentaries about the persecution of Falun Gong, is currently working on a film following the story of Wang Yifei and Kefei, titled Sister’s Salvation.
“I can’t even think about her [Kefei], because when I do, it always breaks my heart,” Yifei told Fox 11. “I think about when we were young and would play together, she was a brilliant girl.”
“I wanted to get the truth out about Kefei’s death,” said Gordon, Yifei’s husband. “And I wanted to get her body released. I want to be able to give testimony about the things that happened to my family. The government doesn’t follow any laws. I will never give up to get her body back.”