Apr 8, 2017

Temple Terrace woman plans roadside plea to Chinese president over imprisoned mother

Tony Marrero,
Tampa Bay Times
April 6, 2017

One day in 2006, Iris Lu came home from high school in rural southern China to find her family's home ransacked and her mother gone.

Cuiping Deng, a primary school teacher, had been hauled away to a detention center, her second trip to prison for practicing a Chinese spiritual discipline called Falun Gong. Deng would be subjected to torture by a communist regime determined to make her recant her beliefs, according to Lu.

Last summer, Deng was arrested a third time and is now serving a six-year sentence.

Lu, an accountant for the University of South Florida who lives in Temple Terrace, will get into a friend's car today and travel from Tampa to Palm Beach, where they'll park on the side of the road near President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago Club, unfurl a 10-foot-long vinyl banner, and wait.

At some point, they hope, Chinese president Xi Jinping's motorcade will pass and the leader will catch a glimpse of Lu and the banner that bears her mother's photo and a message.

"I just want to present my story to him and let him know there are ordinary families suffering in China, in the land that his government controls," Lu said. "And I hope he can do something to help me."

• • •

Deng started practicing Falun Gong in 1997 to ease stress, calm her mind and fight insomnia. It worked, but the physical effects were only part of the benefit, her daughter said.

Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, is a philosophy with roots in Buddhism and qigong, a relative of yoga. Deng read books espousing the faith's philosophy, centered on truthfulness, compassion and forbearance.

"That improved a lot of other personal relationships with her friends and her family," said Lu, who began to practice Falun Gong as a stressed-out undergraduate.

But as Falun Gong grew in popularity, the communist regime under then-President Jiang Zemin began to see the practice — counter to its militant atheism — as a threat. The government launched a campaign to eradicate the group, arresting people, often without due process, subjecting them to forced labor and torture that sometimes resulted in death, according to human rights groups such as Amnesty International.

Deng was sentenced to three years in prison in 2006. During her confinement, she was forced to sit on a small stool for hours at a time, damaging her legs and hips, Lu said. Guards ordered other inmates to stab her with small needles. Deng continued to practice Falun Gong in secret. She'd lost friends, her health and her career. But she couldn't stay silent. Falun Gong, after all, stresses honesty.

"She couldn't lie to herself or to other people," Lu said. "We cannot just keep silent for our own safety and let this go."

• • •

Lu moved to America in 2012 and received her master's degree in accounting from the University of Tampa. She started her job at USF in 2015 and made plans to bring her parents to the United States, where they could apply for asylum.

Meanwhile, she spoke weekly with them on Skype. Last July, she called and finally reached her father, Wenming, who said Deng was tried in February on a charge of "using a cult organization to sabotage law enforcement." Her lawyer pointed to flaws in the charge — that China has never criminalized Falun Gong and that prosecutors couldn't point to which law had been sabotaged.

But the courts, Lu said, are an arm of the regime and Deng was found guilty.

Her lawyer visited her recently and found her health rapidly declining. A plum-sized tumor has sprouted on her leg, and it's painful for her to walk and sit.

Lu sought help from U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, a Lakeland Republican who represents eastern Hills­borough County. Ross penned a letter to President Xi in August expressing concerns about Deng's arrest. In October, Ross, Palm Harbor Republican Gus Bilirakis and two other members of Congress signed a letter requesting the release of Deng and seven other Falun Gong prisoners.

This week, Ross sent a third letter, noting Deng's ill health and seeking her "urgent release."

Ross said he has received no reply to any of the letters.

"We in the Congress should assert ourselves in the name of human rights and say this is unacceptable," Ross said. "These oppressions should cease, especially in the name of Iris' mother."

Officials at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

• • •

Lu and her friends planned to leave Tampa by 3 a.m., hoping to reach Palm Beach by the time the sun rises. They'll join other Falun Gong supporters along the road that leads to Mar-a-Lago.

Hoping to catch Xi's eye, Lu will be clutching one end of a banner that reads, "Help Rescue My Mother Cuiping Deng."

"He's human, too," Lu said. "He has a daughter. He has a wife. I just want to let him think about himself and his own family and give my a family a chance to be reunited."

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

Falun Gong

Founding: Falun Gong is a spiritual movement founded by Li Hongzhi in 1992. Also known as Falun Dafa, it has its origins in qigong, a combination of meditation techniques and physical exercise to achieve good health and peace of mind.

Meaning: The name means "Discipline of the Dharma Wheel" and refers to the revolving wheel Li promised to install in his followers, purifying their bodies and freeing them from bodily concerns. The teachings draw from Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Chinese folklore, as well as Western new age movements.

'Cult' status: The growing popularity of the Falun Gong faith in the 1990s alarmed China's communist regime, which saw the practice as counter to the government's militant atheism and a threat to its authority. In 1999, then-President Jiang Zemin deemed Falun Gong a "heretical cult" and a danger to state security.

Crackdown: Falun Gong practitioners across China are subject to surveillance, detention, imprisonment and torture, and are at a high risk of extrajudicial execution, according to human rights groups such as Freedom House and Amnesty International.

Sources: brittanica.com; religionfacts.com; freedomhouse.org

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