Zhou Deyong last saw his wife and son in Florida half a year ago before flying back to China to care for his ailing parents aged 87 and 90.
He’s now being held in a Chinese detention center with little access to the outside world.
Both his wife and son practice Falun Gong, a Buddha-school spiritual practice targeted for brutal suppression by the communist party in China for over two decades.
Zhou, the director of the Geological Scientific Research Institute at the Shengli Oil Field, the second-largest crude producer in China, was arrested on April 23 at his home in Dongying, a coastal city in eastern Shandong Province. They accused Zhou of “utilizing heretical cult to sabotage the enforcement of law”—a common charge that many religious believers have faced under a regime that has shown little tolerance of faith.
The police gave no official document when they raided Zhou’s house and seized more than 100 Falun Gong-related books and booklets—what his family had left behind when they fled to the United States. According to Falun Gong’s website, the self-improvement discipline promotes the values of truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance.
Something felt off to them when days of phone calls to Zhou went unanswered. They then found out after seeing Zhou’s name in an article on Minghui, a U.S.-based website dedicated to documenting the persecution, that also noted the arrests of 18 practitioners from the region.
‘A Stone Dropped Into the Vast Sea’
Authorities were tight-lipped on any information of the detainees. Many calls from Zhou’s wife, You Ling, to the local police stations and detention centers in China never got through. And the few times they did, the officials tended to dodge the questions or even played communist “red songs,” she said.
“It was like a stone dropped into the vast sea, they completely ignore you,” the son, Zhou You, told The Epoch Times.
“We can only guess why my father was arrested in the first place,” he said. “I don’t think my father had any clue himself.”
The authorities initially denied a request for Zhou to meet with his lawyer. On May 25, the day before a scheduled video meeting, police called the lawyer to call off the meeting, citing “weather conditions.”
“Over those few days, there was no extreme weather, and the meeting equipment … it’s just a software they install at the police bureau and a camera, rain and wind should have no impact on them,” said the son. “They are simply finding an excuse to stop us from seeing him.”
On the U.S. side, the family’s plight caught the attention of Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.), who wrote a letter to Chinese leader Xi Jinping calling for Zhou’s release.
Bilirakis, who co-chairs the Congressional International Religious Freedom Caucus and is a member of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, spoke highly of the family and said he wants to “do everything in my power to make sure the gentlemen is released.”
“It’s really unforgivable some of the things the Chinese Communist Party has done to these wonderful people,” he told The Epoch Times.
“This just should not happen anymore, and it has,” he said.
Bilirakis, a grandson of Greek immigrants, recalled having a family member who had to leave Turkey in the early 1900s during the persecution of Greek Orthodox Christians, a memory that made him identify with the Falun Gong practitioners, he said.
“These are peaceful people,” he said, adding that they “should have a right to practice any … spiritual meditation.”
“It’s only a positive thing,” he said.
The U.S. pressure appeared to leave an impact. Half an hour after Zhou You brought Bilirakis’s letter to the judicial officials, the Chinese police called the lawyer and said that the meeting would proceed.
Zhou’s family said they are concerned about his health after receiving updates from the lawyer. Turning 60 in a few weeks, Zhou already looks thinner. He also asked his lawyer to tell his son the message: “Stay here and be well.”
The family have carefully kept the news from Zhou’s parents, who both have heart problems and high blood pressure among other health issues. They told them that Zhou had returned back to the United States for a second visit.
In the two month period between March 1 and April 30, nearly 2,860 Falun Gong practitioners are known to have experienced police harassment or arrests, according to Minghui.
The local police in Zhou’s hometown of Dongying city conducted a campaign this year to collect personal details of each Falun Gong practitioner, including their address, the details of the vehicles they own, and phone numbers.
Shengli Oil Field
The state-controlled Shengli Oil Field—which has the meaning “victory” in Chinese—is a major economic powerhouse in the region that has workers by tens of thousands, including Zhou and his wife You. Over the years, thousands of Shengli employees have experienced house raids, detention, forced labor, or imprisonment for persisting in their practice of Falun Gong. Dozens lost their jobs and at least 11 died under the ongoing persecution.
You, who has sought refuge in Florida, recalled spending more than 40 days in a “black jail” operated by the oil field in 2012, where she was fed propaganda materials that maligned her faith on a daily basis.
“Every time we went out to talk to people about the persecution of Falun Gong, we didn’t know if we could come back,” You said. She said that she has minimized her use of phones for nearly 20 years due to surveillance concerns.
Shi Ning, a former data center engineer at the oil field who also suffered persecution for her Falun Gong faith and escaped to the United States, told The Epoch Times she has suffered a total of nearly eight years of official and unofficial detention over a two-decade span.
At one labor camp, at least 100 people took turns day and night persuading her to give up practicing Falun Gong, she said of her ordeal in China. She would hear “horrible cries” as Falun Gong practitioners detained in the same cell got pulled out one by one. When it was her turn, her hands were cuffed behind her back as 11 people rained down beatings on her head and waist. Three days later, when she saw herself in front of a mirror, she could hardly associate with the body she saw reflected back.
“My head … was completely swollen,” she told The Epoch Times. “My two eyes were almost triangular—you couldn’t see the eyeballs at all.”
She started a hunger strike and was four times sent to the hospital due to failing health. There, a guard hit her head with an iron rod after spotting her doing Falun Gong’s qigong exercises.
She lost around 66 pounds—around half of her body weight—over the months of brutal detention.
Those times were marked with confusion and fear, Shi said. “We were merely trying to be good people, why would it come to this?” she said of the Chinese authorities.
She cited the death of a friend whom she suspected had been a victim of state-sanctioned forced organ harvesting. Shi said the woman had tears in her eyes when her relatives saw her, hours after the police had claimed she was dead. Her husband was also tortured after questioning her cause of death and died under mysterious circumstances two years later.
“There were no reports on this. None,” Shi said. “Who has the gut to report on this in mainland China? … They kept silent in the face of crimes.”
Bilirakis was one of the original sponsors for a House resolution a decade ago that called for an end to the ongoing persecution of Falun Gong.
Now, he said, it’s time to bring another one to Congress’ attention.
“It needs to be brought to the forefront again,” he said, adding, “It’s going to be a strongly worded resolution.”
“We’re not going to back down, and we’re not going to be intimidated by the Chinese Communist Party.”