On Liu Danbi’s 31st birthday in December—the first that passed without a birthday wish from her mother—she did not cry. She said her tears had run out long ago.
Liu had not seen her mother face-to-face since they parted at the airport in China seven years ago, before she boarded the flight for New York City for her graduate studies at the University at Buffalo.
When they parted, for seemingly no reason, Liu was seized by a sudden grief and dissolved into tears.
“I had a hunch that it was the final farewell to my mother,” she told The Epoch Times.
Her mother, Huang Shiqun, died on April 23 last year after swallowing seven bottles of pills prescribed by a psychiatric hospital. Her body was discovered in a hidden stairwell of the apartment building where she lived with her husband.
Huang’s last note was to her husband, written on a slip of paper. “You are the best husband in the world. I’m just not lucky enough.”
Before her death at 57, Huang had struggled for two years with depression, which began sometime during her arrest, and subsequent detention in her hometown Wuhan for trying to shed light on the Chinese regime’s persecution of her belief.
Huang, formerly a kindergarten teacher in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, was an adherent of Falun Gong, a spiritual discipline with five meditative exercises and moral teaching centered on the principles, truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance. Official reports estimated that around 70 million people were practicing the discipline in China in 1999. But fearing its popularity, the regime began a violent campaign to persecute Falun Gong, leading to the arrest of millions of adherents over the past decades.
In Liu’s memory, her mother was always talkative and optimistic. Huang struck up conversations with strangers on the street and made friends with fruit vendors in her neighborhood. She had a good voice and had a talent for impersonating Teresa Teng, a Taiwanese pop icon in the 1980s who won fans all over Asia with her heartrending romantic ballads.
Huang strove to be a good teacher, too. Parents would sometimes bring her money and gifts in the hopes that she would treat their kids better, but she would turn them all down. “I’m just trying to be a good person by following truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance,” Huang would tell them, citing the three core principles of the practice. This was her job, she would say, and she had an obligation to do it well.
“It was as if nothing was too difficult for her,” said Liu. “Her mere presence would make me feel safe.”
But those traits disappeared from her after she came back from Wuhan’s Qiaokou District Legal Education Center in February 2018. The facility is referred to by adherents as a “brainwashing center” for its efforts to make Falun Gong practitioners give up their beliefs through a combination of propaganda, coercion, and forced medication.
Liu never knew what happened to her mother during her one month of detention at the center. But when Huang came back, she was no longer herself. Her weight had plummeted by 66 pounds. She was restless at night and walked back and forth on the floor. She suffered from vision and hearing loss. She couldn’t read and would get lost even around her own neighborhood. During calls with Liu, Huang spoke of the loss of hair on her arms and muscle cramps.
More worrisome were the changes to her mental state. Once a lighthearted person, Huang became easily anxious and withdrawn. She had curtains drawn down even during the daytime, saying she was afraid of the light. Any visitors would distress her, and she no longer wanted to go outside.
The hospital told the family Huang’s cranial nerves had degenerated.
“She told me she felt like every cell in her body was being tortured,” Liu said. “I felt that she was ready to jump off the building at any minute and give up her life.”
Most of the time Huang would lie on the bed, “suffering and trying to get by,” said Liu.
Huang spoke often to Liu about her physical and psychological pains but both of them were cautious to discuss what may have been the cause, as they knew their phone conversations were likely wiretapped. Liu suspected that the guards put psychiatric drugs in her mother’s food during detention.
She came to this conclusion after reading reports online about the detention center and adherents who exhibited similar symptoms after being drugged. Some adherents detained there had described that their meals left a taste of medicine, according to Minghui, a U.S.-based website that tracks the persecution of Falun Gong.
Xiao Yingxue, a former employee at the Qiaokou District Industrial and Commercial Bureau, was injected with three doses of unknown substances at the same center in 2011 and complained of severe headaches for several years after; 24-year-old Wang Yujie vomited white foam after being injected with unknown drugs on her shoulder at the provincial brainwashing center in Hubei. She lost hearing and vision, and passed away in September 2011, four months after her release, according to Minghui.
Liu was only able to learn about her mother’s time in detention from messages written by Huang on pieces of paper and held up for her during the video call, which Liu would take a picture of to read later. Huang used this method of silent communication to avoid being detected by any eavesdroppers.
In those notes, Huang wrote about unrelenting torment: how she was forced to sit in a “classroom” with two layers of metal doors for 15 hours daily, where recordings and videos smearing Falun Gong were played on high volumes; how inmates, under the guards’ bidding, forbade her from sleeping and shoved her if she slightly closed her eyes. The guards gave her little food. On the fifth day, Huang’s body began to shake uncontrollably. She had stood firm when the guards asked her to sign documents renouncing her belief, but that day, she yielded.
“She didn’t know what it was, but felt she couldn’t control herself,” Liu said.
Huang was repeatedly made to write “homework” to smear and “express hatred” towards her belief until it would satisfy the guards.
Police had not let Huang off the hook even after her release. Less than a year later, they asked Huang to sign another document renouncing her faith. The measure was part of a nationwide “Zero Out” campaign aimed at eliminating the number of adherents in the local area.
Provincial Chinese Communist Party Party officials also pressured Huang’s husband to divorce her.
Accepting the loss of Huang was difficult for Liu’s father, who had also been living on high alert day and night trying to keep Huang safe. Liu’s cousin told her that she had never seen him crying in such a way.
“He never prepared himself for that day,” she said.
Even now, he could sleep only two or three hours even with the help of sleeping pills, Liu said.
Just recently, Liu’s father called Liu over the phone. He was drunk. ”He told me he doesn’t know how he could live on.”