Scaling the Great Firewall of China
Global Internet Freedom Consortium
The curt knock on the door of his hotel room woke Alan Huang with a start. He looked at the clock: 5:30 am. Huang had been in Shenzhen, China, for only a few days; who could be looking for him at this hour? He groggily undid the lock—and found a half-dozen police officers in the corridor. The cops were there, they said, because the 37-year-old software engineer was a follower of the Falun Gong spiritual movement. It was December 1999, and the Beijing government had outlawed the sect just months earlier.
In fact, that’s why Huang had left his home in Sunnyvale, California, to come to Shenzhen. A Chinese computer programmer who had long ago emigrated to the US, Huang was back in China to protest the government’s jailing of thousands of his fellow practitioners. He hadn’t expected to join them.
Huang ended up packed into a cold cell with 20 other men, sleeping on the floor in shifts and forced to clean pigpens every day. Huang’s wife, back in California with their 3-year-old daughter, was terrified. After a very long two weeks and the help of a few American politicians, Huang and two other US-based Falun Gong practitioners who had accompanied him were released. “I got lucky because I was a US resident,” he says. “Others were not so lucky.”
It was Huang’s first experience with prison, but not with Communist Party repression. When he was an electrical engineering student at Shanghai’s Fudan University in the 1980s, Huang marched in the pro-democracy protests that roiled China. But the heady days in the streets came to a bloody end when the government sent tanks into Tiananmen Square. Huang wasn’t arrested, but some of his acquaintances disappeared. And he was shocked by the way the government’s ensuing propaganda barrage convinced many Chinese that the protesting students were themselves to blame for the bloodshed. Disillusioned, Huang left China, got his graduate degree at the University of Toronto, and moved to Silicon Valley in 1992. He spent most of the 1990s quietly living the immigrant-American dream, starting a family and building a career. Along the way, he also became one of the Bay Area’s hundreds of Falun Gong practitioners, leading study sessions and group exercises. So when Beijing launched its crackdown on the sect, it felt to Huang like 1989 all over again: The government was brutalizing a peaceful movement while painting its adherents as dangerous criminals. This time, he was determined to fight back. His aborted trip to China and frightening weeks in jail only left him more resolute. “My experience told me that the persecution was more severe than what we can imagine,” Huang says in accented English. “I felt I needed to do something.”