From one crackdown to another: The life of Xu Na

In China, June is a sombre month for those who remember the mass pro-democracy protests across the country and the military’s bloody crackdown in 1989. Remembrance itself is an act of defiance against the suppression and manipulation of history by the Chinese authorities. Each year, events are held worldwide to pay tributes to the victims and their families.

What is less widely reported however, is how survivors’ lives have been changed by the tragic events of  ‘June 4th’, as the events are known in China.

One of the protesters on Tiananmen Square was Xu Na, then a student at Beijing Broadcasting Institute (BBI). She was holding a banner with her fellow friends that read “Freedom of the Press; Freedom of Speech” while marching through the Beijing streets. Thirty-two years later, Xu Na is in another place in Beijing: Dongcheng District Detention Centre, where she has been criminally detained for the past 11 months.

How did she end up in detention?

The Tiananmen Square protests were a turning point in Xu’s life. After graduation, Xu Na decided not to become part of a mouthpiece of the Party that she was trained to be, having become disillusioned since the Party’s brutal crackdown in 1989. She studied art and became a freelance painter and poet instead. She also married Yu Zhou, a gifted musician, a couple of years later.

However, as fate would have it, Xu Na’s life soon took another turn as she and her husband were caught up in another nationwide brutal crackdown, one which has lasted for 22 years and is still ongoing.

A painting by Xu Na. Source:

“By 1999, I couldn’t keep painting. I have lived in prison for most of the time since that year.”

Xu Na

In the mid-1990s, Xu and her husband started to follow Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that involves slow-moving meditation exercises and upholds truthfulness, compassion and tolerance as its core values. As of early 1999, the Chinese authorities estimated that 70 million people practiced Falun Gong in China.

On 25 April 1999, 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners gathered near the Zhongnanhai government compound in Beijing to demand an end to harassment against them. The peaceful demonstration, the largest since the Tiananmen Square protests a decade earlier, was viewed by the party-state as a serious political threat. Soon after, in July 1999, the Chinese government launched a campaign of state persecution against Falun Gong followers across the country, which has continued ever since.

In August 1999, Xu Na and Yu Zhou were both detained for more than 40 days after attending a Falun Gong gathering. In July 2001, Xu Na was arrested again, this time for having provided accommodation to her Falun Gong friends who were visiting Beijing. She was later sentenced to five years in prison.

In early 2008, as Beijing was preparing to host the Olympics, the authorities embarked on a massive roundup of Falun Gong practitioners around the country as part of a larger crackdown on dissent.

On the evening of 26 January 2008, Yu Zhou sang at a concert, with Xu Na in the audience. On their drive home afterwards, they were stopped and searched by police. A Falun Gong book found in their car was enough for the police to take the couple to Tongzhou District Detention Centre, where Yu Zhou died 11 days later, on Chinese New Year Eve. The authorities claimed that the 42-year-old, who was physically strong and fit before being taken into custody, had died on hunger strike or of diabetes, and handed his grieving widow a three year jail sentence. To this day, how Yu Zhou died remains a mystery.

Yu Zhou and Xu Na’s case was documented in Amnesty International’s submission to the UN Universal Periodic Review in February 2009, as well as in the Congressional Executive Commission of China’s analysis ‘Manipulation of the Criminal Law to Penalize “Cults” Continues in Case of Painter and Popular Musician’. It was also featured in USCIRF’s 2010 Annual Report.

Xu Na and her husband Yu Zhou. Source: Epoch Times

“How I wish I had been locked up in Auschwitz instead of a Chinese prison. While in a Nazi gas chamber one could die quickly, Beijing Women’s Prison makes living worse than death.”

Xu Na

In an article written after she was released from prison for the second time in 2011, Xu Na described how one day in 2003, during her first imprisonment, the TV newscaster Xu Tao came to visit Beijing Women’s Prison. Xu Na was placed in isolation in a police office at the time.

 “Four inmates formed human cuffs and shackles to clamp me down. I could clearly hear an interview being conducted not far from where I was. The policemen and criminals who had tortured me were speaking about how civilised they were in law enforcement, and I could not make a single sound, because my mouth had been gagged with a towel.”

Xu Tao was one of Xu Na’s fellow students at BBI, and is now the deputy chief editor of Beijing TV and a member of the National People’s Congress. Xu Na said that was “the most profound media education” she had received – it was through a prison wall.

Shortly after that interview, Dong Cui, another Falun Gong practitioner, was tortured to death at Beijing Women’s Prison but the officials asserted she had died of illness. According to her account, Xu Na tried to report the case to the prison authorities but was placed in solitary confinement once more and tortured for daring to speak out. She wrote:

“How I wish I had been locked up in Auschwitz instead of a Chinese prison. While in a Nazi gas chamber one could die quickly, Beijing Women’s Prison makes living worse than death. They repeatedly make you go through long torture sessions, during which they get inmates with medical knowledge to frequently check for signs of life. I was not allowed to sleep for many days, and was found to have an irregular heartbeat. A police officer then ordered, ’ Let her sleep for an hour and get some rest.’

Various hidden and elaborate forms of torture were invented, for example, ‘splits’, where the legs were pulled apart to 180 degrees and three inmates were ordered to sit on the legs and back of the tortured person and press down repeatedly. A police officer was proud of this invention: ‘This is a good solution, because the pain is unbearable while the bones won’t be broken.’”

“Every case of injustice happening in this world is highly relevant to you, even if it’s far away from you, because it always tortures your conscience.”

Xu Na

On 19 July 2020, the day before the 21st anniversary marking the beginning of the CCP’s persecution of Falun Gong, Xu Na was arrested a third time. According to, a website reporting on the Falun Gong community worldwide, 13 Falun Gong followers were rounded up and detained during a police operation on that day. Xu Na and 10 others have been indicted of ‘undermining law enforcement’, a charge often levelled against Falun Gong followers. The charge appears to be in connection to some photos taken during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is highly likely they were specifically targeted as Falun Gong practitioners as well.

Lawyer Liang Xiaojun, who represents Xu Na, tweeted after visiting her at the Dongcheng Detention Centre on 22 April 2021: “The case of the 11 with her [Xu Na] as the main suspect has been sent to the Dongcheng District Court for trial. The charges, which are related to their special identity [as Falun Gong practitioners], cannot conceal the fact that their freedom of expression has been restricted.”

The lawyer relayed what Xu Na had said to him: “When I was arrested for the first time, these co-accused of mine were only two or three years old. Now, Li Zongze and the other young people are facing trial, just because they took a few realistic photos of what was most commonly seen on the streets of Beijing during the epidemic. What kind of country is this!”

Many other Falun Gong adherents have suffered similar treatment to Xu Na. In April, Weiquanwang (Rights Defense Network) reported that Meng Kai, a lawyer and Falun Gong practitioner who was previously jailed for seven years, had been secretly tried and sentenced in Changsha. He was arrested in October 2020 among more than 20 Falun Gong practitioners.

Like Yu Zhou, many other Falun Gong practitioners have tragically died in custody. Xu Na and countless others have been arbitrarily detained, imprisoned and horrendously tortured for their faith. They deserve justice.

Xu Na. Source: Wang Baomin

“Their purpose is to destroy your spirit and conscience”

Xu Na

Having survived the Tiananmen crackdown 32 years ago, Xu Na said she had also survived 11 types of torture without renouncing her faith while serving a total of eight years in prison. Now she is facing jail for the third time. Will she be able to walk out of prison alive?

“When all that I have,

including my husband,

have been taken from me,

am I still happy?


I have my happiness too,

even extreme happiness.

With my hands and feet tied up,

I felt freedom.

The freedom of the soul.

In the 30 centimetres above the ground,

below the knees of other people,

I felt dignity.

With my hair covered with other people’s sticky, thick saliva,

I felt cleanliness…



Because there is power rising from within.

All that I have is what no one can ever take away from me.


That is faith.”


—An excerpt from Xu Na’s poem “Are you happy?”

Further Information

An Excerpt from ‘He is Not Here’ (A documentary film about Xu Na and Yu Zhou by Wang Baomin, with English subtitles) can be found on this page, where there is also Xu Na’s preface for her album of paintings published by her agent in Taiwan.