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Practitioner Front

Anastasia Lin: a Falun Gong practitioner seeking the Miss World crown – in China

Anastasia Lin, Miss World Canada 2015. (

Anastasia Lin, Miss World Canada 2015. (

Under different circumstances, Anastasia Lin would be a shoo-in for Miss World. A vocal human rights activist with prominent cheekbones, the Canadian candidate for the crown is also an accomplished piano player, a Chinese calligrapher, and an actress with more than 20 credits in film and television.

But this year’s contest takes place in Lin’s native China, which poses a threat for the finalist and her family as Lin practises the spiritual faith of Falun Gong.

Tens of millions in China practice Falun Gong, which combines moral philosophy, meditation and qigong exercises, and emerged out of ideas prevalent in alternative Chinese medicine.

Falun Gong believers have been detained and killed in Chinese labour camps in their thousands, according to activists. The religion was branded an “evil cult” and outlawed in 1999, following a silent demonstration by thousands of Falun Gong practitioners outside Communist party headquarters, who were protesting attacks on its members. Since then, nearly 4,000 practitioners of Falun Gong have reportedly died as a result of detention in camps, though human rights researchers believe the number to be much higher.

Lin, an outspoken advocate on human rights and religious persecution, had refrained from publicly disclosing her faith. But having gained a wider platform thanks to winning the Canadian crown, Lin revealed her faith practice to the Guardian, hoping it would help stop the demonization of the Falun Gong faith and give voice to other Chinese people who are persecuted for their beliefs.

“If I don’t, the oppression will never stop,” Lin said.

Anastasia Lin is crowned Miss World Canada 2015. Lin has revealed to the Guardian that she is a practitioner of Falun Gong. Photograph: Andrew Chin/Getty Images

Anastasia Lin is crowned Miss World Canada 2015. Lin has revealed to the Guardian that she is a practitioner of Falun Gong. Photograph: Andrew Chin/Getty Images

Though she has kept her faith out of the public eye, she has been anoutspoken advocate for other minority religious groups persecuted in China, such as Muslim Uighurs, Tibetan Buddhists and Christians.

But it is for her outspoken advocacy work that she says the Chinese ministry of state security is trying to silence her by intimidating her father.

Lin has set foot in China only once since moving to Canada in 2003, but she says her father, who still lives in Hunan province, has been visited by security agents at least once. According to Lin, he is not affiliated with Falun Gong or any religious group.

Just a few days after winning the Miss World Canada crown on 16 May, Lin began receiving text messages from her father asking her to stop her advocacy work. She had highlighted her human rights work in a video and speech at the pageant.

“Do you know the security forces actually came to see me,” Lin said, recounting a text from her father. She said he warned her that if she continued to do her human rights work, she would risked turning her family against each other. “When I asked him more details, he just pleaded that I allow him to live peacefully by not bringing up rights abuses in China again.”

Since then, his business has suffered. “Now people are too scared to be associated with him,” said Lin, who has featured in Canadian films critical of the Chinese regime since the age of 18.

She doesn’t know if agents have visited him again as she said he refuses to talk about it during their brief phone calls. “Nowadays, he always mentions how great the Chinese president is,” she adds. “I think he believes that his phone is being tapped.”

Lin’s case is a classic example of how Xi Jinping’s regime tries to bring Chinese expatriates to heel through the harassment of loved ones left behind, explains Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Chinese activists’ parents and siblings are sometimes prosecuted on false allegations while others simply disappear. It amounts to psychological torture,” Richardson said.

 Police detain a Falun Gong protester in Tiananmen Square as a crowd watches in Beijing, in 2000. Photograph: Chien-Min Chung/AP

 Police detain a Falun Gong protester in Tiananmen Square as a crowd watches in Beijing, in 2000. Photograph: Chien-Min Chung/AP

But Lin continued her activist work, by writing a Washington Post op-ed in June and by testifying to the US Congress in July about religious persecution in China.

By coming out now as a practitioner of Falun Gong, Lin has become its highest-profile follower in the western hemisphere.

“It’s not an organised religion,” she said. “The teachings – established by qigong master Li Hongzi in 1992 – are about finding our authentic self. And this is what I’m trying to do by speaking up. If I don’t, the oppression will never stop.”

China arrests Christians who opposed removals of crosses


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Lin’s experience comes amid harsher treatments of religious minorities and human rights lawyers, explains Sophie Richardson. “The Chinese state has become increasingly paranoid and authoritarian since Xi Jinping took power in 2013,” she says. Chinese Christians have been a notable target of late. Authorities have removed crosses from more than 1,200 churches since early 2014 and the country’s security forces this week launched a roundup of church activists who oppose the crosses’ removals.

Lin has also felt ostracised by segments of the Canadian Chinese community, despite her Miss World Canada win and the backing of the Canadian government for her activism. She said she stopped being invited to events by community leaders tied to the Chinese embassy and consulate since her crowning. And to those community events that she is invited to, she is “monitored” by the Chinese consulate.

“They send officials to all social events,” says the actress, who also believes that her phone is tapped.

Whether China will allow her to compete in the Miss World final in Sanya, on Hainan Island, is uncertain, as many Falun Gong practitioners have been denied entry to the country in recent years.

“My aim is not to put an anti-China slogan on the stage,” she insists. “After all, it’s a beauty pageant. But I feel that my presence in that country alone would give people hope. The regime would show itself worthy of hosting the [2022 winter Olympic] Games by allowing me to enter China freely.”

Originally published on The Guardians.

Free China: The Courage To Believe


Stories like these only exist in the distant past—or do they? A quiet, unassuming man or woman seems just like us, but when faced with evil, extraordinary abilities are revealed and a legend lives through the ages. In the film Free China: The Courage to Believe, true stories tell of heart-wrenching compromises and awe-inspiring strength of character, and its end is not yet written.

In the 1990’s, Dr. Charles Lee, originally from China, was living in the US as an American citizen and Jennifer Zeng lived in China, a proud mother and communist party member. Both began practicing Falun Gong, the ancient Chinese spiritual practice that adheres to truthfulness, compassion and tolerance. When, in 1999, the communist regime outlawed the practice and dragged loyal practitioners into labour camps, Zeng and Lee were thrust into excruciating darkness, and faced abhorrent choices. Now living outside China with their families, both have joined the peaceful efforts to bring human rights to their homeland. Free China sheds light on the current plight of the Chinese people and reminds us that heroes of yore are still made today.

Michael Perlman, who directed Free China, drew on his experience directing Tibet: Beyond Fear, an award-winning film that followed a Tibetan Buddhist monk and nun in their struggle for respect, freedom and inner peace amid violence.

Kean Wong, Free China’s executive producer and driving force, met Perlman by chance in Manhattan one evening in 2010. Wong was a television show host and producer for NTD Television, working to revive traditional Chinese culture and provide independent Chinese news coverage. Perlman, well-acquainted with Tibetans’ peaceful efforts for freedom, was mostly in the dark about China’s.

“We had this instant connection,” Wong recalls about meeting Perlman. “I said to him ‘If you want to help free Tibet, you need to first help free China.’ And Michael said ‘That’s exactly what I’ve been saying.’” Wong knew the perfect documentary subjects, Zeng and Lee, who continually and devotedly recount their stories to shed light on the atrocities behind today’s Great Wall. And what stories. The makings of a socially-immediate, award-winning film had been found. “We shook hands excitedly and said ‘Let’s make a film called Free China.’” Eighteen months later, their film swept the independent awards circuit.

Free China took home Best Feature Film at the IX International Short Film Festival in Peru, “Best of the Fest” International Freethought Film Festival in Denver, CO, Winner at American Insight’s Free Speech International Film Festival in Philadelphia, the top award for International Political and Cultural Documentaries at the L.A. Awareness Film Festival in West Hollywood, the top award for documentaries under 60 minutes at the 45th Worldfest Houston International Film Festival, became “Offical Selection” at a half dozen other festivals and was nominated for the “Best Soundtrack Album” at the Hollywood Music in Media Awards 2012.

“We’re all very honored and proud of our team’s efforts, in particular, Tony Chen, who composed an incredibly inspiring and moving score,” Wong said, and he’s clearly not the only one who thinks so. Free China’s nomination for “Best Soundtrack Album” at the Music in Media Awards placed it alongside big-budget films like Twilight and powerful production houses like Sony Classical. “We were up there against them with this little shoestring budget,” Wong says. It’s a relief to know that heart and conviction, not only budget, can bring motion pictures to the forefront.

Free China will be released online worldwide and opens in Canadian theaters in June, 2013. for more information.

How One Man's Journey To The Olympics Took A Soulful Turn

Luge athlete Martins Rubenis of Latvia at the Winter Olympics, February, 2014

Luge athlete Martins Rubenis of Latvia at the Winter Olympics, February, 2014

On the luge medal podium at the Sochi Olympics this year, among the ranks of athletes from the world’s wealthiest nations, you might have noticed an outlier—Martins Rubenis of Latvia. While his competitors had the likes of BMW and Ferrari to thank for their sleds, which reach blistering speeds on the downhill ice tracks, Rubenis proudly accepted his bronze not only as a racer but also as a designer and engineer.

I caught up with Rubenis on a Celsius -12 degree day in December during the Luge World Cup in Whistler. Over mugs of hot chocolate at the Four Seasons, we relived the highlights, hurdles and spiritual insights on his journey.

A soul and a sled

During Rubenis’s 25-year career, he was a force to be reckoned with on any track. Beginning in 1998 at the World Junior Championships, he won gold and silver at multiple European and World competitions. Rubenis was the first member of Team Latvia to ever stand on a Winter Olympics podium, in 2006, Turin, Italy — a feat now being repeated more and more often by his country’s sliding athletes.

Rubenis fell in love with luge as a child. “What’s the first thing that comes to the mind of a little guy? You take a sled and you go off to the mountains and you have fun. And if somebody calls it a sport, then why not?” thirty-five-year-old Rubenis recalls, each word coming closer to a giggle than the last.

Rubenis on the podium with fellow Olympic bronze medals winners of the luge team relay event in February, 2014. 

Rubenis on the podium with fellow Olympic bronze medals winners of the luge team relay event in February, 2014. 

But the journey to Olympic glory is never easy, especially in a country whose culture and economy were left battered by Soviet occupation. While he was a teenager at boarding school trying to find his footing in life, Rubenis’s mother died of leukemia. “To lose a connection with parents or anyone you love,” he says, “somewhere deep inside, it makes something break.” With an independent spirit and the rock-solid support of his grandparents, he overcame thoughts of quitting and committed himself to the long, grueling practice and cross-training sessions. At the same time, he caught up with school and worked at nightclubs to make ends meet.

Crafting greatness

Around 1999, his sled needed upgrades but no one in Latvia could help him. If he was going to reach for gold, he would have to improve the sled himself.

Building model ships and motorcycles with his grandfather prepared Rubenis for that new role. “I started looking at my sled and trying to feel what should be changed. Since I don’t have any technical education, I try to feel how they work. It is more like an artistic approach than a technical approach,” Rubenis explains.

Rubenis designed and crafted almost every part of the sled that carried him to victory at world competitions.

Rubenis designed and crafted almost every part of the sled that carried him to victory at world competitions.

“Many people think that luging is just lying in a sled and waiting until it brings you down; it is not like that. A sled is like a living organism, all moving and working together with the body of the athlete. The most important thing is to build the sled to be one with the body.”

The meditation component of Falun Gong, along with its guiding principles, gave Rubenis a competitive advantage.

The meditation component of Falun Gong, along with its guiding principles, gave Rubenis a competitive advantage.

In the past, Rubenis would never share his parts or design knowledge with teammates. Luge is mostly an individual sport and teammates are rivals, too. But all that changed in 2005 when he began practicing “truthfulness, compassion, tolerance,” the tenets of Falun Gong, a self-cultivation practice which consists of tai-chi-like exercises and principles such as “no loss, no gain” and thinking of others first. He’s even seen his innovations on the G8 countries’ sleds at competitions around the world.

“After I took up the practice, I understood that if I share something, things come back in an even broader perspective. Knowledge is a kind of energy. When we share, we connect to the new knowledge; we give more space for new things to come. And you never know how big they will be.”

One with the way

Latvia’s former Sportsman of the Year says his sport is a lot like the ancient tradition of self-cultivation.

“When I get really stubborn about something in my life, when I just plow straight ahead, everything is very hard. It’s the same with sliding. If I just think ‘this is the only way to get down,’ sometimes I steer too much, but the curve doesn’t let me go that way. So I had to learn to feel the track and feel the way it brings me, learn how to appreciate the way it brings me, and also just try to keep on the way.”

Learning how to follow the natural course of life led to improvements in Rubenis’s physical state. “Even as I went to different doctors and people who might help me, relief was short-lived. I really couldn’t understand why. Now I understand that if my mind is right, my body follows. My hiding something and being so introverted was drilling and breaking me from the inside. I had to overcome that and change that.”

Top athletes must find ways to constantly improve their physical and mental performance. Rubenis was no exception. As early as 10 years old, he could sense that “the Eastern ways” held wisdom that could assist his performance but he was reluctant to take the initiative to try them. Years later, at the behest of his coach, he finally did and the results were immediate.

“I remember before, I was fighting against others to be better. When I started practicing Falun Gong, I realized that it had to have something to do with me. I had an ‘inner fight’ with myself, about improving myself, improving my performance and improving my approach to what I do.”

“It just instantly and naturally improved my performance. A few months later, in the winter of 2006, I won the bronze medal in luge at the Olympics.”

This winter, he stood atop the podium one last time in Sochi. He says he has now retired, but with his groundbreaking spirit, the world hasn’t heard the last of Martins Rubenis.

Originally published on Taste of Life magazine.