From China to Scotland: an Exclusive Interview with a Political Refugee

Clara Balon 25 February 2021
Image Credit: Xiaoyao Yin

Xiaoyao Yin and her family fled China in 2018 in order to escape religious persecution from the Chinese Communist Party and sought asylum in the UK. The family practise Falun Gong, a religion which has been targeted by Chinese authorities since 1999. Xiaoyao is open in telling her story and the horrors that her family have witnessed and hopes to raise awareness about the ongoing persecution in China.

Before the family were able to leave, Xiaoyao’s mother was arrested three times and was under constant surveillance by the police. Had it not been for the persecution, she would have become China’s first-ever female PhD holder, specialisingin Japanese culture. In her asylum application, which Xiaoyao has released for publication, her mother detailed her experiences of arrest and detention:

I was taken to a detention centre, where conditions were very harsh. There was no hot water for shower, and the vegetable soup contained only potatoes. I was put in a very cramped cell with many other inmates, including drug addicts, drug traffickers, thieves, and even murderers. The police did not even allow me to have a lawyer just because I was a Falun Gong practitioner. My family and friends attempted to rescue me. My sister did not go to work for an entire month and stayed outside the police station, demanding my release. Every day, my daughter asked her when Mom could come home. She was so frightened by the prospect of being separated from me, possibly for years. As the police found Falun Gong truth-clarifying materials in my home, they sentenced me to one year in a forced labour camp. But luckily, I had a relative who was working as a senior police officer. He used his connections and managed to change my sentence so that the one-year ‘Re-Education Through Labour’ sentence could be ‘executed externally’, which meant I could be released.

As a child, Xiaoyao had an equally terrifying experience:

My house was being turned upside down under my eyes when I was 11. The search went on for hours. Twenty policemen worked hard to search for more evidence they could use to prove my mother criminal. Anything digital that belonged to us, such as computers and printers (including the pink flip phone my dad bought me as a birthday gift), were criminal evidence to the police, as we could transmit Falun Gong materials on these devices. I stood there quietly as the police lifted my bedsheet and discovered the scriptures I had hidden there before they entered my room. The father of a friend, whom I grew up with, was sentenced to 10 years in jail merely for having Falun Gong materials at home. I remembered the look on my friend’s young and innocent face when he told me his dad was arrested while his mother was pregnant with him. The image of a father was remote to  him, one which he did not associate with many emotions.
I found the idea of police breaking into the houses of ordinary people and arresting them was very hard to believe until it happened right in front of my eyes. The polices looked sort-of sympathetically at me and said to my mum. ” Don’t do things that are not approved by the government. Look at how miserable you are now!”  The police told my mother that my stepdad was already in the detention centre, (I knew my stepdad was imprisoned in 2000 for 3 years and in 2007 for one year, but I never asked him about his experiences during his imprisonment.) and told her to comply with their investigation. My mother asked them, who, if both her and my stepdad were arrested, was going to take care of me, and the police suggested that my relatives should me to an orphanage.
My perceptions of living in my own country were transformed that night.  I tried not to overthink and managed to carry on with my life and schoolwork. However, the police never really let us go. Just when I thought I was finally able to live free of harassment again, I was quickly proven wrong.  After my mother was released, the police continued to make frequent ‘visits’ to us. I grew frightened and paranoid of little things. I couldn’t help but get frightened and anxious whenever I heard noise outside or knocks on the door, because I was worried that there might be another ransack coming.  I was afraid of opening the door and discovering police waiting outside. There was a faint idea stuck in my head whenever I left for school that my house was going to be searched through again while I was gone. Living in an environment that is filled with state-controlled media (based on the 2018 index from Reporters Without Borders, China is ranked 176th out of 180 countries listed) and newspaper propaganda, my classmates used Falun Gong as a synonym for lunatics and terrorists.   I remember there was one talk given by the headteacher on the school trip to Canada, he warned us not to respond to people passing flyers on the streets. “Those who talk to you on the streets are two kinds of people, drug dealers and Falun Gong!”   Then all my classmates burst into laughter.

It is clear from Xiaoyao’s account that both her and her family were in great danger from such endemic persecution. But what would have been the consequences have been for her if she had not been able to get away?

I read the news that dozens of Falun Gong practitioners, Xu Na (a painter), Zheng Yanmei, Zheng Yujie, and others were kidnapped on July 19th, 2020 and they have been kept in Beijing Dongcheng detention centre to this day. I was friends with several of the young Falun Gong practitioners from that group when I was studying in Beijing in 2018. They are graduate students from well-known universities, and they are only in their mid 20s. Their families did not receive any notice or any legal documents about this arrest for 30 days. The family members asked lawyers to clarify the situation. The entire kidnapping and detention process was unconstitutional and illegal. It’s heart-breaking to think that the girls who made Tiramisu birthday cake and earrings for me 3 years ago have now been kept in a detention centre for more than six months. I have no doubt that had I stayed in China; I would be subjected to the same level of punishment if I persisted in my belief under interrogation. The police could just come to my home and launch a search at any time, using any excuse they wanted. Moving houses did not help either. My family moved more than 10 times when I was in China, and the police always had a way, through their surveillance system, of finding our new address.
Having survived persecution in China and been given asylum, Xiaoyao and her family have made a new life in the UK. She feels safe in the UK, hut still has re-occurring dreams about travelling back to China and finding policemen waiting to arrest her:

Every time when I wake up, I feel a sense of relief and guilt because I know even though it was only a nightmare for me, but it is still a reality for many others (not just Falun Gong practitioners, but political dissidents, Uighurs and Tibetans) in China.
Life in the UK is markedly different to China, but Xiaoyao has adjusted well due to already being fluent in English when she arrived. She explains that her English was especially useful for the family’s asylum application, as she spoke to lawyers and translated legal documents. Most important for her are the friends she has made at school:

With their support and care, I am finally able to open up about my refugee identity to people. It did take me a long time to overcome my fear of being judged, to speak something of ‘abnormality’ out aloud will shatter this sense of ‘normality’ I’ve struggled to regain over the past 3 years of living in the UK. 
For the genocide awareness day, my college hung up posters about several genocides since the Holocaust on the walls. It was a busy lunch break, as usual, students rushed across the corridors to find friends to share crisps with; I was the only person who stopped in front of those posters in the hallway.
Printed underneath a man’s hopeless face on the poster:
“They said never again.”
The look in his eyes conveys an emotion that I know well by heart. Yet it is still happening to this day.
Being a refugee is something I would never have imagined for myself. Just three years ago, I associate the word ‘refugee’ with the images of Syrian children drowning in the sea and not that of my own. I’ve moved houses 15 times in my life, (mostly to escape police harassment) At the end of the day, I don’t think there’s anything I should be ashamed of, and it certainly took me a long time to finally be able to look at my past and feel at peace with it.
There are moments of the day where my thoughts would take me away from my current situation and remind me that there’s more to life than the temporary peacefulness I am experiencing. They say that I am a refugee, I live in this country as a refugee and my life right now is built around the fact that I are a refugee. And I find my life surreal. 

I think it is a lot more challenging for my parents to adjust to life here because they don’t have the language skill and qualifications that they need to continue their former professions here.

Xiaoyao has left behind all of her connections back in China and explains that, although her mother sometimes calls her relatives and she would love to see them again, this is unlikely to be possible in the next few years. She is now in her first year studying Physics at Durham University.

I would never go back to China as long as this persecution is still going on. I would not risk my own life. I enjoy drawing during my free time, and I hope to raise more awareness about this ongoing persecution in China through my art. It’s sad how all the nations across the world, not just the UK, are still trading with China whilst knowing its notorious records of human rights violations. Most people I’ve spoken to barely have any idea about the scale and the brutality of this systematic persecution that’s been going on for over 20 years. Many people’s first reaction when I tell them about my experience as a Falun Gong child in China is why they have never heard of it on the news before. Our asylum application was initially refused (the refusal was later overturned on appeal) by staff at Home Office who thought we lived in a danger-free environment despite the evidence we provided.

Xiaoyao’s remarkable story shows the issues facing many that are part of minority groups in China, and the wider issues of being a refugee and seeking asylum, through her journey from China to the UK, where she initially attended school in Cambridge, before moving with her family to Scotland.