montreal -- a student at concor-dia University visiting her native China has been snared in a crackdown on the meditation group Falun Gong, which the Chinese government calls "an evil cult and a tumour on society."Ying Zhu, a permanent Canadian resident said by friends to be close to obtaining her citizenship, disappeared May 10 during a trip to visit her family in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. Prior to that, she participated in a Falun Gong demonstration in Hong Kong, where the crackdown against the movement is less draconian than in mainland China.
The Hong Kong Human Rights Information Centre confirms that she is being held by Chinese authorities for her Falun Gong activities.
From the moment Ying Zhu was first taken into custody at the Guangdong train station by agents of "Office 610" -- the Chinese government's special security force created to carry out the Falun Gong crackdown -- Ying Zhu's whereabouts have been a mystery.
"She was waiting for her train (in Hong Kong)," said her travelling companion, Zhili Li. "That's the last we saw of each other."
Zhili said Zhu had planned to visit her husband and parents in Guangdong after arriving by train. Zhili was stopped and deported at the mainland border, but Ying Zhu appears to have been arrested after crossing the border.
"I am worried about her safety," Zhili told reporters through an interpreter in Montreal. "I know how the Chinese regime treats Falun Gong practitioners."
Wherever Ying Zhu is, friends in Montreal and Falun Gong supporters around the world want her to know she's not alone. They are mounting vigils and protests at Chinese embassies and consular offices on her behalf.
Fellow Montrealer and Falun Gong supporter Yumin Yang is one such friend.
"Her physical danger may not be that much at this precise moment," he speculates, "but her mental state is of very grave concern. They had absolutely no reason to arrest her in the first place -- now we suspect they will try to squeeze a reason out of her."
World outrage at the persecution of Falun Gong may prevent her from being physically tortured for now, he says, but Chinese authorities will use psychological torture instead to justify her arrest.
"It has already begun," says Yang. "Her husband, who is there in Guangdong province, is still not allowed to see her. Though he's made many requests, authorities have refused all access to her.
"The only thing we can do is appeal for public support," he says. "We have no other means."
Calls for the Chinese embassy in Ottawa to comment proved fruitless. At the very mention of Falun Gong, the unnamed individual who answers the phone transfers all calls to the "political section," where a recorded message says to "leave a message."
In Toronto, support vigils for Falun Gong detainees are held each morning between 10 and 11 in front of the Chinese consulate at 240 St. George.
Local spokesperson Joel Chipkar says response so far has been "fantastic."
"These vigils will continue every day until the crackdown stops," he adds. "Ying Zhu's case offers one more opportunity to heighten public awareness and help bring an end to this brutal persecution."
Zhu is not the first Canadian or permanent resident victimized by Chinese authorities. Kun Lun Zhang, who holds dual Canadian and Chinese citizenship, returned to China in 1996 to care for his ailing mother. He was arrested for practicing Falun Gong in a public park.
Chinese officials initially refused Canada's request for his release because he travelled on his Chinese passport. But last January, on the eve of a Team Canada trade mission to Beijing, Zhang was released.
Others have been refused entry into their homeland and illegally detained at points of entry. Some have even had their Chinese passports cancelled outright for not renouncing Falun Gong.
At least 216 Falun Gong practitioners are thought to have died in police custody so far, often due to torture. Under the new regulations, that grim toll could mount considerably and quickly.
The number of Falun Gong practitioners in Chinese custody is difficult to ascertain, as is the number of actual followers. The Chinese government says there are 2 million. Founder and leader Master Li Hongzhai claims, from exile in the U.S., that there's a global movement of over 100 million.
"Regardless of numbers, we know that Falun Gong is experiencing a huge crackdown, perhaps in the tens of thousands," Alex Neve of Amnesty International says from Ottawa. "And even that may be too cautious and conservative a number. Anyone committed to Falun Gong is at serious risk."
"We also know that there has been widespread torture, and quite a number of people have died as a direct result," he adds. "Two hundred dead is only a cautious estimate."