National Post Published: Tuesday, October 07, 2008
National Post: Mike Clarke/AFPA group of protestors from the mainland China's banned spritual group Falun Gong, stage a performance showing alleged abuse of its members in China at the hands of the government, at a park in Hong Kong.
The Olympics are over, but don't look away from China just yet. The fates of thousands of ordinary Chinese arrested ahead of the Games hinge on what we do this autumn.
For people like my Chinese-American friend Si Yang, these roundups have struck too close to home. In April, Si called his parents in Hebei province only to discover that 20 officers had shown up and taken away his father and sister.
In May, his sister, a 36-year-old employee of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, was sentenced without trial to one-and-a-half years in a labour camp for being a Falun Gong practitioner. Her family has not been allowed to see her since.
Si's sister is not alone. At least 8,000 Falun Gong practitioners have been detained since December. Several have already been tortured to death, according to the Falun Dafa Information Center. Some 5,000 Tibetans have been jailed since March, and countless others were swept up in the pre-Olympic "cleanup."
The Chinese Communist Party is pulling a bait-and-switch -- using pre-Olympic "security measures" to stifle dissenters in the long term.
How bad is it? We don't fully know. We have no idea, for instance, exactly how many Chinese are in "re-education through labour" camps because it's a state secret. Estimates range from 400,000 to four million detainees.
We know the largest group among them are practitioners of Falun Gong. They have been victims of statewide persecution since 1999, when their spiritual meditation discipline became too popular for the party's liking. Last year the Beijing Female Labour Camp, for example, contained 700 Falun Gong practitioners and only 140 actual criminals. The party operates hundreds of similar camps, spanning every Chinese province.
Like the Ministry of Propaganda and committees that control the courts, these gulags are evidence that little has changed since the days of Mao. Police today can pick up any Chinese citizen and make them disappear into a labour camp. Victims have no domestic media to speak to; lawyers who fight for them are often jailed themselves.
And we know what happens in these camps. A colleague and I spent the last year collecting new testimonies from Falun Gong practitioners who survived Chinese detention.
Dai Ying now lives in Norway and is old enough to be my mother. In 2003, she was taking her afternoon nap at home when policemen barged in and took her away. She was sentenced to two years in San-Shui Labour Camp.
She was deprived of sleep for days. "After a long time, I was just muddleheaded and confused. Sometimes I didn't even know where I was," she said. "They wouldn't let me go to the bathroom unless I cursed at [Falun Gong founder] Master Li."
Guards demanded Dai write a statement maligning Falun Gong and renouncing her beliefs. When she refused, they took her to the basement.
"There were a bunch of criminals pressing me down and policemen electrocuted me," she said. "They shocked my face and I went blind in one eye. My head was so painful I couldn't tolerate it. I just cried." The purpose of all this is to "transform" the prisoners -- ideally into Communist Party-loving atheists.
They are also turned into slaves, working 15-20 hours a day. In the cell where they sleep and defecate, they wrap disposable chopsticks for export. If chopsticks fall on the floor, they have to wrap them anyway.
Others perform hard labour outdoors. While digging rocks in Yunnan province, Wang Xiaohua's shaven head was quickly scorched. "As soon as I touched the burnt area I was touching puss, and then when it dried it turned yellow. My whole head was burnt to the point of festering," Wang told us. "But no one cared; if you die you just die."
Worse yet, mounting evidence suggests these prisoners are candidates for involuntary donation of their kidneys, livers, hearts and cornea. For years we have heard that organs in China's transplant industry come from executed prisoners. Now we know they also come from Falun Gong prisoners jailed for their beliefs.
So what will happen to the thousands of nameless Chinese arrested before the Games? Much of that depends on us. We were mostly silent when they were arrested. Now we have a chance to make up for it.
Party leaders are waiting to see what we do. They hope we are too preoccupied with elections and economic crises to worry about them. They hope we will self-censor for fear of losing access in China. They hope despondency with our own human rights failures will have us forever cleaning our own backyards, even as we hear the neighbour murdering his children.
But if heads of state, doctors, scholars, mayors, entrepreneurs and any of us who have collegial interaction with Chinese use every opportunity to raise the issue of shutting down China's gulag system, we can make a difference. Party leaders fear international pressure and we need to sound it across the board. Thousands of lives depend on us.
-Leeshai Lemish has been writing about Falun Gong since 2001 and is currently conducting research with Ethan Gutmann for an upcoming book about the persecution of the group and its resistance.