Friday, August 14, 2009

John Li: Falun Gong survives assault by China

01:00 AM EDT on Monday, July 27, 2009

NEW YORK Projo.Com

AS SOME SEE IT, Nostradamus’s most famous quatrain, predicting that the King of Terror would descend in July 1999, failed to come true, costing the prognosticator his credibility. To millions of Falun Gong practitioners in China, however, that prophecy has fulfilled itself with terrifying precision.

On July 20, 1999, an outburst of fanaticism suddenly gripped China. Amidst a constant cacophony of Cultural Revolution-style propaganda blitz, tentacles of the communist regime reached into every nook and cranny of the vast land. This unbridled unleashing of venom targeted Chinese citizens practicing Falun Gong, a spiritual movement based on traditional Chinese beliefs and exercises. They were rounded up by the police, and forced to give up their faith. Many refused, and they became the victims of a ten-year struggle by the atheist government to wipe out Falun Gong.

So far, over 3,000 Falun Gong practitioners have reportedly been tortured to death; hundreds and thousands more are now toiling and languishing in labor camps. Fighting Falun Gong has even become a top priority of China’s foreign missions. Diplomats’ vulgar anti-Falun-Gong language jarred with the image of a confident, rising China that the regime painstakingly projects to the outside world.

For its savagery and irrationality, the persecution offers a rare, but sobering, glimpse into a country in flux. It highlights the totalitarianism perpetuated by the current regime that tends to be shrugged off by people obsessed with China’s seeming prosperity. Ian Johnson, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, knew this the best. He earned the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting about Falun Gong followers adhering to their beliefs in the face of the persecution. One of them, 57-year-old Ms. Chen Zixiu, was beaten to death by a cattle prod, and left in a pool of her own blood.

Nobody now knows how many persevered in their practice after the crackdown; nobody can write off the Falun Gong, either. Its organization estimated that millions of users accessed its Web site regularly. They were able to do so because of Freegate, a software developed by Falun Gong volunteers to circumvent the Chinese government’s Internet censorship. The software has also found its popularity in such information-challenged places as Iran, Burma, etc. Ten years onward, Falun Gong has survived the lethal wrath of July 1999. By Chinese standards, this is an unprecedented miracle, since no mandated public enemy has ever done this before.

Falun Gong’s unusual allure and resiliency speak to a collective reawakening of the Chinese people to their spiritual identity. It came at the right moment to fill in a vacuum left by the demise of communist ideology. This explains the insecurity of the Chinese leaders, who saw the rise of Falun Gong as a viable threat to their legitimacy, a competing force that has to be crushed sooner or later.

On April 25, 1999, thousands of followers gathered outside the government’s petition office (incidentally, close to the leadership compound) for release of jailed fellow practitioners. The event thrust the Falun Gong into the international spotlight, and some believe, precipitated the persecution. They were wrong. Investigations by Public Security, always a prelude to an official crackdown in China, started as far back as in summer 1997. On my visit during that summer to a Falun Gong practitioner, also a high-ranking party official, she said her local practitioners had carefully stashed away their Falun Gong books and paraphernalia for fear of police harassment. In retrospect, with or without the April 25 protest, the persecution would have taken place.

Ten years is a long time, at least long enough to refute the once popular comparison between an apparently peaceful Falun Gong and the deadly Taiping Uprising or Boxer’s Rebellion. A new, visceral reaction at the mention of Falun Gong seems to have gained traction nonetheless: Falun Gong is controversial.

Since 1999, China has changed a lot economically. Perhaps, with its ascension to the World Trade Organization, its prestigious membership card at the G8 Summit, and the dazzling spectacles at the Beijing Olympics, China has also earned a seat at the table to pass judgments on Western values. Well, if that is true, then Falun Gong might be controversial — just as freedom and democracy are in China.

Of all the prominent (read tragic) Chinese anniversaries this year, from the uprising in Tibet in 1959 to the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, the repression against Falun Gong is obviously the most recent and relevant in fathoming the future of Communist China, which is celebrating its 60-year anniversary. If history offers any guide, nearly no one predicted the sudden collapse of the Soviet bloc, because the Kremlinologists only looked at numbers, missing the most important and intractable variable in the equation: a country’s psyche.

Falun Gong should be helpful in this regard. It cuts through the fanfare of China’s economic development and geopolitical intrigues, and goes straight to the heart of the issues that make China what it is today. For instance, unburdened by such superficially complicating factors as ethnic tension and religious strife that cloud people’s thinking, Falun Gong is a clean laboratory test that shows who should be held responsible for the recent riots in Tibet and Xinjiang.

This means, sadly, for all its exceptional qualities, Falun Gong cannot escape the same fate of other Chinese movements commemorating their losses. As long as the current regime is in power, Falun Gong’s crusade has to go on, it seems.

John Li is a professor of economics at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York.

OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

One year after start of games, Olympic flame exinguished for good

    MONTREAL, Aug. 7 /CNW Telbec/ - A year after the Beijing Olympics began
on 8 August 2008, Reporters Without Borders regrets that the limited progress
China made in free expression has largely evaporated. Only foreign journalists
continue to benefit from measures that were adopted for the Olympic Games.
Online censorship and repression of free speech activists have been stepped up
in the past year.

"The new openness touted by the organisers of the Beijing Olympics and
the International Olympic Committee was just an illusion," Reporters Without
Borders said. "The dozens of petition organisers and human rights activists
who were jailed for speaking out before and during the games have been joined
in prison by lawyers, bloggers and intellectuals who had hoped the Olympic
promises would be kept. Their disappointment matches the cynicism displayed by
the authorities during the games."

Reporters Without Borders calls for the release of all the Chinese
citizens who are being held for speaking out or demanding their rights during
the Beijing Olympic Games. See the petition:

The colossal sums being spent on disseminating the Communist Party of
China's official view suggest that the authorities have learned the lesson
from the protests that accompanied the games. But the party's media control
apparatus, the Propaganda Department, does not seem to have learned the lesson
from its disastrous decision to cover up the tainted baby formula scandal
because of the games. Coverage of public health and general interest issues is
still being censored.

Olympic prisoners

Dozens of dissidents and ordinary citizens are still in prison for
expressing their view of the Olympic Games or criticising the government at a
time when international attention was focussed on Beijing. The most famous of
these detainees is human rights activist Hu Jia, who is serving a 3 1/2-year
sentence in Beijing.

Yang Chunlin, the leading initiator of the "We want human rights not
Olympic Games" campaign, is being mistreated in prison. An intermediate court
in the northeastern city of Jiamusi sentenced him on 24 March 2008 to five
years in prison followed by two years without civic rights on a charge of
"inciting subversion of state authority."

Human rights activist Zheng Mingfang has fared little better. She was
sent to a camp for reeducation through work in April 2008 for a two-year
period because she published an open letter to the authorities before the
Olympic Games. It was criticism of the games that also led to pro-democracy
activist Zhang Wenhe being forcibly confined to a psychiatric hospital.

A Guangxi woman, Huang Liuhong, and her two sisters have spent nearly a
year in detention without trial. They went to Beijing during the September
2008 Paralympics to protest property seizure by local officials and were
arrested (along with a fourth relative) after being interviewed by a US
journalist. After being held for 314 days in one of China's many grim prisons,
she is still facing a one-year jail sentence for "vandalism."

Filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen has been detained since March 2008 for
interviewing Tibetans, especially in the Amdo region, for a documentary he
made about Tibet. Called "Leaving Fear Behind" (,
the film was screened clandestinely in Beijing during the Olympics.

Foreign journalists still privileged?

The organisers of the Beijing games provided the foreign media with
spectacular installations and comforts and the authorities changed the rules
for foreign journalists radically, allowing them an unprecedented freedom of
movement and freedom to interview.

The new rules are still in force but they are applied in a very uneven
manner. They are not applied at all in Tibet and the Tibetan regions, where
dozens of foreign journalists were prevented from working during the rioting
in March 2008 and again, on the anniversary of the riots, in March 2009. The
government allowed the foreign press to go to Xinjiang immediately after last
month's rioting there, but journalists were arrested if they showed too much
interest in the fate of Uyghurs held by the police.

The foreign media's freedom to work was also curbed in the run-up to the
20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in June, when the political
police arrested of threatened many dissidents or other persons who are used as
sources by foreign reporters.

The central government is also trying to exercise closer control over
Chinese citizens who work for foreign news media, forcing them to register
with official or semi-official bodies. And many foreign news media, radio
stations and websites, are still being censored without any official

New communication strategy - lessons from the Olympics?

The Chinese authorities accused the foreign media of being anti-Chinese
during the March 2008 events in Tibet and the Olympic torch relay. A
nationalist campaign was launched to intimidate the foreign media and some
countries were accusing of demonizing Beijing's human rights performance in

To combat "western influence," the Chinese authorities allocated
additional resources to the provision of more favourable news and information
internationally. Tens of millions of euros were invested in creating an
international version of the government television station CCTV, and the other
leading state-owned media were urged to promote their services more abroad.

The Chinese media were forced to use only the official version of events
during the rioting in Tibet and Xinjiang, while the state apparatus
orchestrated the incitement of hatred against minorities in order to better
cover up the existence of Tibetan and Uyghur victims. The debate on the
failure of current policies in these restive provinces was quickly restricted
to the few liberal publications.

End of Olympic good times online

The arrival of thousands of foreign journalists for the games resulted in
censorship being eased for Chinese Internet users. But almost all the websites
that were unblocked at the time of the games have since been blocked again.
A major Internet filtering campaign was launched by the information
ministry on 5 January 2009 with the declared aim of combating pornography.
State enterprises heeded calls for renewed vigilance about website content.
Among the sites that were blocked was the political blog portal Bullog
(, which had "published many negative reports of a
political nature," the information ministry said. The New York Times website
has also been blocked several times.

To boost the campaign's effectiveness, the government ordered Chinese and
foreign computer manufacturers to install a filtering software on all
computers sold in China. Called "Green Dam Youth Escort," it is supposed to
protect young people from "negative" Internet content. Its filtering options
include the possibility of blocking political and religious content, including
content linked to the Falun Gong movement. After an outcry, the authorities
postponed obligatory installation of the software.

But not all online censorship is done in the name of combating
pornography. The authorities censored all Uyghur-language websites during last
month's rioting in Xinjiang and they are still inaccessible
( Access to the
video-sharing website YouTube has also been blocked since March, without any
official reason being given.

Bloggers and other Internet users continue to comment and criticise the
ins and outs of Chinese society and politics. With increasing frequency, this
forces the official media to cover embarrassing stories they would rather have
ignored. But repressive measures are nonetheless still being taken against
bloggers, especially by authorities at the local level. At least 10 have been
arrested in connection with their blogging in the past 12 months.

OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008