China’s other world

Leeshai Lemish tells of his and Ethan Gutmann’s journey into the persecution of Falun Gong

It was 2:00 am and we were sitting on the floor of a Bangkok slum. We had a flight to catch the next morning, but after interviewing Falun Gong refugees for a week we still couldn’t pull away from what they were telling us.

‘At first I thought it was just me. But then, one after another, more Falun Gong practitioners were brought into our cell’, Chen Jie said. ‘Their bellies, chest and backs were also covered with black bubbles from being shocked with cattle-prods’.

Chen and all our interviewees had close friends killed by Chinese police. They were the lucky survivors. I left with a sickening feeling - there’s no way I can ever do their stories justice.

For a year Ethan Gutmann (author of Losing the New China) and I have been travelling the world conducting interviews for his forthcoming book. We’ve received research grants from Earheart Foundation and Sweden’s Wallenberg family, and keep our budget low by sleeping on floors and eating instant noodles. But we’re too embarrassed to complain, considering the stories we hear morning to night.

Confess!

The practitioners we interviewed provided corresponding accounts of persecution they experienced. Here is what it looks like.

Detained for protesting, distributing leaflets, or even practising their faith at home, they are first stripped naked. They are then starved and denied sleep. You will not eat, sleep or go to the toilet, they are told, until you renounce Falun Gong.

Next, relatives are manipulated. Li Weixun told us how her mother was brought in to pressure her into writing a forced confession:

‘My mother said, “Just write it so we can go home, OK”? I chocked back tears.
“I’ll kneel before you”! I held her and said, “Mom, you know Falun Gong made me healthy and happy. What I did was perfectly legal - they’re the ones breaking the law”. My heart bled as I watched my mother leave.’

From the detention centre, where they are often beaten and hung in painful positions, practitioners are sent to ‘reform through labour’ camps. Some reports estimate that over half the camps’ total population are Falun Gong.

In these camps’ cells they work as slaves making products exported to the West. The cell reeks of faeces and urine. When the disposable chopsticks they are wrapping fall on the floor, Chen Ying told us in Paris, they are ordered to wrap them anyway, their fingernails stained with pus and blood.

No illusion

Some, like Li Heping from Hangzhou, were injected with unknown psychotropics. The shot sent the former Motorola technician into hallucinations in which he was surrounded by snakes, frozen, and burned alive, repeatedly dying countless times.

Those were illusions, but real and equally terrifying are reports that Falun Gong practitioners are being killed of their kidneys, livers, and hearts. Fifteen practitioners told us how they were pulled aside from other inmates and given bizarre physical exams – blood tests, torso X-rays, sonograms, urine samples and little else – apparently targeting their organ function. This added to existing evidence, including doctors’ admissions recorded on tape.

So are these horror stories real, or is it just these people’s word against Chinese government denials? The over 100 people we interviewed, and the torture scars some showed, left no ambiguities – this persecution is ongoing and nationwide.

But you don’t have to take our word for it. The arrests, torture, and deaths of Falun Gong adherents are regular features in annual reports by U.N. Special Rapporteurs and organisations like Amnesty International.

Accounts by former policeman Hao Fengjun, who defected to Sydney, corroborate details of beatings, electric baton shock, fabricated propaganda films, and a huge Falun Gong prison population. Other defectors say police act on internal orders coming all the way from the top.

Those who refuse to cooperate are severely punished. A Christian human rights lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, investigated and corroborated Falun Gong’s persecution claims, only to be arrested and tortured himself.

Hidden nearby

The Chinese Communist Party, of course, has gone to great length to hide these atrocities and to buy international silence. That doesn’t make the persecution any less real for practitioners and their families.

Several of my overseas Chinese friends recently called China only to discover their parents had been arrested. Through pre-Olympics roundups over 8,000 practitioners have been detained, some sentenced to years in labour camps.

Blocks away from skyscrapers and Olympic venues in China’s other world are labour camps and prisons full of Falun Gong practitioners. Chinese media, of course, can report none of this.

Even Western journalists told me their newspapers have a blackout policy on Falun Gong. But the complicity of the West is an issue I’ll leave to my next, and final, entry.

Leeshai Lemish has researched and written about Falun Gong since 2001. He has spent the past year travelling around the world to interview its practitioners, including labour camp survivors, for a forthcoming book.
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.