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.
Show Hide image

Leader: The angry middle

As a sense of victimhood extends even to the middle classes, it makes Western democracies much more difficult to govern.

Two months after the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, it remains conventional wisdom that the referendum result was largely a revolt by the so-called left behind. Yet this is not the full picture. Many of the 52 per cent who voted Leave were relatively prosperous and well educated, yet still angry and determined to deliver a shock to the political system. We should ask ourselves why the English middle class, for so long presumed to be placid and risk-averse, was prepared to gamble on Brexit.

Populism has long appealed to those excluded from political systems, or from a share in prosperity. In recent years, however, its appeal has broadened to young graduates and those on above-average incomes who also feel that they have not benefited from globalisation. The sense of middle-class victimhood has become a major strand in Western politics.

In the United States, middle-class anger has powered support for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. The former drew his activist base mostly from young liberals. And while Mr Trump’s success in the Republican primaries was often attributed to a working-class insurrection against “the elites”, exit poll data showed that the median yearly income of a Trump voter was $72,000, compared with a national average of $56,000. (For supporters of Hillary Clinton, the figure was roughly $61,000.) It is not the have-nots who have powered Mr Trump’s rise, but the have-a-bits.

In the UK, similar forces can be seen in the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. Indeed, research shows that three-quarters of Labour Party members are from the top social grades, known as ABC1. About 57 per cent have a degree.

Mr Sanders, Mr Trump and Mr Corbyn have very different policies, ideologies and strategies, but they are united by an ability to tap into middle-class dissatisfaction with the present order. Some of that anger flows from politicians’ failure to convey the ways in which society has improved in recent years, or to speak truthfully to electorates. In the UK and much of the West, there have been huge gains – life expectancy has risen, absolute poverty has decreased, teenage pregnancy has fallen to a record low, crime rates have fallen, and huge strides have been made in curbing gender, sexual and racial discrimination. Yet we hear too little of these successes.

Perhaps that is why so many who are doing comparatively well seem the most keen to upset the status quo. For instance, pensioners voted strongly to leave the EU and are the demographic from which Ukip attracts most support. Yet the over-65s are enjoying an era of unprecedented growth in their real incomes. Since 2010, the basic state pension has risen by over four times the increase in average earnings. 

Among young people, much of their anger is directed towards tuition fees and the iniquities of the housing market. Yet, by definition, tuition fees are paid only by those who go into higher education – and these people receive a “graduate bonus” for the rest of their lives. Half of school-leavers do not attend university and, in a globalised world, it is their wages that are most likely to be undercut by immigration.

However, we should not be complacent about the concerns of the “angry middle”. The resentment exploited by Donald Trump is the result of 40 years of stagnant median wages in the United States. In Japan and Germany, median wages have not increased in the past two decades. In the UK, meanwhile, the median income for those aged 31-59 is no greater than it was in 2007, and those aged 22-30 are 7 per cent worse off, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

To compound the problem, the wealthy keep getting wealthier. In 1980, American CEOs were paid 42 times the wage of the average worker. They are now paid 400 times as much. In the UK, the share of household income going to the top 1 per cent has more than doubled since 1979. Because of our hyperconnected, globalised media culture, we see more of the super-rich, fuelling feelings of resentment.

As a sense of victimhood extends even to the middle classes, it makes Western democracies much more difficult to govern, with voters oscillating between populists of the left and the right. The political centre is hollowing out. Rather than pander to the populists, we must do more to quell the politics of victimhood by addressing the root of this corrosive sense of grievance: entrenched inequality. 

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser