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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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.