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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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.