Falun Gong: defying the odds

Leeshai Lemish talks about Falun Gong’s resistance and the complicity of the West

If this persecution is so severe, why is it so rarely in the news and why isn’t more being done about it?

Last month, I sat down with a journalist in a Taipei pub. ‘The media have a blackout on Falun Gong’, he said. ‘You mean Chinese or Western media’? I asked. ‘Both’.

Indeed, despite notable support from several politicians, journalists and NGOs, after being persecuted for nine years Falun Gong practitioners still face an uphill battle in the West.

On the Defensive

At 3:00pm, 22 July 1999, a news anchor appeared on Chinese screens to announce that Falun Gong was banned. Protesting the ban was also banned.

Falun Gong practitioners in China didn’t know what to do – they were meditators, not political activists. They only knew that the ‘Falun Gong expose’ on television 24-7 was full of lies, and that many of their friends had already been arrested. They thought it was a misunderstanding. Something had to be done.

So they went to designated petition offices to register their complaints. They were arrested. They went to Tiananmen Square to meditate – they were beaten and then arrested.

Naïveté was quickly replaced by a startling realisation – this was a long-prepared-for campaign ordered by the highest echelons of the ruling Communist Party. They were up against the machinery of the world’s biggest authoritarian state.

Some suggested they just practice at home and wait out the campaign, but even that proved unsafe. As their friends and neighbours were tortured to death, Falun Gong turned to the public with a non-violent grassroots movement.

Far from the Western press, they still distribute leaflets and VCDs, hang banners, write letters, and post torture cases online. More daring feats include scaling trees to hide timed loudspeakers that blare about prison torture and killing as police scamper underneath looking for the source. Those caught often pay with their lives.

Out west

As persecution flared in China, out west Falun Gong had no organised voice or press office. Chinese graduate students and other practitioners drove overnight to Washington. When they got there they argued: ‘We should hold a press conference’. ‘No, we should hunger strike’!

Eventually, practitioners showed up at congressional offices wearing shorts and T-shirts. Told that was inappropriate, they returned in suits, fold lines still showing on their new button-down shirts.

One practitioner used his savings to make thousands of copies of black-and-white fact sheets. Years later those seemed too simple, so a biologist and his wife printed beautiful, glossy newsletters. But then people started snickering – ‘Falun Gong, they have so much money’.

In Taiwan, officials ask me if Falun Gong is funded by the CIA. In DC, I’m asked if Falun Gong is funded by the Taiwanese. The truth is, funding comes from very dedicated practitioners.

Those people who showed up in shorts back in 1999 now run budding media enterprises funded by advertising and the pockets of a few practitioners who can afford to donate.

They have already registered successes. The Nine Commentaries, printed by the Epoch Times, has sparked waves of resignations from the Chinese Communist Party. New Tang Dynasty Television has been at the forefront of reporting on debacles associated with the Sichuan earthquake, Tibet and other stories Chinese media won’t cover. Until recently a French satellite company beamed this content into China. Beijing pressured Eutelsat to betray the contract, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Indeed, Beijing has spared little effort. Chinese diplomats hand officials in London and Geneva magazines comparing Falun Gong to groups that gas subways and commit mass suicide. They wave carrots of ‘sister city’ relations, and sticks of cancelling business deals.

Top universities haven’t escaped either. At my alma mater, the London School of Economics, carrots are exchange programs and the Confucian Institute. As many will admit in private, the stick of being denied access to China has long kept scholars from writing boldly about Falun Gong.

Taboo

A study I published about Western press coverage found that the more Falun Gong practitioners have been killed, the less media have reported on it. Practitioners, like starving Africans, have become what Herman and Chomsky call ‘unworthy victims’.

Be it due to self-censorship policies, a bias against religion, judgments that Falun Gong is weird, compassion fatigue, or Falun Gong’s own poor marketing skills, many journalists avoid the story.

Meanwhile, media conglomerates have been falling over each other trying to get into the China market. Some media websites (like the BBC and SCMP) have been blocked after running a story on Falun Gong - one of China’s biggest taboos. So they remain mostly silent. That is why practitioners are producing their own media.

In China, many remain apathetic. But leading lawyers, activists, local officials, and countless ordinary Chinese have gradually come over to Falun Gong’s side. Yet in the West, many still speak of cultural relativism or illusions that the Olympics and free-trade will solve it all - eventually.

But those with relatives rotting in jail cannot wait. Practitioners are further motivated by belief in karma. They worry that those who are complicit, knowingly or not, are ultimately hurting themselves. They are also optimistic that no just action will go unrewarded.

Falun Gong practitioners will thus keep telling people about the persecution until it ends. We ask you to help us - through your thoughts and prayers, words and deeds, emails and links.

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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The Manchester attack will define this election: Broadcasters have a careful line to tread

It's right that the government should be given a chance to respond, but they must not be allowed to use it to campaign.

Every election campaign has its story, its place in the political history of this country. 2017 will forever be known for Manchester and the horror of the attack on Britain's young; and fighting terrorism will be a theme, overt or underlying, of what we see and hear between now and polling day.

The broadcasters have covered the events comprehensively yet sensitively. But they are aware that we're in an election campaign too; and when other news drives aside the carefully-balanced campaign formats, ministerial appearances give them a dilemma.

The fact is that what the Prime Minister and Home Secretary are doing in response to Manchester is newsworthy. It was Theresa May's duty to implement the recommendations of her security advisers on the elevation of the terror alert, and it would have been unthinkable for the news channels not to broadcast her various statements.

But it is also true that, if the bomb hadn't been detonated, Tuesday would have been a day in which the PM would have been under relentless damaging scrutiny for her u-turn on social care. All the opposition parties would have been in full cry across the airwaves. Yet in the tragic circumstances we found ourselves, nobody could argue that Downing Street appearances on the terror attack should prompt equal airtime for everyone from Labour to Plaid Cymru.

There are precedents for ministers needing to step out of their party roles during a campaign, and not be counted against the stopwatch balance of coverage. Irish terrorism was a factor in previous elections and the PM or Northern Ireland secretary were able to speak on behalf of the UK government. It applied to the foot and mouth epidemic that was occupying ministers' time in 2001. Prime ministers have gone to foreign meetings before, too. Mrs Thatcher went to an economic summit in photogenic Venice with her soulmate Ronald Reagan three days before the 1987 election, to the irritation of Neil Kinnock.

There are plenty of critics who will be vigilant about any quest for party advantage in the way that Theresa May and Amber Rudd now make their TV and radio appearances; and it’s inevitable that a party arguing that it offers strength and stability will not object to being judged against these criteria in extreme and distressing times.

So it's necessary for both broadcasters and politicians to be careful, and there are some fine judgements to be made. For instance, it was completely justifiable to interview Amber Rudd about the latest information from Manchester and her annoyance with American intelligence leaks. I was less comfortable with her being asked in the same interview about the Prevent strategy, and with her response that actions would follow "after June", which edges into party territory and would be a legitimate area to seek an opposition response.

When the campaigning resumes, these challenges become even greater. Deciding when the Prime Minister is speaking for the government and nation, or when she is leader of the Conservative Party, will never be black and white. But I would expect to see the broadcast bulletins trying to draw clearer lines about what is a political report and what is the latest from Manchester or from G7. They must also resist any efforts to time ministerial pronouncements with what's convenient for the party strategists' campaign grid.

There might also usefully be more effort to report straight what the parties are saying in the final days, with less spin and tactical analysis from the correspondents. The narrative of this election has been changed by tragedy, and the best response is to let the politicians and the public engage as directly as possible in deciding what direction the nation should now take.

Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge. He was formerly editorial director and the director of London 2012 at the BBC.

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