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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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.