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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.