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 Brexit select committee walkout is an ominous sign of things to come

Leavers walked out of a meeting of Hilary Benn's "gloomy" committee yesterday. Their inability to accept criticism could have disastrous consequences

“Hilary Benn isn’t managing a select committee. He’s managing an ecosystem.” That was the stark verdict of one member of the Commons' Brexit committee on its fitness for purpose yesterday. If its meeting on the eve of Article 50 is anything to go by, then Benn’s fragile biome might already be damaged beyond repair.

Unhappy with the content of its “gloomy” provisional 155-page report into the government’s Brexit white paper, leavers on the committee walked out of its meeting yesterday. The committee is a necessarily unwieldy creation and it would probably be unreasonable to expect it to agree unanimously on anything: it has 21 members where others have 11, so as to adequately represent Leavers, Remainers and the nations.

Disagreements are one thing. Debate and scrutiny, after all, are why select committees exist. But the Brexiteers’ ceremonial exodus augurs terribly for the already grim-looking trajectory of the negotiations to come. “As I understand it, they don’t like analysing the evidence that they have,” another pro-Remain member of the committee told me.

Therein lies the fundamental weakness of the Brexiteers’ position: they cannot change the evidence. As was the case with the 70 MPs who wrote to Lord Hall last week to accuse the BBC of anti-Brexit bias, they assume a pernicious selectivity on the part of Remainers and their approach to the inconvenient facts at hand. None exists.

On the contrary, there is a sense of resignation among some Remainers on the Brexit committee that their reports will turn out to be pretty weak beer as a consequence of the accommodations made by Benn to their Eurosceptic colleagues. Some grumble that high-profile Brexiteers lack detailed understanding of the grittier issues at play – such as the Good Friday Agreement – and only value the committee insofar as it gives them the opportunity to grandstand to big audiences.

The Tory awkward squad’s inability to accept anything less than the studied neutrality that plagued the Brexit discourse in the run-up to the referendum – or, indeed, any critical analysis whatsoever – could yet make an already inauspicious scenario unsalvageable. If they cannot accept even a watered-down assessment of the risks ahead, then what happens when those risks are made real? Will they ever accept the possibility that it could be reality, and not the Remain heretics, doing Britain down? How bad will things have to get before saving face isn’t their primary imperative?

Yesterday's pantomime exit might have been, as one committee member told me, “hysterically funny”. What’s less amusing is that these are the only people the prime minister deigns to listen to.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.