It began in the middle of the night, July 20, 1999. Across China under the veil of dark, police and security dragged hundreds of ordinary people from their beds. Many would be taken to holding centers and jails, others beaten, and some, reportedly, would be executed.
What had they done? Nothing more than to practice Falun Gong, a traditional form of Chinese exercise and meditation that had grown immensely popular.
Police were acting on orders from the top, from Communist Party head Jiang Zemin, who ordered the group crushed. By most accounts, Jiang was resentful of the popular group – numbering 100 million – and wished to make a show of power.
Two days later, on July 22, Falun Gong was formally outlawed across the land, marking the official beginning of a violent campaign in China that has continued for five years.
The suppression of Falun Gong has been from the outset in violation of China’s own constitution – which promises freedom of belief – and a breach of international human rights treaties China has signed. Millions of apolitical citizens have been cast as enemies of the state.
Jiang declared that “no means are too excessive” in the drive to “eradicate Falun Gong.” To date over 1,000 deaths in state custody have been documented, most owing to torture. Hundreds of thousands more – or even millions, by some estimates – languish while unlawfully held captive in China’s prisons and labor camps. Physical abuse, rape, and forced labor are common. Permeating every facet of society, the persecution is marked by its scope and vigor.
In the words of the United States Congress (see back page), China’s regime has “systematically attempted to eradicate the practice and those who follow it… through organized brainwashing, torture, and murder.”
Georges-Henri Beauthier, a human rights attorney who prosecuted Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and perpetrators of the Rwanda genocide, has called the campaign a “horrific form of genocide.”
The following are the prominent features of the suppression.
Propaganda & Hate Campaigns
Many millions of dollars have been put into saturating China’s TV news, airwaves, and press with defamatory propaganda. The intention is twofold: to distort and demonize Falun Gong so as to turn the public against it; and to mask the government’s human rights abuses by depicting the suppression as humane, beneficent, and necessary for “social order.”
The extent is hard for those of us in the free world to imagine. Schoolchildren are forced to recite poems attacking Falun Gong; college entrance exams contain dozens of questions criticizing the practice; train tickets contain accusatory verses; comic books ridicule the practice; and workplaces hold mandatory “study sessions” on it.
In charge of the disinformation blitz is none other than China’s Ministry of Propaganda.
China’s regime has gone further than just controlling media portrayals of Falun Gong. All books, audiotapes, videos, flyers, T-shirts, and items that cast Falun Gong in a positive light are banned. Ransacking of homes has resulted in over 10 million books being confiscated. Many have been destroyed in large book-burning drives.
All non-propaganda websites so much as mentioning Falun Gong are banned; a mere visit to one can land a person in jail. As many as 100,000 internet police are in place to monitor online activity, according to CNN. Those who practice Falun Gong typically have their phones tapped, email monitored, and house under surveillance.
Attempts to voice disagreement on the government’s Falun Gong policy often meet with disaster. Merely posting a notice can land a person in jail or even lead to execution – new laws brand such acts “subversive.” Several individuals have been sentenced to prison terms of up to 10 years just for visiting banned Falun Gong websites and printing their contents.
Bending the Legal System
To disguise its actions before the world, Jiang Zemin’s faction has gone so far as to re-engineer the legal system. Laws have been created to retroactively punish Falun Gong members. Those who practice the meditation are typically denied legal representation, should they stand accused, and most are sent to forced labor camps without trial. Guilt is presumed, due process denied.
Simply telling family or friends the torture one suffered in custody is now considered “leaking state secrets” – punishable by death or years of imprisonment. (The photos included here were smuggled out at such a risk.)
Noting such measures, BBC reporter Rupert Wingfield-Hayes once remarked: “China’s communist rulers are fond of telling foreign guests how China today is a country ruled by laws. With these new regulations [against Falun Gong] they are hoping to give a veneer of legality to what is essentially a brutal political struggle.”
Coercion and Brainwashing
Most outstanding in the persecution are violations committed while trying to force “renunciations” of Falun Gong. For refusing to part with their beliefs, people who practice Falun Gong are threatened with the loss of their jobs, pensions, utilities, homes, schooling, and even families.
All are targeted with brainwashing – meant to destroy a person’s very identity and reprogram his or her mind.
According to a 2001 Washington Post report, “Some local governments had experimented with brainwashing classes before, but in January, Beijing’s secret 610 office, an interagency task force leading the charge against Falun Gong, ordered all neighborhood committees, state institutions and companies to begin using them.”
Citing sources in the Chinese government, the report continued: “No Falun Gong member is supposed to be spared. The most active members are sent directly to labor camps where they are first ‘broken’ by beatings and other torture.”
Labor “Re-education” Camps
Labor “re-education” camps – China’s answer to the Soviet gulag – are the main holding grounds for Falun Gong followers. Some estimate as many as 2 million are held in such camps. Under inhumane conditions, victims – among whom are children and the elderly – are forced to do heavy, backbreaking labor for upwards of 18 or more hours a day.
Those who collapse, fail to meet quotas, or don’t comply are typically beaten, tortured, or starved. Hundreds have died in these camps. The “re-education” term has to do with the function of the camps, which employ brainwashing.
In a chilling perversion of psychiatry, many perfectly healthy persons have been forcefully committed to China’s mental asylums. For one, the government hopes to discredit Falun Gong by making its participants look crazy.
Secondly, it is used to punish dissenting views. The tools of psychiatry – including electric shock, sedatives, and other drugs – are turned on Falun Gong detainees as a means of torture and manipulation. Such things have found their way beyond the asylum’s walls and into the hands of police and prison guards.
Amnesty International has reported how one Beijing police spokesman connected to these hospitals, when questioned about this abuse, explained that “they are not patients, they are here to be re-educated… Most of them are Falun Gong extremists who have been to Beijing to protest...”
Abuse of Women
Perhaps most disturbing of all is the growing pattern of violations against women. Increasingly it is women of Falun Gong who are abused in custody. To date, 527 such women have died from the physical torment and deprivation suffered in captivity.
Accompanying the killing is pain and humiliation. Women are often sexually abused and even raped by guards. In several instances, Falun Gong women in labor camps and jails have been stripped naked and thrown into male cells for horrific abuse. This was done to 18 women in the notorious Masanjia labor camp. Several women have had their pregnancies violently terminated by authorities who sought to imprison them longer.
There is much more, untold, that we do not know. Tens of millions of lives suffer hurt and damage not likely soon to be mended. Many hang in a delicate balance, one blow, one electric shock, one injection away from death. Though Jiang Zemin is falling quickly from grace, his campaign continues.
Yet amidst so much darkness, hope still remains. It is nestled in the hearts of a determined people, and they are many. Strengthened by their beliefs, they continue to endure, to resist, and to call for our help.
Let us answer.