China Syndrome: The Persecution of Falun Gong
Peerman, Dean, The Christian Century
WALKING TOWARD Chicago's Federal Plaza a few months ago, I saw what appeared to be a rather large aggregate of people engaging in aerobic exercises. On closer inspection, however, the group--many of them of Chinese background--proved to be performing the slow-motion rituals of the spiritual movement known as Falun Gong, which claims a worldwide following of around 100 million. A few of the group were approaching passersby and handing out flyers protesting the ongoing crackdown on Falun Gong in China, the country of its origin.
In May an even larger body of Falun Gong practitioners gathered to exercise and meditate on the plaza, this time sharing the space with an exhibition titled "Persecution Meets Principle." Telling the story of the five-years-long suppression of Falun Gong, the display included examples of torture techniques--some with live simulation--used daily by Chinese authorities against the movement's adherents. According to the Falun Dafa Information Center, as of mid-July the number of confirmed deaths among the thousands of practitioners in Chinese custody was 1,006 (all of them named on a Web site), though movement leaders believe the actual number is much higher. Many of the Falun Gong faithful are held in forced-labor camps, often without charge or trial.
Witnesses have confirmed that the Beijing regime removes bodily organs from the corpses of executed prisoners or torture victims--including Falun Gong practitioners--and sells them to third parties. One such witness, expatriate physician Wang Guoqi, said in testimony to a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives that under orders he had removed body parts from more than 100 prisoners.
One of the detainees is a naturalized U.S. citizen: Charles Lee of Menlo Park, California. Because of his Falun Gong affiliation, he was arrested immediately upon deplaning at the Guangzhou Airport in southern China in January of last year. He had hoped to broadcast evidence of China's human rights violations by overriding the state-controlled TV signals; instead, he himself became a victim of the persecution. Reportedly he has been beaten, interrogated repeatedly, deprived of sleep, put through a show trial, dragged and kicked to "reeducation classes," and tied to an iron bed with his limbs stretched in an agonizing way. Worst of all, he has been subjected to extremely painful and potentially lethal forced feedings through his nose. Lee, a member of Amnesty International, knew the risks he was taking in venturing to his homeland to defend the lives of others. Whether one views his undertaking as courageous or merely foolhardy, surely his imprisonment is both unjust and unlawful--as is that of his fellow practitioners.
A reading of three books about Falun Gong--Danny Schechter, Falun Gong's Challenge to China: Spiritual Practice or "Evil Cult"? (Akashic Books); Ian Adams, Riley Adams and Rocco Galati, Power of the Wheel: The Falun Gong Revolution (Stoddart); and Maria Hsia Chang, Falun Gong: The End of Days (Yale University Press)--and a perusal of the writings of Li Hongzhi, the founder, has firmly reinforced my opposition to China's mistreatment of the movement and its followers. But my view of Master Li and his teachings has become considerably more equivocal.
Political scientist Chang--whose book is the best and the latest (2004) of the three--notes that though the Falun Gong leadership maintains that the movement is not a religion but merely promotes spiritual and moral "cultivation" (self-transformation), "an examination of its belief system ... indicates otherwise." In fact, while not an organized religion with professional clergy and houses of worship, it draws heavily on Taoism, Confucianism and especially Buddhism. Falun Gong also utilizes a variant of an age-old folk religion focusing on the practice of qigong (breathing routines believed to replenish energy). Denial of the religious identification may have seemed a prudent stance, says Chang, "given China's long history of religious persecution. …