Falun Gong Crackdown Highlights Religious Freedom Issue in China

Nick Ut, AP

Nick Ut, AP

BEIJING — Now entering its second decade, China’s relentless drive to obliterate the Falun Gong spiritual sect has left a human toll ranging from the deaths of followers in custody to the self-exile of others and the beatings of their lawyers.

The April 25, 1999, demonstration was intended to show how Falun Gong believers had learned compassion, forbearance and tolerance, said practitioner Bu Dongwei in a telephone interview from the United States, where he fled six months ago.

But the size and discipline of those who gathered unsettled the communist leadership, ever wary of independent groups that could threaten its authority.

Two months later, the group was … banned, its leadership arrested, and a campaign launched to forcibly reconvert millions of believers. Anyone practicing Falun Gong or even possessing materials about it could be arrested.

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At a highway off-ramp on the outskirts of Beijing, Yu Qun, a non-practitioner, reluctantly met an Associated Press reporter to show pictures and tell the story of her younger brother, Yu Zhou, a folk musician and a practitioner who died last year in police custody. She believes her phone is tapped and asked that her picture not be taken for fear it could jeopardize her son’s hopes of going abroad.

Tall and musically gifted, Yu Zhou studied French at the elite Peking University and later lived a Bohemian existence in China’s capital with his wife, an artist and poet.

Despite taking part in 1989 student-led pro-democracy demonstrations centered at Tiananmen Square, Yu was not a serious political activist, his sister said.

“Really happy, funny. He really liked people, whether they were strangers or people he knew well … He had a gentle personality and was always thinking of other people,” she said, cradling a small collection of his snapshots in her lap.

In January last year, Yu, 41, and his wife were stopped, allegedly for speeding, as they drove home from a concert. Police detained the couple after finding CDs and printed material about Falun Gong in their car.

Ten days later, Yu Qun was called to the detention center’s hospital. Her brother had died but authorities were unclear about the cause. First they said he had been sick, then they told her he died from dehydration as a result of a hunger strike. They refused to let her see the body, making her suspect he had been mistreated.

More than a year later, the case remains unresolved. Police have not granted the family’s request for an autopsy or an investigation.

China’s Public Security Bureau did not immediately respond to a faxed request seeking information about the case.

Yu Zhou’s wife Xu Na is serving a three-year sentence at a reeducation through labor facility for possessing the materials found in the car.

In recent years, a handful of Chinese lawyers have begun taking Falun Gong cases. Cheng Hai, a self-trained Beijing lawyer represents Yu Zhou’s wife and family, as well as six other practitioners.

He says he was beaten earlier this month while trying to visit the home of another Falun Gong client.

Not a believer himself, he is motivated to take the cases by his belief in citizens’ right to freedom of religion. He compares the struggle to the fight for civil rights in 1950’s America.

“In China, a lot of people feel it’s not worth fighting for their rights because they are so likely to fail,” Cheng said. “They don’t know that the big victories are won by adding up many, many small wins and actions.”

Bu, the practitioner who took part in the 1999 demonstration, served 10 months in a labor camp after writing a letter to the Beijing leadership defending Falun Gong in 2000. A search of his home in 2006 turned up Falun Gong books and landed him in the same facility again — this time for 2-1/2 years.

In November, Bu and his young daughter boarded a plane for the United States and left China, knowing if he stayed he would continue to be persecuted. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Los Angeles.

“I hope I can go back. I am sure I will go back soon after, you know, the Communist Party is over,” he said.