Misunderstanding Falun Gong and the Human Cost of Getting it Wrong

?As this report goes to print, hundreds of thousands (if not over a million) of Falun Gong practitioners remain captive in prison camps, labor camps or detention centers, rendering them the largest single group of prisoners of conscience in China, and perhaps the world. Tens of millions of other Chinese citizens who practice Falun Gong at home live on the edge, at constant risk of being suddenly deprived of their employment, their housing, their freedom, or even their lives.

And yet, the response internationally, by media, human rights workers and others focused on China has not, in most cases, reflected the scope and nature of the persecution faced by Falun Gong practitioners. Despite a wealth of evidence attesting to the scale and brutality of the persecution, in 2009 and 2010, news articles in major Western media or press releases from human rights groups about Falun Gong were few and far between.

Why is that?

The challenges facing anyone aiming to investigate, let alone put an end to, human rights abuses inside China abound. The hurdles one faces in Falun Gong’s case are even more intense. Yet, beyond the physical obstacles the CCP has erected to prevent interested parties from investigating, certain concepts often stand in the way of the international community taking a deeper look into the plight of practitioners.

In the following pages, six challenges often encountered by those who approach the Falun Gong issue are outlined. By introducing and addressing them, we hope to open a dialog about the difficulties of reporting on Falun Gong in China with the ultimate aim of improving the ability of all of us to accurately and consistently portray this important aspect of life in contemporary Chinese society.

Realizing such a goal will help save innocent lives. Moreover, it will contribute to more informed and effective decision-making about China as a whole.

Challenge #1: The misconception that Falun Gong has been crushed and is no longer an issue of importance discourages rigorous, consistent investigation and reporting of abuses against Falun Gong practitioners.

It is not an uncommon notion among China watchers today that Falun Gong has been crushed or at least that Falun Gong is no longer an issue of relevance in China today. This perception stems largely from the Communist Party’s own claims to this effect and from its lowering of Falun Gong’s profile in official rhetoric or state-run media. It also stems from the absence of public protests by Falun Gong practitioners in China, a once common scene on Tiananmen Square replaced since 2001 by less visual forms of civic resistance. (For an in depth account of the evolution of Falun Gong practitioners’ response to the persecution, see: “Falun Gong’s Peaceful Resistance.”)

However, the Communist Party’s own actions and internal statements contradict its rhetoric. If indeed Falun Gong is crushed, why in the run up to the Olympics, were Party directives to target Falun Gong featured on websites for all 31 of China’s provincial-level jurisdictions? Why would recent statements by Party officials continue to use phrases like “we must not loosen our hold on the struggle with ‘Falun Gong’ in the slightest way,” or refer to the campaign as an “unrelenting protracted war,” as Washington’s Congressional-Executive Commission on China cited in its 2009 annual report? Meanwhile, Falun Gong-related content remains among the most widely censored topic on the Chinese Internet.

Beyond official sources, if the large-scale crackdown on Falun Gong is a thing of the past, why would China’s human rights lawyers have collectively represented hundreds of adherents over the past two years? And why would petitioners and others released from prison and labor camps consistently report that Falun Gong practitioners continue to make up a significant percentage of detainees, and in many cases, the majority of individuals being held at these camps?

In fact, Falun Gong practitioners number in the tens of millions inside China. Everyday, somewhere in China, some of these people are incarcerated for practicing Falun Gong and/or engaging in the peaceful and lawful dissemination of newsletters or other homemade materials to inform fellow citizens about the abuses they suffer. Drawing on even the small number of cases the Center is able to confirm, a Falun Gong practitioner dies from torture or abuse in China once every three days.

Challenge #2: The Communist Party has worked tirelessly to depict Falun Gong as a fringe, weird group despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary. Over the years, aspects of the Party’s anti-Falun Gong propaganda have slowly gained some traction in the West.

When Falun Gong first drew international attention in 1999, few Western reporters had been following its growth in China or personally encountered its practitioners. Meanwhile, the only characterizations of the group at the time were those put out by the Party’s propaganda departments, whose aim was to vilify and dehumanize practitioners in order to justify the assault against them. Many of these initial characterizations have stuck due to ongoing Communist Party propaganda, which has grown more nuanced and effective over the years.

Yet, several key facets of the Falun Gong story expose the distortions in the Party’s narrative. For instance, according to Chinese government statistics and Western media reports from 1999, at least 70 million people were estimated to be practicing Falun Gong, 5.5 percent of the population at the time. This reflected adherents’ presence among mainstream society, rather than on its fringes. According to scholars such as Harvard’s Elizabeth Perry, it was precisely Falun Gong’s ability to attract people from across a wide range of social and geographical strata—including from within the Party itself—that contributed to Party leaders’ fear of its spread. Yet, in an effort to downplay the scale of the new repressive campaign, only a few months after the Party launched its attack on Falun Gong, Chinese officials announced Falun Gong’s numbers were a little over 2 million, ostensibly a “drop in the bucket” in a country of over one billion.

Similarly, the broader cultural context from which Falun Gong and many of its beliefs stem—including those that may appear odd to Western eyes—is often overlooked. This context includes the long heritage of comparable self-cultivation practices in Chinese history, Falun Gong’s emergence in the midst of a larger “qigong boom” in China, and the proven ability of Chinese medicine and meditation to enhance physical and spiritual well-being. Falun Gong’s authentic ties to Chinese culture are one reason for its popularity in democratic Taiwan, where tens of thousands of people practice freely and the practice has gained public endorsement from government officials at every level and across party lines.

This background also lends additional context to the Communist Party’s hostility towards Falun Gong. As an atheistic, foreign import that spent the first decades of its rule systematically destroying all things traditionally Chinese, the Communist Party and its leaders saw the spread of a practice that revives genuine Chinese culture and values as a threat to their legitimacy.

Challenge #3: Falun Gong reports of persecution are difficult to verify independently, and in some circles, considered not credible.

There is no doubt that investigating allegations of human rights violations in China is not an easy task, given the multiple layers of obstruction put forth by the Chinese authorities. Such challenges are further enhanced in the case of Falun Gong because the Party places even greater emphasis on keeping the situation of Falun Gong in China under lock and key. Nevertheless, as evident from this magazine, multiple channels exist through which credible information about the reality of the persecution can be obtained. In addition to practitioners’ first-hand accounts, the details of specific cases or the overall thrust of the campaign can be gleaned from a range of independent sources, including: defectors, family members, human rights lawyers, individuals previously imprisoned alongside practitioners, government websites, and online university application procedures.

Indeed, the wealth of potential sources of information creates an additional challenge—how does one deal with a population of victims that numbers in the thousands, tens of thousands, or even in the millions? How does one verify not one or two cases per year of a Falun Gong practitioner being “sentenced” to a prison camp, but over 1,300 such cases, as in the list compiled and published by the Falun Dafa Information Center on its website? Such an undertaking is indeed daunting. Yet, shouldn’t it at least be attempted? Shouldn’t the response to researching atrocities of such a scale be to devote more resources to the task, not fewer?

The dearth of international efforts to independently research what is happening to Falun Gong practitioners also generates a vicious cycle in which overseas adherents are perceived as the primary voices “claiming” that the persecution is ongoing. Others then dismiss such assertions without thorough investigation, citing the lack of independent confirmation. As overseas groups like the Falun Dafa Information Center emerge as the principal source of thorough, detailed research about the campaign, the lack of more independent in-depth investigation causes some observers to question Falun Gong’s credibility, even though the information provided is of high quality.

The reality is that overseas volunteer Falun Gong human rights workers are fed information from thousands of sources inside China—an unparalleled network of reporters and informants. The sheer size and scope of this network, along with Falun Gong’s tenet requiring practitioners to be truthful, mean that reports and cases put forth by Falun Gong practitioners can offer those outside China a unique perspective into what is happening on the ground.

Challenge #4: The Chinese authorities will not budge on nor discuss the persecution of Falun Gong, so some have felt that it is more ‘practical’ to work on areas of human rights in China where the Chinese authorities may at least be willing to engage in discussion and compromise.

When dealing with Chinese officials, Falun Gong is often a conversation-stopper. As many Western diplomats have discovered, it is an issue on which Chinese representatives will not engage in meaningful discussion or dialogue. Some governmental and non-governmental actors have therefore taken the approach of avoiding the taboo topic with the hope of securing “progress” on less “sensitive” issues. Yet simply because Chinese officials refuse to engage in discussion on an issue, does this mean others should comply? Who, then, is setting the agenda? When dealing with officials from a regime known to dole out abuses on a large scale, shouldn’t the focus precisely be on the populations that most need our help? Real progress must be measured when real detention, abuse and torture cease, not just in a few isolated cases, but on a systemic level.

The tendency to avoid taboo issues and instead focus on less “sensitive” ones rests on the assumption that somehow the tactics used against groups like Falun Gong will not be expanded to others, that what is happening to Falun Gong practitioners is only “Falun `Gong’s problem,” and that those who stay away from such “troublemakers” will not incur the Communist Party’s wrath. On-the-ground developments point to the faulty nature of such assumptions, however.

First, as outlined in a recent article by Ethan Gutmann, the religious persecution Falun Gong practitioners have encountered is a reality imposed on them by the Communist Party, beginning as early as 1996. Even the April 1999 appeal in Beijing was a response to official injustice that had already occurred, much like contemporary appeals by petitioners or parents of children who died in the Sichuan earthquake. Falun Gong practitioners had no desire to be labeled a “sensitive” issue. Their main concern was to secure a peaceful environment in which to pursue their preferred path of personal spiritual growth.

Second, the Chinese authorities are already expanding the tools of persecution refined during the decade-long assault on Falun Gong to other groups deemed “undesirable” by the regime. A system of detention centers and incentives used to stop Falun Gong practitioners from appealing in Beijing is now used against petitioners, Christian groups are threatened with being branded with the “heretical organization” label used to imprison Falun Gong adherents, and anti-Falun Gong propaganda strategies from 1999-2001 have resurfaced in vilifying programming about Tibetans and Uyghurs in 2008 and 2009. Meanwhile, the same censorship apparatus that blocks the circulation of information about Falun Gong has been used to “black out” news of public health threats, such as SARS or melamine-tainted milk.

Thus, so long as a civilian population of the size and innocence of Falun Gong practitioners is systematically denied basic rights, is it realistic to assume that others’ rights will be protected? Will the country be able to establish an independent judiciary or a free press? No. Rather, the continued persecution against Falun Gong represents a fundamental challenge to the ability of all Chinese to enjoy basic freedoms and for China to emerge as a stable, just society. It is partly this rationale that has prompted China’s leading human rights lawyers to represent Falun Gong practitioners, despite the risk such action could pose to themselves.

The Human Cost of Effective Party Propaganda

On a daily basis, individuals across China who come into contact with Falun Gong practitioners are forced to make decisions that can have life or death consequences – will they report their neighbor or colleague to the police, often the first step to a practitioner winding up in a detention center or labor camp? Will they dare to voice criticism of the abusive policy? If they work in law enforcement, will they torture a practitioner?

How these individuals perceive Falun Gong practitioners undoubtedly contributes to the decisions they reach. This is why the Chinese Communist Party—following a common pattern in cases of large scale persecution—has used a propaganda campaign to vilify those who practice Falun Gong. The aim is to rally public support, dehumanize victims of abuse, and justify the inhumane measures taken against them.

In 2007, Amnesty International brought this dynamic to light, stating: “Amnesty International has raised concerns that the official campaign of public vilification of Falun Gong in the official Chinese press has created a climate of hatred against Falun Gong practitioners in China which may be encouraging acts of violence against them.”

International reinforcement of propaganda depicting practitioners as somehow dangerous or abnormal can also tilt the answers to the above questions in the wrong direction. By uncritically repeating inaccurate and vilifying labels such as “sect” or “cult”, international media essentially assist in propagating—and appearing to authenticate—a false portrayal of Falun Gong, with all the grave costs that entails to people inside China.

This is all the more so in the Internet age. As Western media reports referring to Falun Gong circulate easily on Chinese websites, they can add credence to party propaganda. Many Chinese hold Western media outlets in higher regard than domestic sources because of their reputation for professionalism and independence. The result of a mistaken reference to Falun Gong is that Chinese readers may then be more likely to believe the party’s characterization of practitioners and potentially collaborate in the persecution against them.

Challenge #5: Falun Gong, as a spiritual practice or what might be seen as a religion in Western society, is viewed with skepticism in some circles out of concern that the intention of Falun Gong practitioners’ activities is to proselytize their beliefs.

Among the community of Falun Gong practitioners, stories abound of improved health, well-being and overall peace of mind after taking up the practice. Having benefited themselves, practitioners naturally have shared their experience, sometimes with enthusiasm, with friends and family. Yet, proselytizing and conversion, which largely stem from Western religious traditions, are not found in the Buddha School-based teachings of Falun Gong. Just the opposite, in fact. Falun Gong, which does not have any membership, place of worship, clergy or property, embraces the idea that to truly practice Falun Gong is a matter of one’s own heart and mind. No one can be “converted” to Falun Gong, and thus, proselytizing is pointless. Those that have an affinity for the practice will take it up of their own accord, and those that do not, will not. The eagerness of Falun Gong practitioners to distribute fliers to those they meet stems more from the urgency of the human rights violations facing their fellow practitioners in China, whose details they wish to expose to the international community, rather than from a wish to proselytize.

Furthermore, as the CCP has waged a propaganda war against Falun Gong, false characterizations of the practice have gained some traction in the West. The specific purpose of this propaganda is to discourage would-be human rights advocates from standing up for Falun Gong and exposing the abuses of the CCP. Consequently, Falun Gong practitioners and their supporters have increasingly felt the need to talk about the nature of the discipline’s beliefs and practices simply to set the record straight about what Falun Gong is and is not. For it is precisely the CCP’s false depiction of Falun Gong as a weird, fringe group that fuels persecution. As such, clearing the air as to who Falun Gong practitioners are and what they believe is often a vital step in helping listeners understand the gravity and injustice of the human rights abuses they suffer.

Challenge #6: Falun Gong’s peaceful activism inside and outside China in recent years has sought to expose the crimes of the CCP more broadly. These activities are often misconstrued as a political move or struggle for power, when in fact, they are merely aimed at helping people understand the nature of the CCP’s persecution against Falun Gong and to distance themselves from it.

A sixth factor contributing to the discrepancy between the scale of abuses and extent of international reporting is a growing concern that Falun Gong has political intentions, and is thus, not merely a persecuted group, but also a political movement. It is true that Falun Gong practitioners inside and outside China often distribute material that fully dissects the Communist Party’s rule. But they do so with a single aim: to facilitate understanding of the abuses they suffer by a Chinese population that has, from early childhood on, been made to believe the Communist Party is always “great, glorious, and correct.”

For the first several years of the persecution, Falun Gong practitioners made no mention of the CCP as an entity when citing the perpetrators of the persecution, instead pointing to individual leaders. Yet, what eventually became clear to Falun Gong activists was that because of the way the CCP shapes the thoughts of Chinese people through education, media control, etc., many Chinese would never fully believe the reality of what was happening to Falun Gong because their thinking was too strongly influenced by CCP propaganda generally.

Therefore, to open people’s eyes to the abuses faced by Falun Gong practitioners, activists knew they first needed to free people from the mind-control of the CCP. Consequently, underground print shops throughout China not only produce leaflets exposing the persecution, but also frequently distribute publications dissecting the CCP, its history, its mechanisms for deceiving the Chinese people, etc. In recent years, such actions have also come to include efforts by practitioners to encourage fellow Chinese to symbolically renounce membership from the CCP and its affiliated organizations. But again, the intent is to help people see clearly the scope and nature of the persecution and to enable them to distance themselves from it. At the core of these actions is the intention of protecting Chinese people from continuing to be lead by the CCP into committing terrible deeds, rather than a motive of gaining political power.

Thus, noticeably absent from any publications produced or distributed by Falun Gong activists are recommendations or suggestions for what institutions should rule China in place of the CCP or what the political system should be following the Party’s demise. Rather, the focus is on enabling people to understand the nature of the CCP and purge its influence from their hearts and minds. This is based on the sense that by more clearly seeing the CCP for what it is, Chinese will be more open to understanding the nature of the CCP’s persecution of Falun Gong, and will be better equipped to help move China to a place where Falun Gong can again be freely practiced. As a discipline whose aim is spiritual fulfillment, Falun Gong as a group never has and never will seek political power.

A cornerstone to the work of uncovering, reporting on and acting to end persecution of innocents is to ensure we fully understand what is really happening on the ground. In China, this task is made all too difficult by a ruling Communist Party well versed in hiding its abuses behind closed doors while simultaneously exercising political clout and running a well-oiled propaganda apparatus to ensure members of the international community do not look behind those doors. But regardless of the challenges, we owe it to the victims to see past the misconceptions, to not be swayed by the bluster of the CCP’s “no discussion of Falun Gong” diplomacy, to act to expose the atrocities carried out against Falun Gong, and to bring justice to those who have suffered for far too long.

It is our hope that the cases and information cited in this report provide a starting point for those in the media, human rights, scholarly, and government communities to understand the nature and scope of Falun Gong’s story.