For many Americans, their first encounter with Falun Gong is to see its practitioners passing out fliers or newsletters. They might be in the vicinity of a visit by Hu Jintao, in front of a Chinese consulate, or on an ordinary street corner. Why would these people dedicate so much time trying to get the public’s attention?
The answer lies in a tragic reality found inside China. For, behind the high-tech Olympic spectacle and Chinese leaders’ tailored suits, the number of innocent Falun Gong practitioners jailed because of their faith is staggering…. and growing.
According to Western media reports, by the spring of 1999, a government-sponsored survey found that 70 million people were practicing the Falun Gong spiritual discipline—with it’s slow-moving exercises and core tenets of truthfulness, kindness, and tolerance. The health benefits, peace of mind, and moral uplifting experienced by those who practiced led the discipline to spread quickly by word of mouth during the 1990s, sparking Falun Gong’s exponential growth.
As its popularity grew, so did a trend of official harassment, including small-scale arrests and a ban on the publication of the practice’s teachings. Then, on July 20, 1999, China’s leaders issued an order to “eradicate” Falun Gong. On that day, Falun Gong practitioners joined Tibetan Buddhists and underground Christians as victims of religious persecution in the world’s most populous nation. Only this time, those targeted comprised one in 17 Chinese citizens, from peasants to professors, factory workers to army lieutenants. Tens of millions of lives were turned upside down.
In its effort to wipe out such a grassroots group of people, the Chinese Communist Party pulled out all the stops. A vitriolic propaganda campaign, pervasive surveillance, and a nationwide network of forced conversion centers ensued, accompanied by large-scale arrests, systematic torture, and rising numbers of deaths from abuse in custody. Today—over a decade later—a significant proportion of China’s gulag population is still Falun Gong practitioners, according to multiple independent experts.
As one begins to grasp the scale of the campaign, a startling conclusion surfaces: Falun Gong practitioners are the largest group of prisoners of conscience in China, and perhaps the world.
Coined by Amnesty International, the term “prisoner of conscience” refers to individuals imprisoned because of their race, religion or lifestyle or for the non-violent expression of their beliefs. Falun Gong practitioners clearly fit this definition, and in its many appeals on behalf of Falun Gong, Amnesty International has consistently asserted that the individuals in question are prisoners of conscience.
A number of recent eyewitness accounts, official statistics, and other reports from China suggest the potential number of such Falun Gong prisoners.
“Falun Gong practitioners make up one of the largest groups of detainees in [China’s labor] camps,” cites a recent set of testimonies published by the non-profit Chinese Human Rights Defenders. The statement was confirmed by more than half of the report’s 13 interviewees who had been detained in camps from Shaanxi to Liaoning to Heilongjiang.
An earlier 2005 report by Human Rights Watch, which was focused on the separate subject of petitioners, similarly paraphrased one interviewee stating, “Of the roughly one thousand detainees in her camp in Jilin, most were Falun Gong practitioners.”
“Last year the Beijing Female Labor Camp contained 700 practitioners and only 140 actual criminals,” writes Leeshai Lemish, who interviewed dozens of former Falun Gong prisoners of conscience together with author Ethan Gutmann for a forthcoming book.
In a presentation in London in April 2009, Gutmann presented his own estimate of the total population of practitioner detainees. Based on interviews with former detainees, he concluded that adherents comprise 15 to 20 of those held in labor camps, prisons, and other detention facilities. With credible reports citing three to five million people held in such facilities, Gutmann placed the number of Falun Gong practitioners in long-term detention at 450,000 to 1 million at any given time.
Although a decade has passed since the Party first launched the campaign against Falun Gong, its momentum has not died down. With the Olympics as a catalyst, over 8,000 adherents were detained nationwide in the first part of 2008. Since the games ended, there has been a steady flow of reports of their being sentenced in sham trials or with no trial at all. The scale of imprisonment is staggering – just in Shandong’s Weifang city, a total of 162 adherents were reportedly sent to prisons or labor camps in 2008. In any given week in 2009, information on 20 to 40 new cases were reported from China, reaching a total by year’s end of over 2,000 documented cases of practitioners “sentenced” to labor or prison camps.
For those “sentenced” to prison camps, the Communist Party’s control over judges immediately rules out any prospects of a fair trial. Indeed, a recent Party document ordered that judges must never allow a “not guilty” verdict in Falun Gong cases. The result is that kangaroo courts across the country—on the order of their local Party branches—have been sending innocent people to prison for up to 18 years.
Taken together, the above evidence paints a picture of hundreds of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners being held in camps and prisons across China. By comparison, Reporters without Borders cites 30 journalists and 72 “netizens” imprisoned in China as of early 2010. The largest estimate for Tibetans in detention is approximately 5,000.
So what does this mean? The scale of egregious rights violations in China is greater than many realize—and Falun Gong practitioners are a primary target. Meanwhile, the cost of the anti-Falun Gong campaign to Chinese society is tremendous. Locking up hundreds of thousands of innocent, honest, hard-working people—many with advanced college degrees—has ramifications far beyond their close circle of family and friends.
Beyond China’s borders, serious questions also come to mind – how is it that so few in the West are aware of this reality? As importantly, what more can we do to change it?