Commemorating persecution in China

By David Matas
Remarks prepared for delivery to a candlelight vigil,
Legislative Buildings, Winnipeg, Manitoba
19 July 2009

Today we must remember all the victims of persecution in China

- the Uighurs and Tibetans who are senselessly killed solely for seeking to preserve their identity and culture,

- the democracy activists, human rights defenders and political dissidents who stand up for universal human rights values,

- the Christian evangelicals and members of house church congregations, repressed for holding a belief which the Chinese state does not control, and

- all those who protest the arbitrary power of the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese state.

On this day, we should pay especial attention to the persecution of the practitioners of Falun Gong. The Communist Party of China decided ten years ago, on July 20, 1999, to have the Government of China ban the practice of Falun Gong. The Government announced the ban two days later.

Falun Gong is a set of exercises with a spiritual foundation based on Taoism and Buddhism. Since the banning, the practitioners of Falun Gong have been persecuted in China far worse than any other victim group.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture reports that 66% of the victims of torture and ill-treatment in China are Falun Gong practitioners. The next largest group is Uighurs at 11%. Every other victim group is single digits.

The extremes of language the Chinese government uses against the Falun Gong are unparalleled, unmatched by the comparatively mild criticisms China has of other victims. The standard regime refrain about the Falun Gong community is that it is an evil cult, though the practice of Falun Gong has none of the characteristics of a cult.

The documented yearly arbitrary killings and disappearances of Falun Gong exceed by far the totals for any other victim group. Since the banning, over three thousand named Falun Gong practitioners have died as a result of the persecution.

The United States Department of State's Country Reports provide that Falun Gong adherents constitute at least half of the inmates in the country's re-education-through-labour camps.

Human rights lawyers, left alone when they defend other unpopular causes, are persecuted once they defend Falun Gong practitioners. That was the case for Gao Zhisheng who was fine despite taking on a number of unpopular causes, until he opposed the victimization of Falun Gong. Now he is disbarred; his office has been shut down; he has been brutally tortured; his family was forced to flee China to escape danger; he has been arbitrarily detained and has disappeared.

Falun Gong practitioners and prisoners sentenced to death are the sole victims of forced organ harvesting, the extraction and sale of their organs to patients in need of transplants. Former Minister of State for Asia and the Pacific David Kilgour and I released a report in July 2006 and a revised report in January 2007 which came to the conclusion that practitioners of Falun Gong were being killed for their organs throughout China from 2001 to the date of our report. Since our report has come out, statistics show that this problem has got even worse.

This mistreatment since 1999 raises four questions. Why does the Communist Party of China and the Government it controls treat practitioners of Falun Gong so badly? What can explain the survival of the practice of Falun Gong in the face of this brutal repression? What does this experience - the unsuccessful, fierce repression of the practice of Falun Gong - mean for the future of China? What can be done to end the persecution?

A. Causes of persecution

Why are practitioners of Falun Gong treated so badly?

1. One reason is simply the numbers. Falun Gong before it was banned had, according to a 1999 Government estimate, 70 million adherents. A group of that size no matter what its belief attracts the attention of a repressive government.

2. The Communist Party needs enemies in order to justify their continuing hold on power. The Falun Gong had the bad luck to be around in sufficient numbers to fill the enemy slot.

3. The Falun Gong community embrace three basic beliefs - compassion, tolerance and truth. Anyone who believes in any one of these principles spells trouble for the Communist Party government - a cruel, repressive, dishonest regime.

4. The practice of Falun Gong went from a standing start in 1992 to numbers greater than the membership of the Party within the space of seven years, spreading rapidly throughout China immediately after the Tiananmen Square massacre, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of Communist Party control in Central Asia and Eastern and Central Europe. The Party in China feared a similar collapse, a similar loss of control.

5. Fifth, the amorphous nature of Falun Gong meant that it was impossible for the Communist Party to control it. Falun Gong is neither a movement nor an organization; it is not even people. It is rather a set of exercises with a spiritual foundation.

6. The mobilization capacity of Falun Gong practitioners alarmed and frightened the Communist Party. An event of April 25th, 1999, petitioning the Communist Party against the arrest and beatings of practitioners in Tianjin a few days earlier, was the largest gathering in Beijing since the Tiananmen square massacre. Many of the leadership in the Party had no advance warning of this event and were startled.

7. The ability of the Falun Gong community to take advantage of modern technology, the internet and cell phones, to gather in large numbers worried the Party. This phenomenon was unknown in China before it was manifested through the Falun Gong community.

8. Though the Falun Gong is not an organization with a leadership, the Communist Party of China surely is. The Communist Party of China saw the Falun Gong community as a mirror of itself, organizationally similar, but ideologically different.

9. The practice of Falun Gong was inspired by the writings and teachings of Li Hongzhi. Then Chinese president Jiang Zemin was envious of Li Hongzhi's efforts, that something an outsider proposed could become so popular while his own writings languished in obscurity.

10. Many Falun Gong practitioners, in an attempt to protect their families and communities, did not identify themselves once arrested. These unidentified are more vulnerable than other detainees because no one who knows them knows where they are and no one who detains them knows who they are.

11. Repressed democracy activists, journalists, human rights defenders, Tibetan and Christian activists generate more sympathy than the Falun Gong because they are more familiar to outsiders, more in tune with outsider sensibilities. The Falun Gong are recent, without an obvious link to global traditions.

12. Falun Gong is authentically Chinese, rooted in ancient Chinese traditions. Communism, in contrast, is a Western ideological import into China. Communists saw a widespread, popular Chinese-based ideology as cutting out from under them the very ground on which they stood.

B. The survival of the practice of Falun Gong

How has the practice of Falun Gong been able to survive in the face of this brutal repression?

1. An obvious explanation is the appeal of the practice and its associated beliefs to practitioners. No practice or belief system could survive the cruelty of Communism unless its adherents had a deep commitment to their beliefs.

2. The practice of Falun Gong has spread world wide. David Kilgour and I, in the course of travelling the planet to campaign against the abuse of organ harvesting our report documents, have seen this phenomenon more than anyone.

In Mexico, Falun Gong practitioners are primarily Mexicans; in Israel, they are primarily Israelis; in Holland they are primarily Dutch, and so on. The practice of Falun Gong started in China but, in most countries where it has spread, is no longer exclusively or even primarily Chinese. Chinese government repression has little traction on these non-Chinese adherents.

3. Modern technology is a boon to any popular idea including the ideas behind the practice of Falun Gong. The Government of China is powerless against the internet, satellite and cell phone technology outside of China. Even inside China, the Communist Party control of modern technology is far from complete.

4. The amorphous nature of Falun Gong has meant that it is impossible for the Communist Party to control it. For the practice of Falun Gong, there is no organizational leadership. That means that there is no one the Government of China can appoint to head the Falun Gong.

If Falun Gong had an organizational leadership, the Party, as it had done with the major religions, would have appointed some of its cronies and said that they were the leadership of the Falun Gong. There is a Chinese government appointed Buddhist Panchen Lama, Chinese government selected Roman Catholic bishops, Chinese government chosen Muslim imams. But Falun Gong does not lend itself to this sort of usurpation.

5. Because Falun Gong is a practice or exercise regime, and not an organization, it lacks all the elements of an organization. That has a down side - weaknesses in communication and coordination, the lack of a charitable tax number and a total absence of staffing and funding.

But it also has an upside, the heavy contribution of volunteers. Through collaborative volunteer effort and voluntary donations directly from individuals to the purchase of specific goods and service, the Falun Gong community world wide produces a newspaper -the Epoch Times, runs a satellite TV and radio network - New Tang Dynasty TV and Sound of Hope radio, and tours a classical Chinese dancing company and orchestra - the Divine Performing Arts.

Members of organizations with professional staff tend to leave their staff to do the heavy lifting. The Falun Gong community have no such luxury and more than compensate for it.

6. Falun Gong rose to fill a vacuum, the abandonment of the belief in Communism world wide. Communism today in China is not so much a belief system as an organizing idiom for power. For those uninterested in climbing up the greasy Chinese pole to power, Chinese Communism means nothing. For those who want to believe in something beyond their own careers, Falun Gong is an answer.

7. The rise of Falun Gong speaks not just to the collapse in the belief in Communism but also to the basic human need for spirituality. We are used to thinking of spiritual beliefs as old, something developed centuries even millenia ago. The beliefs though which survive from ancient times continue not because they are old, but because they speak to the constantly changing present.

The development and rapid growth of Falun Gong, a modern spiritual belief, a belief system which began only in 1992, tells us for sure something about China and Communism. But it also exists and endures because of something fundamental to human nature, the longing for spiritual fulfilment.

8. Though Falun Gong is no longer exclusively Chinese, it has a particular resonance for the Chinese people, the Chinese soul. Its updating and blending of strongly rooted, well developed ancient Chinese exercise and spiritual traditions meant Falun Gong was immediately and deeply appealing to a Chinese people who had seen the Communist belief system nominally inserted to replace those ancient beliefs crumbling around and underneath them.

9. The nonsense the Government of China produced to combat the Falun Gong is all too easy to ignore. It is impossible to ignore torture, arb itrary detention and execution. But the ideology behind this repression, that Falun Gong is an evil cult, is so obviously disconnected from reality to anyone who knows even the least bit about the practice of Falun Gong, the beliefs of Falun Gong or individual practitioners, that it was hard for anyone other than Chinese Communist Party adherents or their fellow travellers to take it seriously.

10. The vicious, unbridled persecution of Falun Gong has had a perverse effect for the persecutors. The persecution has made vocal people who would otherwise have been silent.

Many believers have dug in their heels. Their reaction to the lies the Party and Government have spread about the Falun Gong and the persecution they inflicted on the Falun Gong is to convey to as many people as possible the nature of Falun Gong, as well as the cruelty of the persecution.

The persecution has won over to practitioners of Falun Gong sympathizers they would not otherwise have, people who are not practitioners but who oppose human rights violations. It hard to think of a more searing indictment of Chinese communism than that it has led to the killing of innocents so that their organs could be sold to transplant tourists.

IV. The future of China

Well what does all mean for the future of China? An historical guide is the persecution of Christianity by the Roman empire. Eventually, despite that persecution, the Roman Empire became Christian.

Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312 A.D. Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the empire in 391 A.D. The belief in Christianity had grown so strong and the belief in the traditional Roman values had grown so weak that Christianity became a better organizing idiom for the empire than the old Roman values.

One can see the same happening in China. Communism today is incapable of holding China together. At some time the leadership will realize that they need a better set of principles than they have got if they are going to maintain China as a going concern.

Though the teachings of Li Hongzhi have no political content or intent, he managed to articulate a set of beliefs which reverberates with the Chinese people. At some point, the leadership of China wil

l realize this. The Chinese leadership today treats the Falun Gong as their worst enemy, imprisoning and torturing them more than any other group, killing only them and prisoners sentenced to death for their organs. At some point, they will realize that the Falun Gong are their best friends, an authentic Chinese belief system that is capable of keeping China united, that is capable of keeping China, to use the catchword of the muddled ideology of current Chinese President Hu Jintao, harmonious.

China one day will be predominantly Falun Gong not because the current set of Falun Gong practitioners will one day take over the leadership of China but because the leadership of China will one day become Falun Gong practitioners. In the wings of the stage of Chinese history stands a Constantine.

V. Ending the persecution

It took over three hundred years before from the birth of Jesus Christ to the Christianizing of the Roman Empire. We cannot afford to wait that long to end the persecution of the Falun Gong nor to stop abusive organ sourcing in China.

Today, not three hundred y ears from today:

The persecution of all victims in China, including Falun Gong practitioners, should stop.

Those complicit persecution in China, including organ harvesting from Falun Gong practitioners, should be brought to justice.

How will that happen? Those who are most free to stand against Chinese human rights violations, those whose stance carries most graphically the universal human rights message, and, consequently, those whose opposition China finds hardest to ignore, are those with no connection to China whatsoever. When it comes to mobilizing those who are neither Chinese nationals nor ethnic Chinese to combating human rights violations in China, by far the biggest obstacle is indifference.

The way to end human rights abuses in China is for those who are neither Chinese nationals nor ethnic Chinese to shake off indifference to those abuses. If we do that, if we act persistently, act publicly, act now, those violations will end.

David Matas is an international human rights lawyer based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada