Why Didn't I Know This?
A media black-out in China, diplomatic interference
abroad, and a global propaganda war keeps the true situation of Falun Gong in
China largely unknown to the mainstream...
"Why didn't I know this?" It's the single question I am
asked most often. And most likely you will ask yourself it too, if you haven't
already, as you read the surrounding features and encounter, most likely for the
first time, the brutality, the scope, and the horror of the persecution
unfolding in China right now.
It's a question that's been asked elsewhere--when General
Patton's troops liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, when the
outside world finally learned the grim realities of Kolyma and Stalin's gulag
archipelago. And we asked this question collectively, with all due indignation,
when the SARS cover-up in China was finally exposed. Each time we hoped, or even
maybe assured ourselves, it would be the last.
It's a question we should all be asking more. To a great
degree the horrors in Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union were made
possible by those in the outside world not asking, or not knowing. These
systematic campaigns of inhumanity were kept alive by governments systematically
hiding them from view.
Today in Jiang's China, we have a government attempting to
hide its atrocities from the world at large and from its own people.
Asking "why didn't I know this?", then, cuts to the heart
of so much that is terrible about the calamity that has befallen China. And if
there should be a hint of frustration, even disbelief, underlying the question,
it is justified. The answer to that question is the shocking story of how the
world's largest authoritarian regime has vigorously sought to
cover up a genocidal campaign it willingly engineered, and one whose web of
complicity is stunningly vast. We, insofar as we have been fooled by the
obfuscation, are also its victims.
To make such a claim in the 21st century, the age of
globalism and mass communication, a time when the suffering and plight of people
thousands of miles away is made immediate and tangible through televised images
or digitized voices, delivered right into our own homes--in such a day and age--is
not easy. How could we not know, you might ask, about such a violent, drawn-out,
massive campaign that aims at nothing less than to "eradicate" 100 million
people for their dedication to a popular meditation and exercise practice?
Herein lies what is perhaps most insidious about the
persecution of Falun Gong: its cover-up.
At the Scene of the Crime: Complicity
It begins at ground zero. A body is crippled from torture
or beaten blue. The offenders--police, guards, prison wardens, and the like--know
their crime and act decisively. Should the victim be dead the corpse is
typically rushed off for cremation; in such cases the cause of death is labeled
"suicide," in keeping with formal orders from the extra-judicial 6-10 government
body to "cremate bodies immediately" and "count Falun Gong deaths as suicides."
In at least one case the victim was still alive when
cremated, while in another the corpse was thrown off the roof of a building so
as to create "evidence" of a suicide.
Family are not allowed to see the corpse save for in the
rarest of circumstances, autopsies are almost unequivocally denied, and
witnesses or those responsible must--under threat--toe the official line,
attributing deaths to suicide or, as was done in earlier months of the
persecution, "natural causes." According to Amnesty International, of the first
120 known Falun Gong practitioner deaths in custody, official reports from China
claim that a full 17 "jumped" to their deaths while being transported to
interrogation, with another 15 "falling" (such as by "slipping") to their deaths
while in detention. ("Torture--A Growing Scourge in China," Amnesty
For those that survive their captivity to tell, there is
little recourse, legal or otherwise, at their disposal. Practitioners of Falun
Gong have been stripped of their legal rights and are not allowed to sue their
captors, much less hire an attorney to defend themselves when incarcerated.
Moreover, the very evidence of injustice they carry with them in their
bodies--the scars, the torn out nails, the welts, and even missing limbs--is, in
the most unlikely of twists, declared a "state secret" and as such "illegal" to
Should such evidence be made known to foreign persons or
rights groups, the "crime" ("leaking state secrets") is punishable with
execution. A number of individuals have disappeared after exposing such torture
to foreign media, with many being feared dead. For a policeman or official aware
of the torture, to disclose it would be almost to ensure the loss of his job,
financial punishment, and imprisonment, if not death. What information we do
have, then, has come to us at the greatest of personal risk.
To date not one policeman or guard has been reprimanded in
a court of law for torturing, beating, starving, or murdering the adherents of
Falun Gong; some 852 deaths in custody had been documented by human rights
groups by the end of 2003. A number of those responsible, however, are known to
have been promoted or given bonuses for their "effective" transformation of
Falun Gong practitioners; for their willingness to use any means necessary to
force Falun Gong practitioners to abandon their beliefs.
On not a single incident has Chinese officialdom admitted
to, or even acknowledged the possibility of, wrongdoing by any of its police,
jailers, or other employees--even when found at fault by the U.N. Committee
Against Torture and condemned by human rights organizations. ("Torture--A Growing
Scourge in China": "Reports continue of deaths of detained practitioners
following torture and extreme ill-treatment...in all cases where the victims
were Falun Gong practitioners, the government has denied any wrongdoing, even in
the face of multiple eye witness testimonials.")
Willing Henchmen: State Media Apparatuses
In the PRC, media is tightly controlled if not run by the
communist state, complete with an official Ministry of Propaganda to oversee
media affairs. Stories must espouse the Communist Party's dictates, and Falun
Gong is allowed no voice. To question the regime's agenda or tactics has been
tantamount to political or social suicide. Much like in the cultural revolution
the skeptic might be branded, as many have in the past five years, a "Falun Gong
sympathizer" or even, by extension, an "enemy of the state" and face much more
than ostracism: a student might be expelled from school, an official stripped of
his post, a worker fired, a neighbor jailed.
But those in China hear plenty about Falun Gong. In just
the first month of the persecution alone, one single paper, The People's
Daily, ran a staggering 347 articles denouncing Falun Gong. That's over 10
articles a day.
Similarly, hundreds of newspapers, magazines, journals,
radio stations and television stations have been used to discredit and demonize
Falun Gong. Early in the persecution it was not uncommon for television stations
to run propaganda marathons, with special features attacking Falun Gong (e.g.,
for being "anti-human-civilization," as it was claimed) being run
sometimes--quite literally--days on end, 24-hours a day.
All materials produced by Falun Gong practitioners or by
Li Hongzhi are banned--be they books, videos or audio tapes, articles, posters,
t-shirts, or even meditation mats. In a number of cities Chinese authorities
have even held public book burning rallies. A mere seven days into the
persecution Chinese authorities boasted of having confiscated over 2 million
"illegal" Falun Gong books. (The People's Daily, July 30, 1999)
Overseas Chinese language media have for the most part
departed little from official rhetoric, being either owned by PRC-run companies
or, in the case of smaller entities, fearing reprisal. Many overseas media have
admitted to direct pressure from the Chinese government. Several Chinese papers
have been sued for libel for their propaganda pieces, taken verbatim from
China's state press.
The Chinese Communist Party's relentless barrage of
propaganda has sought to create a climate of hostility toward Falun Gong, either
by deluding people as to what Falun Gong is, or by making clear to everyone that
on the Falun Gong issue, there is no choice but to "show the right attitude."
(for how Falun Gong have managed to counter this propaganda,
see "Civil Disobedience and the Education of China".
Harassed, Threatened, Beaten Down: Foreign Media
Reporting the news in China is difficult business to begin
with. For five consecutive years, Jiang Zemin was ranked one of the Ten Worst
Enemies of the Press by The Committee to Protect Journalists (http://www.cpj.org).
In October 2002, among 139 countries, China was ranked second to last, behind
only North Korea, for press freedom by Reporters Without Borders (http://www.rsf.org).
Reporting on the persecution of Falun Gong, however, has
been especially costly for foreign media. According to Reporters Without
Borders, in the short span of just two years some 20 AFP reporters were arrested
in China for trying to investigate and cover Falun Gong. Scores of other
journalists and cameramen have met with similar ends, often being harassed,
interrogated and threatened, arrested, and even-- as in the case of Spanish radio
journalist Teresa Bergada--physically assaulted. Many reporters are stripped of
their residence permits, forcing them to leave China. (For a gripping first hand
account, see "The Dark Side of China," by the BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes,
published on 3/16/02).
Film, equipment, and press cards are often seized on the
spot, with what footage does remain in the end being blocked from transmission
and broadcasting overseas by the Chinese government's Central Television--the
only station permitted to send pictures abroad by satellite.
For the individual, to cover Falun Gong is to put one's
professional work on the line; for the media company, it is to put its
enterprise in jeopardy. Foreign media companies wishing to report on Falun Gong
face economic pressure and the imminent threat of major business losses; for
instance, most such companies compete to sell footage to the Chinese
government's media apparatus.
Two days after the publication of the April 10, 2002
Time, which had an article on Falun Gong demonstrations in Hong Kong, Time
was withdrawn from sale in China, and told at that time there were no plans for
allowing its sale in China again. The magazine was allowed in May to resume
sales in China. Some media companies have already declined to cover Falun
Gong-related stories for fear of exclusion from the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Should foreign journalists seek to cover Falun Gong along "legal" channels in
China, what awaits them is nothing short of a farce. "Normal" and "regular"
channels consist of staged interviews with supposed Falun Gong practitioners who
have "reformed" or "repented"--each eager to recite scripted denunciations--and
carefully prepared tours of notorious labor camps.
The labor camp tours are especially worth noting. The show
tours take place at a time determined by the Chinese authorities, at a camp
picked by the Chinese authorities, include interviews with detainees chosen by
the Chinese authorities, and only allow access to a small scope of the camp,
delineated, of course, by the Chinese authorities
At the most recent tour, which took place in April, 2001
at the notorious Masanjia labor camp, foreign reporters found to their amusement
that the inmates wore matching, brand-new, designer sport suits embroidered
with--curiously--each detainee's name in English. Fresh paint coated the walls,
deer grazed happily on freshly manicured lawns, inmates praised the kind staff
and good meals. The whole charade should have been eerily reminiscent of the
1944 Nazi show tours of the Terezin concentration camp in the Czech Republic.
It was such farces that prompted the U.N.'s torture
inspector, Sir Nigel Rodley, to decline to visit China year after year; Beijing
continually refused to let Rodley meet privately with prisoners or tour police
stations and prisons unannounced--normal conditions for a visit by someone of his
position. ("Rights Group: China Blocking Visit Of UN Inspector On Torture"
Associated Press, 11/9/01)
Towards a More Transparent Tomorrow?
Much hope has been put in the Internet, and not without
reason. Indeed, the vast majority of what is known about the persecution has
been communicated surreptitiously over email, while a number of Websites such as
Minghui.net provide detailed accounts daily.
Chinese authorities, however, continue to make a fierce
battlefield of cyberspace. As of last year CNN's Willy Lam reported that China
employs some 100,000 internet police. Such "police" are entrusted with the
ignoble task of monitoring and restricting Web usage across the country.
All sites related to Falun Gong are blocked, as are all
foreign media reporting on the topic.
While there have been rays of hope over the years--The
Wall Street Journal's Pulitzer-winning series on Falun Gong by Ian
Johnson the most notable one--these have been more the exception. There is still
an enormous distance to go, and if early indicators mean anything a 2008 Beijing
Olympics is little occasion for optimism. Jiang has extended the misinformation
campaign overseas, and with bravado.
In the cover-up, the massive propaganda campaigns, the
intimidation of foreign media, the blocking and monitoring of the internet, and
the exporting of the lies overseas, there is a message: those responsible know
they are doing something wrong, and they are afraid others will find out.
Once the world sees clearly what is happening in China,
will this horror be allowed to continue? Thousands in China are risking their
lives so that others, like us, can know the truth. Let us be worthy of their
Matthew Kutolowski has been
researching the persecution since July of 1999 when he
studied in Beijing at Tsinghua University. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of
Swarthmore College, Matthew now resides in Taiwan.