Letting the People Speak for Themselves
For those who haven’t heard of the group, Falun Gong is a nonviolent quasi-spiritual movement, one that blends Tai Chi-like exercises with bits of philosophy from a number of Eastern disciplines, and one that until recently was extremely popular in China, claiming somewhere between one million and eight million practitioners. The Chinese government claims that Falun Gong is a “cult,” headed by founder Li Hongzhi, and says that the movement is extremely well-organized and aimed at political domination of China… which is a bit odd, considering that the movement seems to mostly appeal to the elderly or the very sick, it is only “organized” in that people congregate in parks to do their exercises together, and that before the Chinese government initiated a crackdown on the group it could count a number of high-ranking officials among its number.
Why has the Chinese leadership decided to paint Falun Gong as such a threat? Opinions vary, and in his book Falun Gong’s Challenge to China: Spiritual Practice or “Evil Cult”? journalist Danny Schechter takes a cross-section of a number of them throughout the book, but the answer is essentially that the Chinese Communist Party has positioned itself to be the sole source of philosophy and direction in China, and with Falun Gong growing even under the 1999 ban, it sees that that position is in jeopardy. The breaking point was a silent, completely nonviolent protest around the main government compound in Beijing on April 25, 1999, a seemingly spontaneous gathering of around ten thousand practitioners from all over China who asked simply that the government allow them the freedom to practice their religion. Despite the good intentions of the protesters, the action prompted the government to escalate its attacks on the movement, believing that their worst fears had been realized.
The very first thing that strikes one about Schechter’s book is that, well, it doesn’t really seem to go anywhere. Now, I realize that I’m discussing a work of serious political journalism here, not an Agatha Christie murder mystery, but still, the first 90 or so pages of Challenge basically feel like a rehash of facts everybody knows to begin with, principally that A) the Chinese government is repressing people, and B) not all odd spiritual groups are evil, nor should they be necessarily called “cults.” It’s no major surprise that the powers-that-be in Beijing restrict people’s freedoms—they’ve been doing that for the better part of a century—nor is it much of a surprise to read that the U.S. government essentially plays deaf-blind-and-dumb when it comes to such human-rights abuses. Schechter’s a good writer, but Part I of his book isn’t news.
Just when I had nearly given up on Challenge, however, I finally waded through the initial “report” and reached what is undoubtedly the core of the book: Chapter 11, entitled “Experiences of Falun Gong Practitioners in China Under the Crackdown.” It is a collection of first- and second-hand accounts of the repression of Falun Gong “cultivators,” both in China and abroad, and it’s simultaneously captivating and horrifying in the same way that a car wreck out on the highway is. Instead of simply opening fire on protesters as they did in 1989, this time around the Chinese government has taken a much more underhanded approach to repression and used the media (theirs and ours) to cover things up.
Over the past couple of years, since the 1999 ban on Falun Gong (or Falun Dafa, as it’s also called), thousands of practitioners have been “detained,” sometimes repeatedly (so as to avoid breaking Chinese law, which mandates a 12-day limit before charges must be made), and while detained, these people have been abused, beaten and tortured, sometimes to death. And we’re not talking hardened revolutionaries, here, mind you; Falun Gong is ostensibly apolitical, to begin with, and a quick glance through the various statements and stories told here shows that these are normal, everyday people, from all walks of life. A fifty-five-year-old woman from Jiangsu Province is held without cause in a mental institution; one man in Jinling Town is assaulted in the middle of the night and beaten savagely; a seventy-eight-year-old man is forced to stand barefoot on an asphalt road until the flesh of his feet burns; another woman, forty-two years old, is beaten with a rubber club until she dies, after which the police quickly transport her body to the hospital and attempt to claim it was simple heart failure, despite the bad condition of her body… the list goes on and on, and it reads like a book on Nazi-era Poland. It’s almost unbelievable, the scope of these abuses, and the sheer insanity of the accusations being made—how on earth could a seventy-year-old grandmother, a former school principal and lifetime Communist Party member, be considered a “dangerous revolutionary?”
Perhaps it’s that insanity that Schechter is trying to bring to light with this book, and if so, he has succeeded. I remained a skeptic throughout his initial “report” in Part I, but I was completely sold (not to mention horrified) after reading the stories of various people detained and harassed simply for practicing Falun Gong. Judging from the relative brevity of Part I, as well, I think that Schechter himself realized what had occurred to me, above: that just writing about repression from a journalist’s objective vantage point is almost meaningless at this point. We all know repression, and we’ve come almost to expect it from our own political leaders, sadly enough. We don’t want to hear somebody just sit there and tell us how things have gone wrong.
So, how does one get around that journalistic barrier? By letting the people affected talk about it themselves, in their own voice and time. It’s like the difference between seeing a videotape of a war zone and hearing someone tell you what it looks like. And it works. There is no question that the crackdown on Falun Gong is strictly politically motivated, wholly unjustified, and against any statute of international law one can name, and the first-hand accounts collected here hammer that point home better than dry journalistic prose ever could.