Religious repression in China has nothing to do with the faiths involved. China does not oppress Buddhism in Tibet nor Islam in Xinjiang because of any qualms with their tenets. Nowhere is this more evident than in the persecution of the Falun Gong spiritual movement.
In the 1990s, Falun Gong was encouraged by the authorities, which hoped its principles would help combat corruption. But the relationship soured, and those practitioners who fell afoul of the powers that be bore the first lash of anger. Falun Gong practitioners say it was retaliation after some were hired to teach the faith to government employees, but declined to incorporate Chinese Communist Party (CCP) doctrines into their lectures.
Falun Gong practitioners misjudged the situation, and their ingenuousness proved fateful: Believing that a mistake had been made that should be brought to the government’s attention, an estimated 10,000 Falun Gong followers held a silent protest outside Zhongnanhai in April 1999, apparently taking the Chinese leadership by surprise.
Falun Gong practitioners may have believed that by demonstrating the principles that the CCP had earlier welcomed — truth, forbearance and compassion — they would win support. By instead launching an official, nationwide campaign of persecution two months later, it seems Beijing caught Falun Gong followers equally off guard.
Ten years later, protests by Falun Gong followers around the world — including in Taiwan — marked the 10th anniversary of that persecution on Monday. Two things were clear: China’s wrath toward Falun Gong has not subsided, nor has the commitment of Falun Gong followers to their beliefs. The two are locked in a struggle that shows no sign of ending.
Falun Gong followers, as they sit cross-legged outside the world’s landmarks, embody China’s fear of peaceful protest. Their presence is a visual rebuttal to anyone who says China is improving its rights record, and a testimony to China’s ability to make enemies.
Falun Gong was apolitical from the start and its founder, who has retreated from the public eye, seems to have had no political ambitions. But now the CCP faces millions of devoted practitioners — by some estimates, tens of millions inside China alone. There is no sign that their ranks have fallen, no sign they are losing spirit. On the contrary, their resolve seems to have strengthened and the movement has spread across the globe, if not grown in numbers.
Their campaign has won over many independent voices, including China’s most renowned human rights lawyer, Gao Zhisheng (高智晟), and former Canadian lawmaker David Kilgour and lawyer David Matas, who together researched allegations of organ harvesting and wrote an influential report in 2006.
In the US, 62 members of Congress called on President Barack Obama this week to publicly condemn China’s crackdown on Falun Gong.
Whether the brutality and organ harvesting in China is as widespread as Falun Gong followers and some researchers claim is difficult to ascertain. But Obama, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and other leaders do not need to wait for a verdict. Persecution is taking place and Beijing has in no ambiguous terms vowed to exterminate Falun Gong. Governments must speak out.
The story of Falun Gong is one of betrayal, cruelty and above all, suffering. When it comes to the CCP, no one is more familiar with the fine line between being its friend or foe than the Falun Gong.
The intensity of the crackdown holds lessons for anyone who touts China’s peaceful rise. Beijing’s moves to constrain Falun Gong activities even in Hong Kong, where it is legal, are a warning to anyone who believes that China is capable of respecting democratic freedoms.
Taiwan, more than any country, has cause to heed these lessons and remain vigilant.
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