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China syndrome: the persecution of Falun Gong

Christian Century, August 10, 2004 by Dean Peerman

Why did President Jiang react so savagely, outlawing Falun Gong, labeling it an "evil cult" and initiating the arrests, detentions and tortures that continue to this day? There has been much speculation about his motivation. Some say that he perceived the movement as a genuine threat, despite its commitment to nonviolence. Others say that it was merely a matter of his being jealous of Li Hongzhi's popularity. Still others say--and I am inclined to agree--that Jiang felt the need for a foil to help him solidify his less-than-assured hold on power, and so he manufactured a crisis. But the regime has been surprised by Falun Gong's resilience, and by the fact that so many practitioners have refused to recant; in a sense, Beijing has created its own nemesis. Though nonpolitical at the outset, Falun Gong is quite political now. The Chinese government has pronounced it evil, and Li, evidently no longer seeking to negotiate with the government, calls it evil in return.

But he does so from afar. Li left China for the United States three years before the crackdown--for reasons that have never been made fully clear. Some observers have commented that it is unbecoming for Li to be giving pep talks via Internet and other means to his followers in China, virtually urging them on to martyrdom, while he is safely ensconced Stateside. Li might retort that there is no guarantee of his safety in the U.S.; he has received death threats, he says, and for some time he was in hiding. Practitioners have been subjected to intimidation, threats and even physical assaults in several U.S. cities, as well as cities in other countries, by Beijing hirelings. Rarely does Li leave his New York refuge, but he did travel to Chicago the week of the torture exhibition and gave a 45-minute lecture--much of it critical of backsliders--to a large assemblage of followers at the convention center in suburban Rosemont.

Also that week, in a packed courtroom attorney Terri Marsh presented oral arguments in a class-action lawsuit against Jiang Zemin before Chicago's Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. She maintained that since Jiang's crimes were not official acts of office but individual, according to U.S. case law they do not enjoy immunity in U.S. courts. It remains to be seen whether anything will come of this case--a ruling is expected within the next several months--but similar lawsuits have been brought in other U.S. courts and at least five other countries. Though no longer head of state, Jiang is in charge of the Chinese army and remains a powerful figure (perhaps more powerful, some observers say, than the new president, Hu Jintao).

Rather strong condemnations of the persecution of Falun Gong eventually did start coming from the West. The Chinese government has generally responded by complaining about foreigners interfering with China's internal affairs and impugning its national sovereignty. In the ease of the U.S. at least, it adds the charge of hypocrisy. And who can deny that the revelations about the abuses at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison--not to mention the Bush administration's lawyers seeming to condone the use of torture in an August 2002 Justice Department memo--serve to undermine any U.S. moral authority or leverage in addressing persecution in China or anywhere else.


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