THE BIG ISSUE: What's wrong with Falun Gong?

[The Big Issue is a weekly magazine, which is sold by homeless people on the streets throughout the UK]

By Richard Powell

On Sunday, practitioners of the non-denominative teachings of an Eastern practice whose message is ‘truthfulness, compassion and forbearance’ marched through central London to protest against the alleged detention, torture and
murder of fellow practitioners in China.

The march began at the Chinese Embassy where clutches of demonstrators have long taken turns to maintain a 24 hour-a-day vigil for the persecuted followers of the discipline known as Falun Gong and those who have died in refusing to renounce their practice of it.

According to Falun Gong reports, there have to date been: ‘294 known cases of practitioners tortured or beaten to death within China. 500 or more have been given prison or labour camp sentences for up to 18 years, 1,000 or more
have been admitted to mental hospitals, 10,000 or more have been sent to labour camps, some having been given mind-altering drugs, and 100,000 or more have been unlawfully detained for being practitioners.’

70 million people in China and 30 million more globally are reported to follow the practice, which teaches meditative exercises. Organisers say it has no political agenda, worship, donations or membership, yet the Chinese
authorities feel threatened by it to the extent they will suppress it by any means necessary.

Li Hongzhi, founder of Falun Gong, has said that, in the past, the secrets of the discipline were passed only from master to student. However, he made the movement public in China in 1992. The practice became outlawed on 22 July 1999 …

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One of those demonstrating against the suppression was Bao Sheng Zhu, 38, who told me the story of his sister who was sent to a labour camp for practicing Falun Gong.

"My sister, Bao Lian, 35, was sent to work in a Chinese labour camp after she was arrested on 15 December 2000. She was arrested for being a Falun Gong practitioner and, having refused to sign an official 'statement of regret' for following in the ways of Falun Gong, was sentenced by the Chinese police to 4 years’ work in a labour camp.

"Falun Gong changed her life- she stopped smoking and drinking and she improved physically, becoming much healthier and easy-going. She's so incredibly brave- she could just have just signed the papers at the police
station, but she chose instead to stand up for her freedom to choose and not to be bullied into doing what the authorities told her to.

"No-one is allowed to visit her, although our older sister, Bao Zheng, who is not a practitioner, saw her for a few minutes last month for the first time. We don't know when that will happen again. Our father is 76, he is desperate to see her, but she is only 10 months into her sentence. With China's human rights record, no-one knows for sure whether she will ever be released."

Jane Liang, 37, lives in Nottingham and works as an importer for an oriental food company. She is not religious, but practices the teachings of Falun Gong. Her sister too had been sent to a work camp. She told me:

"My sister, Wen Liang, 33, had been arrested twice before they took her in for the third time in February 2000.

“The first time they arrested her, the police held her in a detention center for 15 days. The second time she was having lunch with a friend in a cafe and she was detained for a month. When she was released she had to report to
a police station once a day. Then one day she just showed up at the police station as normal and they arrested her and sentenced her to two years in a labour camp.

“She had no trial, no hearing, no representation and the police didn't have a warrant, or reason, for her arrest or detention. I haven't seen my sister for six years. I tried to call her before I learnt she had been taken in
but her phone had been disconnected. When we eventually found out what had happened my mother and I couldn't believe it. My mother, who lived with me here, eventually died from the stress and anxiety of not hearing from her.

“Her boyfriend visits her on the rare occasions that the authorities allow him to. The last news we heard about her was that she was being made to work in a flour mill for 10 hours a day and that her fingers were broken from the work. She was a successful accountant, and not at all used to the manual work. She said simply, "You would not believe what it is like here."

“A friend of hers, who was arrested at the same time, died in custody after he continued to practice Falun Gong exercises in his cell. The police fed him salt with water and he eventually died. My sister also said she's being
tortured by being hung up by her wrists for hours with her feet barely touching the floor.

"My applications for visiting China with my British passport are systematically rejected. I tried to get in through Hong Kong airport in May this year but I was instantly deported after being interrogated and
strip-searched.

"Before the persecution started on July 22 1999, I could come and go between here and China freely. The visa I had from my previous visit in December was still technically valid until July this year, but I'm blacklisted from
entry because my sister was arrested. I miss China terribly- my friends, my family, and when I hear the news or read reports on the internet I just break down in tears- the electric batons, the burns, the sexual abuse- it's
just not human behaviour. It sounds so extreme, but this is really happening!"

She pointed towards a series of photographs of a woman on the side of a van forming part of the procession. "This woman was distributing leaflets about Falun Gong and a policeman beat her in the street and arrested her. She was
raped whilst in custody. These photographs were taken nine days afterwards."

The photographs were all close-ups of deep bruising and missing or displaced teeth.

The procession stopped at Downing Street where a letter was presented for Tony Blair by organiser John Dee and Lord Moyne of Bury St. Edmund, a devotee to Falun Gong …

The 170 practitioners then proceeded to Trafalgar Square where a public address of alleged crimes against practitioners in China was given.

Mr Dee told those who had gathered: “In view of China’s hosting of the 2008 Olympic Games, it should be taking the lead as a civilised nation by improving its human rights record without delay. The persecution of Falun Gong practitioners is the severest abuse of human rights in the world today and is the darkest page in the history of Chinese civilisation. It has blackened the name of China in its relations with all other nations on the international stage and must stop immediately.”

The five exercises of Falun Gong were then demonstrated.

I had heard overheard an astonished passer-by in Oxford Street saying to her acquaintance that she couldn’t quite believe how quiet and peaceful the Falun Gong march was, presumably having bared witness to the previous day’s
protest against the bombing of Afghanistan. One thing remained deafeningly clear though. Falun Gong highlights a people’s struggle to enjoy the basic freedom of choice under a repressive regime as well as the honour of
refusing to buckle under the fist of the perpetrator when all that stands between you and ‘freedom’ is your signature.

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