China's Suppression of Falungong Denounced

China's three-year-old suppression of Falungong, a spiritual group based on exercises and meditation called qigong, has violated basic rights to belief and association, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW). Tens of thousands of Falungong followers have been detained for the peaceful expression of their beliefs, according to the report, while thousands have been sentenced by administrative tribunals to "re-education through labor" terms as long as three years, according to the report.

About 300 organizers have been prosecuted in the courts and sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to 18 years.

Many prisoners have been subjected to threats and other forms of psychological abuse to get them to recant their beliefs, while some have suffered severe beatings and torture which, in a few cases, have resulted in deaths in custody, according to the 117-page report, 'Dangerous Meditation.'

Recently, Beijing has suggested that Falungong, which it has denounced as an "evil cult," is also a terrorist group, a notion ridiculed by HRW's Asia director, Sidney Jones.

"China's efforts to equate the Falungong with terrorists are ludicrous," she said. "Most Falungong members are peaceful, law-abiding citizens, and there is no excuse for the human rights violations they have endured," she said.

The new report comes amid indications that China may be reassessing its suppression of independent religious groups like Falungong.

Writing in an influential newspaper last month, the head of the State Religious Affairs Bureau, Ye Xiaowen, denounced what he called "simple methods" in addressing "complicated religious problems." He suggested that suppression of evangelical religious groups may be counter-productive.

Founded by Li Hongzhi, who went into exile in the United States in 1998, Falungong first emerged in 1992 as part of a nationwide resurgence of qigong groups that followed the general liberalization of Chinese society during the 1980s.

While the authorities at first tolerated the movement, which flourished in the emerging middle class, they launched a campaign of suppression after a demonstration involving some 10,000 Falungong practitioners who gathered outside Zhongnanhai, the walled Beijing district which is home to many senior politicians, on April 25, 1999.

By most accounts, the protest caught the leadership--which was already concerned about rising unemployment and worker unrest resulting from far-reaching economic reforms--completely by surprise.

Less than three months later, Beijing officially banned the movement and took measures to prevent its members from meeting, exercising or protesting in public, and distributing information. The ban marked the beginning of the detentions and arrests.

The report cited one case, that of Zhang Kunlun, who left China last year for Canada after he was detained four times in a six-month period. Each time he was arrested, he was subjected to threats and other forms of psychological coercion until he renounced his faith in Falungong. After each release, however, he continued to practice, only to be rearrested. On one occasion, he was beaten and tortured with electric batons so severely that, in his words, he "lost his mind."

Over the past three years, Falungong--which claims millions of members worldwide and has shown great sophistication in using Internet technology to spread its beliefs and publicize Chinese abuses--has been non-violent in its response.

Last January, however, seven alleged members set fire to themselves in Tiananmen Square to protest Beijing's repression. The incident apparently played into the government's hands by depicting Falungong as a dangerous sect, and the group's popularity in China, while difficult to gauge, appears to have declined.

Still, Beijing has pressed other governments, particularly in East Asia, to take action against Falungong and make it harder for members there to practice their faith or publicize China's efforts to stamp it out. The effort has met with some success in Japan and Thailand, according to HRW.