China Still Presses Crusade Against Falun Gong

Beijing, China - In the decade since the Chinese government began repressing Falun Gong, a crusade that human rights groups say has led to the imprisonment of tens of thousands of practitioners and claimed at least 2,000 lives, the world’s attention has shifted elsewhere.

The drive against the spiritual group has eliminated its leadership, decimated the ranks of faithful and convinced many Chinese that the group is an “evil cult,” as the government contends. But 10 years on, the war on Falun Gong remains unfinished.

In the past year, as many as 8,000 practitioners have been detained, according to experts on human rights, and at least 100 have died in custody. Among them were Yu Zhou, 42, a popular Beijing musician, and Cao Changling, the 77-year-old vice director of a paper plant in Wuhan, whose bruised body was returned to his family by the police last summer just as China was reveling in the glory of the Olympic Games.

In recent months, scores of practitioners have been given long prison terms, including Zhang Xingwu, a retired physics professor from Shandong Province who last week was sentenced to seven years after the police found Falun Gong literature in his apartment, according to family members.

The continued crackdown highlights the difficulty of eradicating a movement whose adherents stubbornly cling to their beliefs, but it also provides a window into the psyche of an authoritarian government that, despite its far-reaching power, remains deeply insecure.

From the outset, the group, which at its peak claimed to have millions of followers around China, insisted that it wanted only legal recognition, not political power. But the country’s top leaders were alarmed by the group’s ability to attract a devoted following from so many citizens — from retired functionaries to pimple-faced college students.

The decision to ban the group entirely was made after 10,000 Falun Gong adherents staged a silent protest outside the gates of Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party’s leadership compound in Beijing, to complain about reports in the state-run media that the group said were defamatory. Security forces apparently had no advance knowledge of the demonstration, which took place on April 25, 1999, and they began treating the group as a threat to national security.

“Even a soccer team with an organization like Falun Gong might have produced the same reaction,” said T. Kumar, the Asia advocacy director for Amnesty International.

Although the propaganda juggernaut has eased in recent years, Falun Gong remains a toxic subject in China. Few academics will speak about it on the record, and the Internet is scoured clean of information that might be construed as sympathetic to Falun Gong, an amalgam of Buddhism, mysticism and qigong, the traditional exercise regimen that remains broadly popular here.

For the Falun Gong devotees who practice in secret, the only glimmer of hope has come from a small but growing number of lawyers who have dared to take on their cases. Even if the legal efforts have mostly come to naught, until recently Falun Gong detainees were denied even the right to a lawyer.

Last week, Jiang Yu, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, reiterated the government’s long-held stance that Falun Gong warrants suppression because it emphasizes meditation and the paranormal over modern medicine. “The Falun Gong cult violates human rights by controlling people’s minds,” he said in response to a reporter’s query.

Among experts based outside the country, there is broad consensus that the government’s efforts have not done much to advance its own interests, at least internationally, where it has been dogged by allegations that it uses torture to crush believers into submission.

‘The excesses and the savagery have really lowered the quality of the government and harmed its reputation abroad,” said Jerome Cohen, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and an expert on Chinese law. “They’re paying a high price for the cruelty to these people.”

According to Falun Gong followers and Chinese lawyers who take on their cases, that cruelty continues unabated.

Among those swept up in the purge were Yu Zhou, the musician, and his wife, Xu Na. They were stopped for speeding in January 2008, according to their lawyer. After the police found Falun Gong materials in their car, both were detained. Ten days later, Mr. Yu’s sister was told that he was gravely ill, the result, she was told, of a hunger strike complicated by diabetes. His sister, Yu Qun, says her brother did not have diabetes. She contends that he died at the hands of his captors.

The family’s efforts to investigate Mr. Yu’s death have been thwarted by the police and prosecutors, who refuse to allow an autopsy or even issue a death certificate.

Ms. Xu, who is a well-known poet and painter, was given a three-year term.

“I don’t understand why this happened to them because they didn’t do anything to break the law and they weren’t promoting the group,” Ms. Yu said.

According to former detainees and human rights organizations, Falun Gong detainees are frequently subjected to harrowing abuse, particularly those who refuse to swear off their faith. Bu Dongwei, 41, a longtime adherent who spent three years in a labor camp, said he was forced to share a room with about 30 people, most of them petty thieves and drug addicts who were encouraged to abuse the Falun Gong detainees.

Mr. Bu, a trained geneticist, left China in December and now lives in Los Angeles.

While the group’s initial goals were official legitimacy and an end to persecution, the ceaseless campaign against them has radicalized many adherents, especially those living outside China. In cities around the world, Falun Gong devotees — and their offbeat re-enactments of torture and gory visual aids — have become a common sight. The group has dedicated itself to the demise of the Communist Party, which has complicated the lives of adherents inside China.

Falun Dafa, the organization that oversees the movement from its headquarters in New York, is led by Li Hongzhi, a former grain clerk who began spreading his mystical brand of qigong in 1992 but fled China before the crackdown began. Once known for charismatic preaching, he has spent much of the past decade living a reclusive life in Queens.

David Ownby, the author of “Falun Gong and the Future of China,” said that Mr. Li and his followers may have made a tactical mistake by massing in Beijing, but that the Communist Party erred by interpreting their actions as a threat to its rule.

“If either side had played their cards more intelligently, Falun Gong could have been co-opted by the government,” said Mr. Ownby, who is a professor of East Asian studies at the University of Montreal. He added, “This horrific loss of life could have been avoided.”