The rally for freedom in China sponsored every July by adherents of Falun Gong is by far the most orderly and well-organized political demonstration that takes place in Washington, DC. This year’s rally of July 14 was no exception. Practitioners of the spiritual discipline combining meditation, graceful exercises, and breathing techniques with cultivation of virtue sat cross-legged on the ground in dozens and dozens of rows facing the U.S. Capitol. But few realize how, behind the scenes, Falun Gong is more successfully rocking repressive regimes around the world than could the most riotous of demonstrators.
Unlike many Washington protestors and demonstrators, Falun Gong members attending the rally for freedom were almost totally silent. There were no shouts of “No justice, no peace!” No chants of “Hey, hey, ho, ho. Hu Jintao has got to go.” But for their applause for the rally speakers, Falun Gong followers sat quietly in the hot sun. Members of Congress and representatives of human rights and religious freedom organizations that come every year to the rally brought greetings, condemned the actions of the Chinese government, and pledged their support to Falun Gong, persecuted Christians, and all those who are oppressed by the Communist regime.
In addition to sheer numbers, (seated adherents stretched all the way to the edge of the Capitol West Lawn) visual images spoke for the practitioners. Most of the hundreds of participants held posters declaring “Stop the Persecution of Falun Gong” or “Abolish the Chinese Communist Party.” Other participants’ peaceful expressions belied the horrific photos they displayed of the battered faces of friends and family members, practitioners who have been arrested, beaten, and put in China’s vast gulag, or brutally tortured to death. Flanking the seated participants on all sides stood other demonstrators supporting large, colorful banners that proclaimed both the goodness of Falun Gong, or “Falun Dafa,” as it is also known, and the evil of the CCP and Communism. It was a refreshing change in a climate where Chairman Mao and Che Guevara are fashion statements and in which we are informed by our betters at Newsweek that “we are all socialists now.”
July 2011 marked twelve years of the CCP’s brutal persecution of Falun Gong. First founded by Li Hongzhi in 1992, Falun Gong’s practitioners numbered over 70 million by the mid-1990’s, to the great alarm of the Communist regime. Falun Gong was outlawed on July 20, 1999 as “neither a religion nor a spiritual movement” but “an evil cult against humanity, science and society.” Communist Party Chairman Jiang Zemin created a government office to “eradicate” Falun Gong, and leading practitioners immediately were arrested. By 2008 the U.S. State Department’s Human Rights Report on China noted that “some foreign observers estimated that Falun Gong adherents constituted at least half of the 250,000 officially recorded inmates in re-education through labor (RTL) camps, while Falun Gong sources overseas placed the number even higher.”
The numbers of Falun Gong practitioners that have been tortured and killed grew throughout the nineties, and continued into the twenty-first century. In 2003, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, Asma Jahangir, reported that she continued “to be alarmed by deaths in custody in China.” She concluded that “the cruelty and brutality of these alleged acts of torture” against followers of the Falun Gong movement “defy description.” In just the first four months of 2011, sources reported the deaths of 26 Falun Gong practitioners from various age groups and regions of China.
Even as persecution continues, Falun Gong is having a tremendous impact on the struggle for freedom not only in China, but around the world. Human rights activist Michael Horowitz says that Falun Gong followers are “changing the course of history.” First, in 2004, Falun Gong’s international newspaper The Epoch Times published an exposé of the deception and violence of the CCP. The Nine Commentaries on the Chinese Communist Party feature such topics as “On How the Chinese Communist Party Destroyed Traditional Culture” and “On the Chinese Communist Party’s History of Killing.” One topic even turns the tables on the CCP and explains “On How the Chinese Communist Party is An Evil Cult.”
Reaction to the Nine Commentaries has been astounding. In the seven years since their publication, over 98 million people have left the Party. To assist in this process, the Falun Gong initiated the “Tuidang Movement.” Tuidang, which translates as “withdraw from the Communist Party,” signifies withdrawing or renouncing membership in the CCP or its affiliated youth organizations, the Young Pioneers and the Communist Youth League. The Tuidang Movement was recognized in U.S. Senate Resolution 232, just introduced on July 13, 2011. Yi Rong, the chairwoman of Falun Gong’s aptly named “Quitting the CCP Service Center,” was one of the speakers at this year’s rally. She revealed that Tuidang volunteers both inside China and around the world process over 60,000 quitting statements each day.
But opening the eyes of former Communist Party members through the Nine Commentaries is not the only way in which Falun Gong practitioners are changing the world and fighting for freedom. In 2000, Chinese-American Falun Gong followers launched the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, (GIF). This is a series of free downloadable programs with names such as “Freegate” and “Ultrasurf” that allow Internet users to bypass the servers that are censored by their government and access the Internet via GIF’s servers that are spread across the world.
The CCP is one of the world’s leaders in Internet censorship. According to David Feith in the Wall Street Journal, the Chinese regime uses more than 40,000 censors in a dozen government agencies to limit web content via the “Great Firewall” of China. “Just as East Germans diminished Soviet legitimacy by escaping across Checkpoint Charlie, ‘hacktivists’ today do the same by breaching Internet cyberwalls,” says Feith.
Falun Gong’s GIF, accessible to Internet users worldwide, has been invaluable to dissidents in such countries as Burma, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Vietnam, and Iran. During Iran’s Green Revolution, demonstrators had more contact with the outside world because of GIF. They so flooded GIF’s servers to access Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other sites, that on June 22, 2009 the consortium had to temporarily block usage in order to keep the system from crashing.
Devastated Iranians sent thousands of messages to GIF, pleading for restoration of the service. “Technically, to us, Iranian people, web means Freegate, Ultrasurf… Please hear us. Don’t let freedom die. Don’t let hope fade away. And let people be informed, connected and empowered,” one message entreated. GIF worked nonstop to resume services to Iran after midnight the same day, but without resource-consuming video services. They then received many requests from Iran for YouTube services to post videos about the crackdown. So the GIF team again worked tirelessly and resumed YouTube and some other video services early the next morning. According to Feith, during the protests of June 20, 2009 alone, more than one million Iranians used GIF to visit 390 million pages on the uncensored Internet.
In July of the same year, the U.S. Senate’s State Department/Foreign Appropriations Subcommittee approved $30 million for Internet freedom activities. With additional (U.S. made) servers, GIF swiftly could increase its capacity to 50 million users per day and would never have to block usage as they had done during the Green Revolution. Sadly, although the State Department received the $30 million from Congress in October 2009, it has not released the funds for these purposes.
Commenting on this in the Washington Post on April 5, 2011, Anne Applebaum revealed that a State Department official told her that the department “lacked technical expertise and had been forced to reorganize itself to ‘unify the policy’ before issuing a call for proposals.” Applebaum added that there may be other, “darker motives: weakness, cowardice, anxiety in not wanting to displease the governments that create firewalls — especially the Chinese government.” Even in the unlikely case that those darker motives do not exist, the State Department is drowning a simple solution to circumventing Internet censorship in the murky waters of government bureaucracy.
The New York Times on June 12, 2011 reported in glowing terms on the State Department’s internet freedom activities. But Horowitz, an advisor to GIF, says that the Times story “glamorizes black box stuff, ignores present, real world possibilities for mass circumvention of closed society Internet firewalls and applauds an R & D approach to Internet freedom that, at best, won’t/can’t be operational for years.” He and other activists continue to urge the U.S. government to support the extremely efficient and already successful work of groups like GIF rather than, literally, reinvent the Internet.
Another of the Iranian freedom fighters of 2009 wrote poignantly to GIF, “If it was not for flicker, twitter, facebook and simply email nobody would have known what is happening in Iran… . If not for internet these events would have been 1000 times uglier and more brutal… . Let the citizens of the world know you as freedom heroes.”
Sometimes “freedom heroes” never intended to fight, only to cultivate daily the virtues of truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance like the followers of Falun Gong. But the CCP brought the fight to them, and now they are on the frontlines of a battle for freedom not just for China, but for victims of repressive governments all over the world.
Faith J. H. McDonnell directs The Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Religious Liberty Program and Church Alliance for a New Sudan, and is the author of Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda’s Children (Chosen Books, 2007).