Visiting Falun Gong practitioner Charles Li prefers not to say what he does for a living “because,” he says, “there are Communist spies everywhere.” Even though he was released more than ten months ago and has returned to live in the US, Li is clearly still traumatized by the last three years he spent in a Chinese prison.
Labeled by some as a peace-loving philosophy, branded by others as a mind-controlling cult, Falun Gong has gained international attention as accusations of human rights violations are increasingly heard out of the People’s Republic of China.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Li spoke out about what he termed “a genocide” by the ruling Chinese Communist Party against followers of the ancient Chinese practice that claims to refine the body and mind through exercises and meditation, and said the purpose of his trip was to make all Israelis aware of his movement’s struggle in the Asian nation.
“The important thing here is to know the right from the wrong, everybody needs to stand up for what is happening in China to the Falun Gong,” says the Chinese-born American citizen, who has been involved in the practice for almost a decade.
“I think the crimes going on are against humanity as a whole and not just against the Falun Gong in China. It is a genocide, it is just like what happened during World War II when the Jewish people were persecuted by the Nazis,” says Li.
Li joined local practitioners of Falun Gong last week in a series of rallies countrywide, including a silent protest outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on Thursday and opposite the Chinese embassy in Tel Aviv on Friday.
Also known as Falun Dafa, local Falun Gong followers estimate that there are close to 500 people here in Israel who loosely follow the exercise and meditation regimen and up to 100 people who live their lives according to the Falun Gong philosophy of “Truthfulness,” “Compassion” and “Forbearance.”
“It is a very loose association of people,” says Dalia Harpaz-Amit, editor of the Hebrew language website on the subject, www.falunnews.org.il. She says that practitioners here meet regularly to study new developments, organize non-violent demonstrations outside the Chinese Embassy in Tel Aviv and rally opposite the Knesset to raise awareness of the Falun Gong plight in the People’s Republic of China.
Local practitioners also hand out flyers on Saturday afternoons on the Tel Aviv beachfront and at the old central bus station location, where many Chinese foreign workers in Israel reside, she says.
A practitioner herself for the past six years, Harpaz-Amit adds that the Chinese Embassy tried to put a stop to Falun Gong activities in Israel but, she says, since the United Nations, US Congress and European Union have begun to take an interest in the matter, pressure from local CPR representatives has tapered off.
However, the controversial group has been repeatedly accused of proselytizing, cult-like behavior and subversion by the Chinese government and other cult-buster organizations.
Xiaoan Zhang, the Charge d’affaires at the Chinese Embassy in Israel, responded to Li’s visit with a strongly worded statement: “My government is against any Falun Gong activity in China and in Israel. It is an evil cult, whose aim is to mentally control the minds of the people.”
Xiaoan also said that the Falun Gong tries to attract followers internationally, including in Israel, and that the haredi anti-missionary organization Yad L’achim is already actively trying to raise the issue with the Israeli government.
“If quiet meditation outside the embassy is dangerous, then we are probably a very big threat,” says Harpaz-Amit.
Li also dismisses the accusations of the Chinese government against Falun Gong as being propaganda and that the practice is an apolitical movement.
“[It] is about trying to look inwards at ourselves,” he says. “It is about being a better person in every aspect of daily life – in family, in work and in society.”
The Chinese government obviously feels differently. In January 2003, Li was arrested at the Baiyun Airport in Guangzhou, China. He claims he was accused by the Chinese government of preparing to sabotage the national television station to broadcast messages about the Falun Gong practices.
Li says he was subjected to a variety of physical and mental torture for most of his three-year internment at Nanjing prison.
“[They] wanted me to admit I’d committed crimes,” recalls Li. “I told them that the reason I’d been trying to hijack the TV network was to broadcast our own programs because there is no freedom of the press in China. I told them that the persecution of Falun Gong is against the constitution of China and against the law, but the Communist Party does not care about the law, it does whatever it wants to do.”
Li describes how the other inmates, who were 5awarded “points” for torturing Falun Gong-practicing prisoners, regularly beat him, and he was forced to do hard labor for no pay. He says he was forced to perform hard labor, including stitching together popular Simpsons memorabilia, and to undergo daily brainwashing “study sessions” in which he was shown videos of other Falun Gong practitioners who, according to the Chinese authorities, had gone crazy.
“The living conditions were extremely bad,” says Li, claiming that many Falun Gong prisoners have had vital organs removed from their bodies to be used in government-sanctioned transplant operations. “There was no glass in the windows, only iron bars. In the winter, the wind would blow in through the bars and it was extremely cold. In the summer, temperatures reached 42 C, with six inmates crammed into a small cell. It is really unimaginable for people in the West.
“I conducted hunger strikes to raise awareness about what was going on,” he continues, describing in detail how a tube was inserted in his nose to force-feed him during those strikes.
Following his release from prison last January, Li says he has been working hard to recover from the mental and physical torture he received. He said that one of the main reasons he did not end up being tortured to death was because of the work of his fianc , Yeong-Ching Foo, who raised awareness of his arrest and imprisonment in the international media. The two were married on May 10.
“I never thought about giving up Falun Gong while I was in prison,” says Li. “Before I was arrested, I had practiced Falun Gong for five-and-a-half years and already believed in it; all the torture only reinforced those beliefs.”
According to an article published on the pro-Falun Gong website, theepochtime.com, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture published a report to the UN Commission on Human Rights on March 23, 2004 on world-wide human rights violations.
The report said, “Of the 115 countries covered, China had by far the greatest number of verified violations in the 420-page report. Of over 130 cases of reported torture and abuse in China, approximately 100 of them were perpetrated against Falun Gong practitioners.”
“The violations against Falun Gong have attracted increasing condemnations from the Special Rapporteurs, and in many reports, the cases of abuses of Falun Gong practitioners have taken more space than other human rights issues,” it says.
The UN reports of violations in human rights by the People’s Republic of China against Falun Gong are ongoing, says information posted on the website of the Falun Gong Human Rights Working Group.
Likewise, Amnesty International’s 2004 report cited human rights violations targeted against the movement: “The Falun Gong spiritual movement remained a key target of repression, which reportedly included many arbitrary detentions. Most of those detained were assigned to periods of ‘Re-education through Labor’ without charge or trial, during which they were at high risk of torture or ill-treatment, particularly if they refused to renounce their beliefs.”
“As a Chinese person, I know how difficult it is to live in China under the Communist regime,” Li concludes.
“I understand that the Chinese people have no way of knowing the truth, and if we do not stand up and reveal it then no Chinese person will have the chance to know.”