Five practitioners of the Falun Gong belief system were jailed for up to 14 years last week. Why does the cult alarm the Chinese authorities?
The slight figure of Bin He suggests he is younger than his 30 years. Yet his careful and dispassionate telling of his story is the result of the bitter experience of imprisonment and torture; an experience which he says nearly killed him.
Seven years ago, Bin was studying for a masters degree in finance at the University of Wuhan, China’s third city, when he began suffering from stomach pains and fever. He consulted several doctors, but none could find anything wrong. When he returned to the family home in Guangshei City, a friend of his father’s suggested he try Falun Gong, a system of gentle exercise and meditation based on the principles of truth, compassion and tolerance.
An ancient form of one of the many thousands of Qigong, or exercise and meditation systems, it was opened to the public in China in 1992 through classes conducted by Hongzhi Li. By 1999, more than 70 million people were practising it throughout China.
In the west, claims that it has a healing effect are treated with scepticism. Yet promoters of Falun Gong emphasise that it is an ethical belief system, requiring practitioners to take responsibility for their decisions and actions.
But the Chinese government believe it is a dangerous cult which encourages people to commit suicide in order to reach heaven and that more than 1700 Falun Gong followers have died because they refused to consult a doctor for illnesses which could be treated or because they committed suicide. Practitioners say these deaths are the result of the persecution of Falun Gong followers by the Chinese authorities worried that it is more popular than communism.
Last week, five followers of Falun Gong were sentenced to up to 14 years in prison for saying that a practitioner was persecuted by the government. China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported that Chen Shumin, Lu Zhengqi, Li Jian, Yuan Qiuyan and Yin Yan were accused of “vilifying the government’s image through spreading fabricated stories on persecution of cult practitioners.”
Bin took up the practice in 1997. “I learned the principles and got up one hour earlier and did the exercises for an hour or half- an-hour each day and two weeks later all the symptoms of illness had gone.” The popularity of the practice was to undermine it. “In July 1999 my parents were told to watch an announcement on TV and make sure all their family watched it. We learned that it was illegal to practise Falun Gong and they followed the announcement with a propaganda programme which showed suicides and murders that they claimed were committed by Falun Gong practitioners.”
He was sacked from his job teaching economics. It became impossible for him to get another, until the Bank of East Asia, which, because it was based in Hong Kong, did not apply the same interview techniques, gave him a job.
As practitioners were arrested by the thousand and the government under Jiang Zemin continued to put out lies and misinformation, he felt obliged to protest. He went to Beijing, where there were regular protests in Tiananmen Square, and met his brother Jian and a friend Li Changjun. Despite the presence of many plainclothed policemen, Bin managed to unfurl a banner in support of Falun Gong.
“We were arrested within seconds. They said they would teach us a lesson and in the police station they beat me up. Then they sent us to a detention centre, but I refused to answer their questions. They wanted to know who the organiser was and I kept saying there wasn’t one.
“They handcuffed me and then stood on my hands. They whipped me with a leather belt and they used an electric-shock baton with 30,000 volts on sensitive parts of my body. Then they caused unimaginable pain by using the edges of a small wooden stick to press down on my toes. Finally they poured chilli powder into my mouth and nose. I still would not give them an answer and they all beat me together. The torture lasted from 5pm until 3am. Finally, they said if I gave them my name and address they would release me. I did, but they continued to detain me, so I went on hunger strike. After three days they tied me to a chair and force-fed me through a tube in my nose. I started to vomit and they realised that I might die and so took me to hospital.
“I was sent to a detention centre near my home town and my family was notified of my detention. From there I was sent to the ‘transformation centre’ which, was built for brainwashing and torturing people to give up Falun Gong.”
Bin says there were about 70 or 80 Falun Gong practitioners at the centre, each of whom was kept in a cell with no furniture. “We were not allowed to leave the room or take any exer- cise and from 6am until 10pm we were forced to watch TV, listen to radio programmes and read newspapers all designed to persuade Falun Gong practitioners that it caused suicide and murder. Two people that I know of died in the centre.
“Then we had to write three papers repenting for following Falun Gong. I did not want to give up and they were going to send me to a labour camp, but my parents, who had already been forced to pay a lot of money for my ‘board and lodging’, paid a fine (which was illegal) and with the help of influential people, got me released on bail.”
As Bin’s passport was issued before he had any dealings with the author-ities, he was able to get from Shenzhen to Hong Kong and then to London as a student. He has has been granted asylum in the UK, and his wife and three-year-old daughter have joined him in London.
Bin is worried about his brother, Jian, 27, who is being held in a labour camp without trial, but is due to be “sentenced” next month.
His parents have been financially drained by being forced to pay expenses for Jian’s treatment in hospital after he was tortured. Although Bin is able to phone them, whenever he mentions Jian, the line goes dead.
A spokeswoman for the Chinese embassy in London said that the Chinese government consider Falun Gong a dangerous cult. “Its practitioners cause death by the belief that they can achieve healing and so do not seek medical treatment. What we do is put them into education so that they understand the true picture,” she said.
The European Falun Gong Information Centre say they know “from reliable sources in China” of 64 deaths of Falun Gong practitioners between November 2003 and January 2004 as a result of torture and abuse. They say that in 23 cases, the victims died after being released from custody so that the authorities could deny responsibility for their deaths.
Yuyu Williamson is a Chinese woman, married to a Scot, who teaches Falun Gong classes in Glasgow and is providing accommodation for Bin, who is in Scotland to address Amnesty International groups. She says: “It consists of five sets of simple exercises, which include four standing positions using simple stretches to open energy channels and allowing energy to circulate and one set of medita- tions done from a sitting position. It is not just exercises but the interaction of mind and body which makes it powerful.”
She claims that after practising it for some time she realised she was free of the rheumatic fever which had caused her suffering since she had been forced to work in the fields in bad weather as a teenager after her parents had been arrested during the cultural revolution.
“It makes sense to me that the body and mind work together,” she says.
For more information on Falun Gong see www.falundafa.org or www.clearharmony.net