Remember the international media outcry over the treatment of Falun Gong practitioners about a decade ago?
The system, which was founded in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, was declared a cult by the Chinese government in 1999. The government proceeded to crack down on the movement, which had grown rapidly, including through an extensive (and heavy-handed) media campaign aimed at discrediting the organization and a ‘conversion’ program.
The issue resurfaced in 2006 when the results of a two-month investigation by two Canadians was presented suggesting organ harvesting of Falun Gong members, a point taken up in more depth by the two (nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize this year) in the book ‘Bloody Harvest: The Killing of Falun Gong for their organs.’
The issue of the Falun Gong goes to the heart of two deep-rooted impulses of the Chinese leadership—control and the related desire to keep internal matters exactly that. The Falun Gong, with its supposed millions of followers exerting pressure from abroad, threatens both of these, which is why the government is so incredibly touchy over this.
So it’s unlikely to be pleased by two recent, related developments.
The first was the vote yesterday by the US House of Representatives calling on China to end its ‘persecution’ of the group. The resolution, which was passed almost unanimously, is not binding. However it brings to the fore a touchy issue at a time when Sino-US relations are, let’s say, somewhat tense.
The other question is where exactly is Gao Zhisheng? For those who aren’t familiar with him, he’s a leading human rights lawyer who defended Falun Gong followers after the government’s crackdown began. He was handed a suspended prison sentence for subversion after writing to President Hu Jintao in 2006 complaining about the treatment of Falun Gong members, but has been missing since last year.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi waded into the controversy yesterday, saying simply that he had been sentenced to prison for subversion, but not clarifying whether this was based on the existing sentence or something new. The foreign ministry refused to clarify.
This followed the rather mad version of events given by the Chinese embassy in Washington last month, which stated that he has been in contact with his family all along and that was working in Urumqi.
Chinese officials do themselves no favours at all with these kinds of statements and would be better off keeping a studied silence than offering ‘clarifications’ that bring more questions than answers. China has gone to great lengths to train up its diplomatic corp. in recent years to create a more savvy message than the inflexibly grey one its diplomats used to offer. It seems, though, there’s still some fine tuning necessary. Or, of course, it could just change some of these outdated policies instead.