Successive Canadian governments, and others around the world, have convinced themselves that soft-pedaling on atrocities would somehow encourage reforms in China, write Caylan Ford and David Matas.

By Caylan Ford and David Matas

Canada joined the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom this week in announcing a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing. The decision is meant to demonstrate Canada’s displeasure with the human rights situation in China, and specifically the involuntary sterilization, extrajudicial detention, and ‘reeducation’ in forced labour camps of members of the predominantly Muslim Uyghur minority.

Although an obvious half-measure — Canadian athletes will still participate in the games —it is at least a signal that our leaders are not entirely resigned to indifference or complicity in the face of monstrous abuses. Unfortunately for many, the signal has come too late. Those who argued that we must not participate in Beijing’s “genocide Olympics” forget something crucial: we already have.

The 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics also took place against a backdrop of mass atrocities. The success of those games, and the muted response of the international community to the human rights abuses surrounding them, was understood by Beijing as a validation of its approach, and as licence to repeat it.

In 2008, the Communist Party was in the 10th year of an expansive eradication campaign against Falun Gong, a Buddhist spiritual practice that was once estimated to have 70 million adherents. Human rights monitors cited reports from practitioners and families that in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing games, over 8000 Falun Gong adherents were detained in a pre-Olympic crackdown, and at least 100 reportedly died as a result of ill-treatment in custody. This occurred sometimes within walking distance of Olympic venues and major landmarks. Among them was 42-year-old Yu Zhou, a popular folk musician who died in custody 11 days after he was arrested for possessing forbidden religious literature (his widow, an artist named Xu Na, was arrested in advance of the 2022 Olympics, and is currently awaiting trial).

Most Canadians know little to nothing about the repression of Falun Gong in China. Political leaders in Canada only rarely acknowledge it. Few events in recent Chinese history have had as profound an impact on the country’s political, security, and psychic landscape, and few events are as little studied or as poorly understood.

In relaying this story, and in seeking to understand the peculiar public amnesia surrounding it, it helps to understand why the suppression began in the first place.

Falun Gong is a religious practice with roots in the bio-spiritual cultivation practices of Buddhism and Taoism. It includes rigorous precepts for ethical conduct, espouses a belief in gods and higher spiritual realms, and involves a systematic program of exercises and meditation meant to affect moral growth and inner purity. At the heart of its philosophy are the tenets of truth, compassion, and forbearance, which are held to be the ultimate expression of the Buddhist Law, or the Dao. By seeking to align their own character with these virtues, and by relinquishing wants and worldly attachments, Falun Gong adherents seek transcendence, and reconciliation with the divine.

The practice is strictly non-violent and, until it was politicized through persecution, avowedly apolitical. It had little to no formal organization, no system of membership, no churches or temples, tithings or fees. Its adherents merely wanted to be left alone to practice their daily meditation and seek personal, moral rectitude. But as its following grew into the tens of millions of people, it came to be seen as a potent theological rival to the Communist Party.

Religious faith is a threat to totalitarians everywhere, because they cannot countenance the idea that any authority — especially a divine authority — stands above their own. There can be no loyalty except loyalty to the party, no meaning except that which is prescribed by the party, no truth that cannot be altered by fiat or force. This fact explains not only why the Communist Party sought to destroy Falun Gong, but also why it suppresses Tibetan Buddhists, Uyghur Muslims, faithful Catholics, and members of underground Protestant churches.

But while it is not the only target of religious repression, the campaign against Falun Gong has been unique in its scope, duration, and intensity.

In July of 1999, the Communist Party announced plans to “completely eradicate” (彻底铲除) Falun Gong. Under the leadership of a centralized party agency known as the 610 Office, the media, judiciary, security forces, and all party and state institutions were mobilized to struggle against the faith. During the first several years of the campaign, China’s state-run press was saturated with anti-Falun Gong invective, which portrayed the group’s adherents variously as a cancer or as vermin in need of extermination. Mass rallies and public book burnings were held in cities across China, and a strict Internet censorship regime was created to stop the dissemination of dissenting views. In schools and workplaces, citizens were enjoined to “struggle” against and denounce the practice. Those who refused faced the loss of jobs and schooling, and many were imprisoned.

For most of the past two decades, Falun Gong believers comprised the largest group of prisoners of conscience in China, numbering well into the hundreds of thousands, if not millions. In prisons, forced labour camps, and reeducation centres, they are subjected to high-pressure tactics to forcibly “transform” their minds, including beatings, sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation and rape, suspension in stress positions, shocks with electric batons, and injections with unknown psychotropic drugs. Falun Gong sources have recorded over 4700 named individuals are documented as having died as a result of torture and abuse in custody, though the actual figure may be much higher.

Despite their evident disregard for the physical or mental wellbeing of Falun Gong prisoners, however, labour camp officials nonetheless subject them to targeted medical exams, wherein doctors would draw large volumes of blood, probe their organs or perform chest x-rays, but refuse to treat any of the actual injuries they may have sustained in custody. Former prisoners report that following these exams, some of the Falun Gong detainees would disappear. In 2006, Chinese whistleblowers began sounding the alarm that the rapid expansion of China’s for-profit organ transplant industry was being fuelled by organs harvested from Falun Gong prisoners of conscience. Numerous subsequent investigations – including those conducted by David Matas – appear to confirm the allegations.

In 2019, an independent tribunal of scholars and jurists convened in London to investigate evidence of organ harvesting and concluded that non-consenting Falun Gong adherents had been the main source of organs in China’s lucrative transplant industry. Since 2000, Chinese civilian and military hospitals have conducted hundreds of thousands of organ transplants – often on-demand, without any effective system of voluntary donation, and with no plausible explanation of where the organs came from. In June 2021, the UN’s top human rights experts again raised the alarm about the continued forced organ harvesting perpetrated against religious minorities. (Although evidence of large-scale organ harvesting from Uyghur Muslims is not definitively established, partly because of the difficulty of accessing information in Xinjiang, there is reason to believe that it is occurring. Several Xinjiang airports include dedicated “human organ transport” lanes, and Radio Free Asia has reported at least 500 shipments of human organs out of the province.)

That crimes against humanity have been perpetrated against the Falun Gong is beyond any reasonable doubt. The evidence is overwhelming, detailed, corroborated and voluminous. There is a real question why so many people do not know it is happening.

One answer relates to the obscurity of the victims. The words "Falun" and "Gong" mean nothing in languages other than Chinese. At the time that the suppression in China began, the group was virtually unknown in the West. They had not acquired significant social capital, had few networks or connections, and there were no natural constituencies to whom they could appeal for support. Falun Gong victims also faced linguistic and cultural barriers, and lacked the kind of organizational structure or fundraising mechanisms that would allow them to mount an effective public awareness campaigns. Many people do not know about the atrocity because they do not know what Falun Gong is.

It is easier to relate to victims who have universal labels — journalists, human rights defenders, and democracy activists — than to a group with a name that means nothing to most ears. It is also much easier to misrepresent the unknown than the known. When the Communists slur Tibetan Buddhists or the Christian churches as “evil cults,” we know that they are talking nonsense. When the Communists slur the Falun Gong in the same way, many people are not sure whether there is any basis for the charge.

To that end, the Communist Party has devoted enormous resources to propagandizing against Falun Gong, both within China and abroad, and to present its followers as unworthy victims who deserve scorn and contempt, rather than compassion or understanding.

The Chinese party-state also goes to great lengths to suppress reporting about its human rights abuses, including by censoring information, destroying records, fabricating data, denying access to investigators, threatening or jailing witnesses, and leveraging its diplomatic and commercial clout to silence criticism of the regime. Several Falun Gong witnesses were either tortured to death, or died under suspicious circumstances, after speaking with foreign journalists or human rights investigators[1]. China-based journalists who have attempted to report on the topic face intimidation by security agents or risk the revocation of their press credentials. Whole news organizations have been temporarily shut out of the Chinese market for glancing coverage of the Falun Gong issue.

Some outlets — including CBC and the Washington Post — have reportedly spiked or censored stories about persecution, possibly due to pressure from Chinese authorities. The New York Times directed a journalist not to pursue leads about organ transplant abuses, according to her testimony at the China Tribunal.

Broadly speaking, it seems that media can hardly touch this story if they want to continue to operate in China.

For diplomats seeking to advance complex and multi-faceted agendas with China, the persecution of Falun Gong is understood to be a third rail. Talk about some other forms of repression, and the Chinese Communists will offer denials and justifications. Talk about persecution of Falun Gong, and the Communists get angry and walk out of the room. China scholars similarly risk the denial of visas and access if they write about Falun Gong in a manner not approved of by Beijing. As Arthur Waldron, a professor of Chinese history at the University of Pennsylvania observed, “Falun Gong is not simply on Beijing’s blacklist. Its name is recorded in the blackest of black letters.” Given the risks, it seems much simpler and more productive to simply focus on other things.

The human rights atrocities that are alleged are also of a kind that we may not want to believe them. After being told about the Holocaust by Jan Karski in 1943, US Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter famously remarked: “I did not say that this young man was lying. I said that I was unable to believe what he told me. There is a difference.” This unwillingness to confront the reality of the human condition persists. Despite the depths of depravity seen in the Holocaust, there remains still a naïve belief that these sorts of atrocities — the mass industrialized killing by an advanced society of a group of innocent people — cannot happen.

Successive Canadian governments, and others around the world, have convinced themselves that soft-pedaling on atrocities would somehow encourage reforms in China. Instead, the machinery of oppression that was built to crush the Falun Gong has metastasized, becoming a permanent feature of Communist Party’s governance apparatus. The persecution of Uyghur Muslims and, to a lesser extent, faithful Christians, is carried out by many of the same people, with the same tactics, that the Falun Gong have endured for decades: mass imprisonment, torture, forced labour, religious de-conversion and, perhaps, organ harvesting. Those who ignored the brutal repression of Falun Gong for decades cannot now claim to be surprised.

Caylan Ford is a documentary filmmaker in Calgary, Canada. David Matas is a Winnipeg lawyer and co-author with David Kilgour of Bloody Harvest: The Killing of Falun Gong for their organs.


[1] An early example was that of 31-year-old Ding Yan, a Falun Gong adherent in Beijing who organized a secret press conference in Beijing in October 1999 with foreign correspondents to describe accounts of torture in labour camps. Following the press conference, she was taken into custody and later tortured to death according to sources who knew her. A more recent example is Mr. Sun Yi, who died under suspicious circumstances after fleeing to Indonesia in 2017. Sun had spoken to the New York Times and CNN about conditions in Chinese labour camps.

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