By Katrina Lantos Swett and Mary Ann Glendon, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Katrina Lantos Swett is chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Mary Ann Glendon is vice chairwoman of USCIRF. The views expressed are their own.
As much of the world’s attention has been focused on the huge human rights abuses in Syria, a severely persecuted group from China has quietly marked nearly a decade-and-a-half since the start of a brutal campaign of detention, defamation and public degradation.
On July 20, the Falun Gong – a peaceful movement founded in 1992 and characterized by the practice of meditation exercises and moral precepts – marked 14 years since the launch of a government campaign against it. It is time for Washington and the world to take note of its plight.
Beijing’s efforts against the Falun Gong, which stem from fears over its substantial growth as an independent-minded group thriving outside of Communist ideology and control, have been remarkable. The government has mobilized the whole of Chinese society – from media to the police, from education to the judiciary – specifically against its members. Relentless propaganda campaigns label practitioners as “obsessed,” “evil,” “unbalanced,” and cult-like threats to the nation. The government is alleged to have created an extra-legal police force, called the 6-10 Office, which hunts, arrests, and detains them without trial in “re-education-through-labor” centers, where they are tortured and mistreated and may constitute half of the inmates. Practitioners also are sent to psychiatric hospitals where they are reportedly involuntarily administered drugs, electric shock, and beatings.
Those who are brought to trial have seen their lawyers stripped of their legal licenses or imprisoned. One of China’s most famous political prisoners, Gao Zhisheng, has endured a decade of torture and imprisonment partly for the “crime” of performing legal work in their defense.
There is chilling evidence to suggest that a horrific and prolific business in transplant organs has been sustained by those harvested without consent from Falun Gong and other prisoners, benefiting China’s organ tourism industry. Indeed, Chinese officials have acknowledged organ harvesting from prisoners is a problem and vowed to tackle it. But given the lack of transparency in China, it is impossible to determine whether meaningful steps have actually been taken to end this appalling abuse of fundamental human rights.
Most Americans know little to nothing about China’s assault on the Falun Gong. We know more about Tibetan Buddhists and unregistered Christian groups or pro-democracy and free speech advocates such as Liu Xiaobo and Ai Weiwei. When it comes to the Falun Gong, there has been a hidden persecution that has gone on in plain sight for too long.
When confronted about their abuse of the Falun Gong, Chinese officials repeat their own propaganda, calling practitioners mentally unbalanced (ironically for holding fast to their beliefs despite government duress), dangerous to “public health,” or enemies of the state.
In truth, the problem lies not with the Falun Gong, but with the Chinese government’s fear of dissent and its contempt for basic human rights, including the right to freedom of religion or belief. As a matter of simple dignity, as well as human rights, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other officials should raise the issue of the Falun Gong in the upcoming U.S.-China human rights dialogue in Beijing.
China’s persecution of the Falun Gong also reveals an abject failure to respect the rule of law. President Xi Jinping should be pressed to fulfill his promises to establish the rule of law by abolishing organizations like the 6-10 Office and re-education centers and immediately cease the abhorrent practice of involuntary organ harvesting from Falun Gong and other prisoners, while ceasing to harass lawyers who defend Falun Gong and other sensitive political cases.
Finally, the ruthless crackdown on Falun Gong highlights China’s continued pursuit of internet censorship. Falun Gong materials and websites are the most blocked content in China. The U.S. should support the increased availability of proven firewall circumvention technologies to individuals and businesses operating in China. An open internet is one crucial way to advance human rights and democracy while promoting freedom of religion and belief. It is also a vital necessity for China’s millions of businesses.
Ultimately, the story of the Falun Gong is a story of the Chinese Communist Party’s reliance on walls to shore up its own power and shield itself from critics. From prison walls to walls of legal discrimination and firewalls of the internet, China’s leaders fear openness and freedom as they seek to elevate China’s status as a great power. But hiding from freedom is no way for a great power to behave. The United States should press China to allow the free commerce of beliefs and ideas to prevail, starting with Falun Gong practitioners.