“Life there was like being in a den of monsters, but torture couldn’t change us.”
This is how Canadian artist and sculptor Kunlun Zhang describes his time in a Chinese labour camp in Beyond the Red Wall: The Persecution of Falun Gong, a one-hour documentary airing on CBC Newsworld Nov. 6.
Red Wall recounts how Zhang, a Falun Gong practitioner, was arrested while on a return visit to China in 2002. He was sentenced without trial to three years in a labour camp, where he was severely beaten, repeatedly shocked with an electric baton, and brainwashed in an attempt to have him relinquish his faith.
Liberal Member of Parliament Irwin Cotler, who later became Minister of Justice, teamed up with human rights lawyers and Amnesty International to rescue Zhang, a Canadian citizen and a visiting professor who once taught at McGill University. Zhang’s case became a cause celebre, and before long he was safely back in Canada.
However, untold thousands of Falun Gong practitioners in China haven’t been so lucky. Routinely jailed without trial, they face the same sort of brutality inflicted on Zhang simply because they adhere to Falun Gong, a spiritual discipline and meditation practice.
Red Wall documents how Falun Gong became wildly popular in the early 1990s as part of the “qigong boom” that swept China in the spiritual vacuum left behind by the Cultural Revolution.
Chinese Sports Ministry estimates pegged the number of practitioners in the range of 50-70 million. Hundreds would gather in parks and squares across the country to do the Falun Gong exercises each morning on their way to work.
The “great law of the universe” as taught by Falun Gong founder, Li Honzghi, seemed to strike a deep chord in the collective Chinese heart. Truthfulness, Compassion, and Tolerance, the guiding principles of the practice, were catching on in China.
At that time, the Chinese regime sanctioned Falun Gong and many Communist Party officials practiced it. People found that even severe illnesses disappeared with constant practice. As the country’s public health system began to crumble in the 1990s, many people turned to Falun Gong and other forms of Qigong to deal with their health problems.
“[In qigong], many Chinese leaders believed sincerely that they had stumbled upon a new revolutionary Chinese science that was going to change the world,” says David Ownby in the documentary. Ownby is a professor of Chinese History at the University of Montreal.
But after about 10,000 practitioners quietly gathered outside the communist Party headquarters in Beijing on April 25, 1999 to protest harassment of the group, the Party was shaken to the core.
That such a large crowd could mobilize under the radar of China’s ubiquitous Public Security Bureau struck fear in the heart of then-Chinese leader Jiang Zemin, says Canadian reporter Ian Johnson of the Wall Street Journal, who appears in Red Wall.
“The Party was ticked off, and they followed through in banning Falun Gong with a vengeance that I had never seen against any group in the seven years that I had been in China.”
With a directive from Jiang Zemin that the group be “eradicated,” the official persecution of Falun Gong began on July 20, 1999.
What followed was a series of mass arrests and an intense propaganda campaign that vilified Falun Gong both in China and overseas. Soon, disturbing reports began to emerge, telling of the systematic persecution, torture, and execution of practitioners.
Toronto-based Peter Rowe, who wrote, produced and directed Red Wall, says he was prompted to investigate the story behind Falun Gong after seeing practitioners demonstrating against the persecution outside the Chinese consulate in Vancouver in 2003.
“It struck me as being an amazing story that people didn’t know about. It’s a mysteriously hidden story, and there are lots of people who don’t know what Falun Gong is let alone anything about the persecution.”
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