NEW YORK – As President Hu Jintao crosses the Pacific to visit America, amidst the discussion for hopeful progress with China, one name is strangely absent: Dr. Charles Lee, an American citizen who has been in jail in China for over two and a half years.
Dr. Lee, 41, a resident of Menlo Park, California, was arrested upon stepping off the plane in Guangzhou Airport on January 22, 2003. Dr. Lee told the U.S. consulate officials who visited him in prison that, for the three days after his arrest, he faced interrogation and beatings from Chinese authorities, all the while being deprived of sleep.
In March 2003, Dr. Lee was ushered through a one-day trial with the charge of intent to sabotage state-owned broadcasting equipment, and sentenced to 3 years in Nanjing Prison, 170 miles west of Shanghai where he remains today.
According to Ms. Yeong-Ching Foo, Charles’ fiancée, Charles did intend to use China’s state broadcasting equipment, though, she says, sabotage had nothing to do with it. Instead, Dr. Lee hoped to broadcast information about human rights violations against Falun Gong, a spiritual practice that has been violently suppressed in China since July 20, 1999.
Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and New York-based Human Rights Watch have fingered the Chinese state-controlled media as instrumental in carrying out Beijing’s repressive campaign against Falun Gong. This mass media campaign has demonized the practice and in many cases issued blanket denials of any wrong doing regarding allegations of torture and murder of those who practice Falun Gong.
“Reports continue of deaths of detained [Falun Gong] practitioners following torture and extreme ill-treatment,” Amnesty wrote in its report Torture – A Growing Scourge in China. “In all cases where the victims were Falun Gong practitioners, the government has denied any wrongdoing, even in the face of multiple eyewitness testimonials.”
According to the Falun Dafa Information Center, at least 2,781 Falun Gong practitioners’ deaths have been confirmed. Most of the victims were tortured to death under orders from Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials.
CCP insiders say the number may be much higher.
“Dr. Lee risked his safety to try and help put an end to the brutal and systematic persecution of 100 million people,” says Dr. Sherry Zhang, who lives in California and heads up a non-profit group to rescue Dr. Lee. The world is still very much unaware of “a persecution where literally tens of thousands have been physically tortured as the CCP aims to force them to renounce their traditional, peaceful beliefs.”
American officials claim Dr. Lee’s alleged actions were illegal in China, and some have hesitated to back him because of this legality issue. Dr. Zhang, however, says his actions need to be seen in a historical perspective. “Imagine a parallel situation where someone hijacked a radio [broadcast] in order to announce, over German airwaves, the plight of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis…wouldn’t such a person be praised as a hero?”
Dr. Zhang also points out that the Chinese constitution allows such actions in “times of emergency,” which many China watchers consider the persecution of Falun Gong to be.
Dr. Lee himself practices Falun Gong, and much of his mistreatment in Nanjing Prison appears to be directly targeting his beliefs.
Dr. Lee was able to have a written appeal delivered to U.S. officials in the Shanghai consulate reportedly, only after going on hunger strike. According to the appeal, Dr. Lee says he is not allowed to have any of the Falun Gong books and other inmates have been told to beat him if he tries to do the Falun Gong exercises. The inmates are motivated by promised reductions in their sentences.
The appeal also states that he has been subjected to intense brainwashing, which can last for an entire day, and at times continue for several days running. The brainwashing tactics he describes are similar to hundreds of testimonials from Chinese nationals posted on Falun Gong websites. This form of torture forces individuals to watch state-produced programs vilifying Falun Gong and urges everyone to “break” from the practice.
Dr. Lee says he has done forced labor, including making shoes and Christmas lights to be sold overseas.
Dr. Zhang says the upcoming visit of President Hu constitutes a test for U.S. principles. “Whether America will truly support the freedom of belief and protect its own citizens who risk their lives to support freedom and liberty in repressive parts of the world…that is what’s at issue here.” Zhang continued, “If the U.S. does not make China discuss human rights in the open, who will?”
Dr. Lee’s fiancée, Ms. Foo, says she is particularly concerned about the coming months. Typically brainwashing programs in Chinese prisons and labor camps become more intense near the end of a prisoner’s sentence, with the goal of “converting” people such that they speak well of their experiences in jail. Dr. Lee’s three-year sentence will be over in March, but Ms. Foo says his health is now failing, and he is suffering from heart palpitations and shortness of breath.
It has become common practice for China to release a prisoner of conscience before an important meeting with U.S. officials. As Hu prepares for his trip to the U.S., 40 Senators are advocating for the release of Yang Jianli, a democracy advocate who was arrested in China in 2002.
Dr. Lee’s name, however, is so far absent from any official request from U.S. officials.