"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."
Rowe, who produces the "Angry Planet" series for OLN, says Red Wall was three years in the making. He commends the CBC for taking on such a controversial topic, especially in light of the fact that the network has broadcast rights to the 2008 Beijing Olympics in Canada.
"The fact that they're willing to broadcast a film that has people in it advocating the boycotting of the Olympics which they themselves are the broadcaster of in Canada is remarkable," says Rowe.
Rowe is referring to the section in Red Wall that documents the illicit, state-sanctioned harvesting of the bodily organs of Falun Gong practitioners to supply China's booming transplant industry.
Some who are concerned about the organ harvesting have questioned whether Beijing should have the right to host the Games. In the documentary, Clive Ansley, a Canadian lawyer who practiced law in China, likens Beijing 2008 to the 1936 Olympics held in Nazi Germany, which served to glorify and legitimize Hitler's regime.
Former Canadian cabinet minister David Kilgour co-authored "Bloody Harvest," a report on the theft of Falun Gong practitioners' organs. He speaks in Red Wall about his investigation and how organ brokers freely admitted in phone conversations that they had "Falun Gong suppliers" immediately available to provide organs.
Average wait times for a kidney transplant appear silently on the screen, the figures speaking for themselves: Canada, 2555 days; United Kingdom, 1095 days; United States, 1825 days; China, 15 days.
Red Wall tells how practitioners all over the world have become the voice for their counterparts in China, lobbying politicians and calling attention to the persecution, their sole aim being to somehow bring it to an end.
With its continuing protests and vigils outside Chinese consulates and embassies around the world and its many awareness-raising efforts, Falun Gong has almost become defined by its struggle to end the persecution.
Zheng Weidong, Minister Counsellor of the Chinese Embassy in Canada, denies in Red Wall that practitioners are tortured. He states emphatically that within China, Falun Gong has "crumbled."
Such is the new party line. Inside China, state media have shifted from constantly vilifying Falun Gong to not mentioning it, as though the group no longer exists.
But behind this façade, reports show that Falun Gong continues on in China—as does the persecution, as severely as ever.
Two-thirds of reported torture cases in China are Falun Gong cases, according to Manfred Nowak, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture. Human rights groups have documented over 3,000 torture deaths of Falun Gong practitioners in China, and the most recent U.S. Department of State report on human rights highlighted the ongoing persecution.
Far from being eliminated, Falun Gong has even been quietly growing in rural areas and smaller cities, says Guo Guoting, an exiled Chinese lawyer who defended Falun Gong adherents in China before the authorities shut down his law practice. He fled to Canada in 2005.
"In my understanding, Falun Gong is not only a practice for physical health; actually it is a kind of belief, a faith, and nobody can destroy one's belief," says Guo. "This is why it's impossible for the communist regime to destroy Falun Gong."
Johnson, who won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of features he wrote about Falun Gong, says in Red Wall that the persecution "remains one of the scars on the body politic of China," and the time has come for the regime to "come out and deal with this and say there was this terrible crackdown, this repression, and these people were systematically persecuted.
"In order for China to move forward, they have to have this kind of a reckoning."
As Kilgour puts it, "the killing has to stop."
Beyond the Red Wall will air on CBC Newsworld on Tuesday, November 6 at 10:00 pm ET/PT, and will repeat on Saturday, November 10 at 4 a.m. ET and 11 PM ET/PT. The film will also be aired in Quebec and Ireland this fall.