Levi Browde serves as executive director of the Falun Dafa Information Center, a New York-based advocacy organization for people who practice Falun Gong in China. Over the past 20 years, Browde has been interviewed and quoted by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press, TIME Magazine, and other media outlets.
Last July, Ms. Meng Hong was taken from Heilongjiang Women’s Prison to the No. 2 Hospital of Harbin Medical University. She was pronounced dead upon arrival, one of the latest victims in the Chinese Communist Party’s war on religion. Her daughter in California never got to say goodbye. Ms. Meng had been arbitrarily sent to a Chinese prison in 2013 for 7 years. Her crime? Practicing the Falun Gong meditation practice and handing out information about it.
Falun Gong (also known as Falun Dafa) is a spiritual practice in the Buddhist tradition. It was first introduced to the public in 1992. In just 7 years, 70–100 million people throughout China had taken up the practice—making it the fastest growing religion in the history of the world.
In 1999, witnessing its wide-scale popularity, a few leaders in the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) launched a systematic campaign to “stamp out” the religion of Falun Gong and violently suppress the tens of millions of people who practice it in China. Millions were detained, sent to labor camps, or sentenced to prison. Thousands were tortured to death. And horrifically, according to an independent tribunal chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC (who also prosecuted Slobodan Milošević at the Hague for atrocities committed in the former Yugoslavia), Falun Gong practitioners have been—and continue to be—killed for their organs “on a significant scale.”
In the face of such horrors, the question arises: How does one peacefully combat such atrocities carried out by a regime driven by fear? The key, we believe, is to dismantle the dehumanizing propaganda that makes systematic suppression possible.
To ensure loyal execution of its policies and rally public support around a persecution campaign, the CCP often uses its powerful propaganda machine to portray oppressed religious groups as separatists, terrorists, mentally ill, enemies of the state, etc. At the same time, they block and censor the internet to deny people access to any objective information. But once people learn the truth, the conscience of most will be reluctant to harm the innocent.
We have observed this phenomenon first-hand.
Implementation of a persecution campaign requires the support and actions of the rank and file—the small-town police departments and labor-camp administrators, the schoolteachers forced to turn in Falun Gong students, the neighbors who report on neighbors, etc. Yet, if the people knew the truth, they would be less willing to be complicit in such injustice.
Beginning in 2001 and continuing to this day, Falun Gong practitioners have set up underground printing houses in nearly every county and district across the country—China’s equivalent of the Soviet samizdat. From their living rooms, practitioners have established secure internet connections, accessed websites outside China by using proxy servers, downloaded reports on the persecution of Falun Gong, and used it to produce homemade leaflets.
Others volunteer to distribute the literature, usually at night. These actions are always taken at great risk. Every year thousands have been arrested and many killed for possessing and distributing these materials or for operating the production sites.
Abundant evidence of these underground printing houses comes from a multitude of sources: from official statistics on police seizures of Falun Gong informational material to anecdotal accounts of citizens regularly waking up to find CDs or leaflets about the persecution waiting outside their front door. Chinese government and Communist Party websites routinely report on efforts to limit the circulation of Falun Gong-related literature.
Today, 200,000 or more of these underground printing houses continue to operate across China in what likely constitutes the largest non-violent, grassroots resistance in the world.
Outside China, thousands of Falun Gong practitioners make phone calls regularly to people in China, including those at police stations and detention facilities, let them know the world is watching, and encourage them not to be an accomplice of the CCP.
Moreover, some Chinese-American computer scientists who practice Falun Gong developed free software that circumvents China’s Great Firewall, such as Freegate and Ultrasurf, providing millions of Chinese access to the free Internet.
All of these efforts make a real difference.
According to a 2017 Freedom House report titled “The Battle for China’s Spirit,” though the overall policy of persecuting Falun Gong has not changed, police in some local areas are growing increasingly reluctant to arrest Falun Gong practitioners or torture them after learning the truth. Additionally, some detained Falun Gong practitioners were released after overseas phone campaigns put pressure on the detention center.
For countless Falun Gong practitioners languishing in prison cells, these stories bring hope. They also remind us that international pressure does have a restraining effect on individuals involved in the persecution. Furthermore, access to uncensored information debunking the CCP’s false narratives also make them less willing to actively implement the persecution policy, especially when they have wiggle room at the local level not to follow Beijing’s mandates absolutely.
If religious groups around the world and interfaith organizations can mail or make phone calls to Chinese prisons or detention facilities to support individual religious prisoners, that will help relieve some pressure upon the prisoners, as the guards know that the world is watching.
We applaud this administration’s many initiatives to uphold religious freedom, such as the Ministerial to Advance International Religious Freedom, Ambassador Brownback’s visit to Hong Kong and Taiwan last year to speak for religious freedom in China, President Trump’s unprecedented meeting with 27 victims of religious persecution, including a Falun Gong practitioner, in the Oval Office last July, etc. We hope the U.S. government can continue these efforts and continue putting the CCP’s religious persecution in the spotlight and condemn it.
Additionally, we recommend the U.S. government provide additional funding support to software tools circumventing China’s internet blockade. That will significantly help scale the reach of these tools in China.
A Chinese population with more access to free information will be less likely to become the CCP’s accomplice, and that will make it harder for the CCP to implement religious persecution.