Persecuting the peaceful: A political response
by Edward McMillan-Scott
In 2006, Beijing was preparing to host the 2008 Olympics, and I was visiting the city in my capacity as the European Parliament’s Vice-President for Human Rights & Democracy. China was preparing to show the world that it was a responsible world power that had progressed economically and politically. Liu Jingmin, Vice-President of the Beijing Olympic Bid Committee, had said that allowing Beijing to host the Games would “help the development of human rights”. In a dingy hotel room with the curtains drawn, I learnt the truth behind China’s facade of progress.
In reality, China had hardened its crackdown on political and religious dissent in advance of the games. Practitioners of Falun Gong—a peaceful spiritual practice that combines meditation with the cultivation of the key virtues of truthfulness, compassion and forbearance—had been brutally repressed since 1999, when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) became fearful the movement would become an organized force that could threaten the Party. I learnt that the Chinese regime had descended into genocide.
Those I met in 2006—some former prisoners of conscience, reformers and dissidents, told me of the brutal persecution they and their families had faced at the hands of the CCP. I spoke with Niu Jinping, who had served two years in prison for practicing Falun Gong. His wife Zhang Lianying was still in prison and he was in charge of caring for their two-year-old daughter. The last time he had seen his wife, her entire body was bruised from the repeated beatings she took as the torturers tried to make her denounce Falun Gong. Following her release from prison, she sent me a list of ‘50 torture’ steps that the prison guards used to try and make her renounce Falun Gong. The beating she endured was so severe she fell into a coma while in prison.
Most horrifically, the men confirmed what I had only heard whispered until then—the Chinese regime was forcefully harvesting the organs of imprisoned Falun Gong practitioners, for sale to the booming organ transplant industry. Cao Dong, who had also been imprisoned for practicing Falun Gong, told me tearfully, that he saw the cadaver of his friend—a fellow practitioner—in the prison hospital with holes where the organs had been removed.
The following month, former Canadian MP David Kilgour and human rights lawyer David Matas published a report examining the allegations of forced organ harvesting from Falun Gong practitioners who had been imprisoned—the first of its kind. The report concluded bleakly that “there has been, and continues today to be, large-scale organ seizures from unwilling Falun Gong practitioners.” A year later, Manfred Nowak, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture issued a report that corroborated Kilgour and Matas’s findings. It stated that: “Organ harvesting has been inflicted on a large number of unwilling Falun Gong practitioners at a wide variety of locations for the purpose of making available organs for transplant operations.”
Following my meetings in Beijing, all those I met were detained by the CCP. Some went missing, some were tortured. At that time, no statements were made by national European leaders, fearful of offending the rising economic superpower.
Since then, the world’s attitude to China has shifted. In the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, I led an international boycott of the Games in view of China’s repeated human rights abuses. Several high profile figures joined the boycott. US film director Steven Spielberg and the UK’s Prince Charles refused to attend the ceremony, as did the President of the European Parliament, the President of the European Commission and the EU’s Foreign Affairs Commissioner. Internationally renowned artist Ai Weiwei—who co-designed the Bird’s Nest stadium where the Olympic Games took place—voiced his support for the boycott, calling the regime of his home country ‘disgusting’.
I have continued to campaign for reform in China. In the European Parliament, members have adopted several resolutions calling on China to respect human rights and end the brutal persecution of the Falun Gong. I have hosted several high profile events to maintain focus on this issue. In January 2013, I welcomed into the Parliament, Enver Tohti, an ex-surgeon from China who gave a powerful testimony describing how he had been forced to remove the organs of an executed prisoner while he was still alive.
The Parliament maintains constant pressure on the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, to raise human rights issues and trade dialogues with China. Indeed, the promotion of trade and human rights need not be mutually exclusive; Germany has seen an explosive growth in trade with China over the last decade, but has also taken a robust approach to human rights.
The US has also become much more critical of China and its disregard for human rights. In the run-up to the 24th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, where thousands of protesters were brutally suppressed by the CCP, the US State Department issued a statement calling on the Chinese government to end harassment of participants and vindicate the victims. The US Congress is also taking a firmer stand. In advance of Obama’s June visit to China, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Robert Menendez wrote an open letter to President Obama, urging him to raise the issue of China’s continued human rights abuses, including the Government’s persecution of the Falun Gong.
Tough words have often been matched with tough action. In early 2011, blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng escaped the CCP’s house arrest and travelled to the US embassy in Beijing. Much to China’s displeasure, he was given refuge in the US embassy and received support in his battle against the Chinese Government. A spokesperson from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs railed against US involvement in the Chen case, demanding an apology and warning the US from interfering in China’s domestic matters in such a way again. Chen Guangcheng now lives as a free man in the US with his wife and daughter, and the emptiness of China’s threats has been made apparent.
To maintain the momentum on human rights in China, Chen Guangcheng and I have launched a transatlantic alliance on human rights and democracy in Washington and Brussels. The Defending Freedoms Project, in association with Amnesty International and ChinaAid, calls on members of the European Parliament and US congressmen and women to adopt and advocate on behalf of prisoners of conscience from around the world—several high profile Chinese prisoners of conscience are on the list. Gao Zhisheng, the Christian human rights lawyer who took up the cause of Falun Gong in 2005—and who stayed for many years in prison—is my choice.
At the Washington launch of the initiative, I had the privilege of seeing again my old friend Niu Jinping, whom I had not seen since our initial meeting in the Beijing hotel room in 2006. Like Chen, he is now enjoying life as a free man with his family in the US, but also continuing his fight for a free and just China. His wife Zhang Lianying had apparently made a full recovery since the horrors she experienced at the hands of the CCP.
Throughout history, there has not been a single authoritarian regime, which has not crumbled in the end. International political support has highlighted the cracks in China’s system of brutal repression. Continued and enhanced support for those harassed, imprisoned and tortured by the regime will help them in their struggle for the basic rights and freedoms many take for granted. We must not waver now.