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An American Prisoner in China

Falun Gong demonstrators ask State Department to help free an American citizen from Chinese prison.

12:00 AM, Sep 18, 2003 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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DR. CHARLES LEE, an American citizen, was arrested immediately after arriving at Guangzhou airport in January 2003. He left his home in Menlo Park, California, to join the effort in drawing attention to the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners by the Chinese government. He has been imprisoned in China ever since.

Yesterday, a crowd wearing yellow shirts bearing the legend "Truthfulness, Compassion, Tolerance" gathered outside the State Department, performing the exercises central to the practice of Falun Gong. They were there to deliver a thick packet of letters and signatures asking the State Department to bring Lee back to the United States.

The event also featured speeches, most of which focused on the dangers of Lee's current situation. Lee was tried in March, in the presence of at least one U.S. consular official. The trial, which lasted one day, was a "show trial" at which Lee "had no chance to defend himself" according to materials distributed by the organizers. Lee was sentenced to three years in prison.

Under Chinese law, Lee should be held in a separate cell for foreigners since he's American. But the company of Chinese inmates is an essential part of Lee's punishment. Yeongching Foo, Lee's fiancée, says that he is being kept under surveillance at all times by 9 of his 12 cellmates, who keep him from doing Falun Gong exercises.

Lee's cellmates also assist in forcing him to attend mandatory "reeducation" sessions. These sessions, which Foo calls "mental torture," focus on getting the prisoner to renounce Falun Gong.

Gang Chen, a speaker at the rally, described these sessions--which he referred to as "brainwashing"--by analogy: "It's like forcing a Christian to renounce God and Jesus Christ by distorting what's in the Holy Scriptures." Falun Gong practitioners deny that their movement is either religious or political.

The point of the prison's policy, says Foo, "is to occupy all of his time, to keep him from thinking." Moreover, she says, even if the U.S. government demands and receives assurances that Lee will be treated humanely, "it is very dangerous being in a jail cell, knowing that the Chinese government is committing genocide" against Falun Gong practitioners.

IT IS ON THESE GROUNDS--the charge of genocide--that Falun Gong members around the world are suing China's former president Jiang Zemin, who started the campaign against Falun Gong in July 1999. Human rights organizations have confirmed the deaths of more than 782 people for their practice of Falun Gong and opposition to Chinese authorities. Thousands more are in labor camps, where mental and physical torture are common and well-documented.

After speaking to the crowd about the 18 months he served in the Tuanhe Labor Camp, Chen, who arrived in the United States just 7 weeks ago, offered his thoughts on Zemin: "He has done so many crimes, he must be punished, and he is afraid."

Heads of state are not immune from prosecution for genocide under international law and Chen believes that Zemin is exerting pressure to keep Lee in prison. Zemin is hoping, Chen says, to use Lee as a "bargaining chip" with the United States. The first lawsuit against Zemin originated in Chicago.

On September 10, Richard Boucher, spokesman for the State Department, said the department maintains "continuing interest in Mr. Lee's welfare and his well-being while he remains in custody serving his sentence." When asked if the most recent meeting between U.S. embassy officials in Beijing and officials from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs on September 8 addressed the "genocide lawsuit filed by the Falun Gong practitioners around the world," Boucher said he was not aware of any discussion of the lawsuit at that meeting.

THOUGH FALUN GONG is often associated with democratic activism, the people at the rally said they did not consider their movement political. "We are not asking for democracy, never have, and never will," said Foo. Democracy activists and Falun Gong practitioners are treated as equally subversive by the Chinese government, said Chen, which is why the two are often associated. "When they learned in 1999 that Falun Gong had more members than the [Chinese Communist Party]," said Chen, "they decided Falun Gong was a threat, just like democracy."

Wednesday's rally was the culmination of a tour of more than 100 cities where signatures and letters of support on Lee's behalf were gathered.

Chen says American efforts can make a big difference: "While I was in the labor camp, I knew that the guards heard about the overseas rescue efforts on my behalf. Because they knew they were being watched, what they did to me was not as bad as what they did to some others."

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.