The Magazine

Carrying a Torch for China

Skip the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, Mr. President.

Apr 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 30 • By ETHAN GUTMANN
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When it comes to Taiwan and economic liberalization, China has technically lived up to its promises, pulling Taiwan into the Chinese orbit through business interests rather than by naval blockade or missile attack. In terms of nationalism, journalistic freedom, and human rights--well, best not to dwell on how that turned out--but in all fairness, the only one of these issues that the IOC appeared to be mildly serious about was human rights. Even there, it was always a same-bed-different-dreams deal. For Western business in China, "human rights" translates as: Please don't embarrass us publicly. For the Chinese government "human rights" was always translated within the prism of "social stability": How else can you ensure a smooth Olympics? And the way to ensure social stability was to neutralize the "five poisons"--Tibetan separatists, democracy activists, Taiwan independence supporters, Xinjiang freedom fighters, and Falun Gong practitioners. And here, again, the angry young Chinese men have a point concerning the hypocrisy of Western journalists.

It was all a charade. The blackmail bid took place in clear sight of the mindbending persecution of Falun Gong, an operation that had already mobilized China's state security forces on a scale that dwarfs the current Tibet crackdown. The West had three clear openings to bring the issue to a head: when the Beijing bid was nearing fruition in 2000, when an energized Falun Gong movement in the West emerged four years later with documentation that thousands had been murdered and over 100,000 had been thrown into labor camps, and finally in 2006 when credible reports of systematic organ harvesting of Falun Gong practitioners seeped out, pushing the potential death toll well into the tens of thousands.

I have interviewed some of the survivors. Roughly half of the Falun Gong practitioners who have emerged from the camps describe physical exams aimed at determining the health of their internal organs, along with close examination of corneas. Ears, genitals, and the other parts of the body usually scrutinized in medical exams--all of which have no value in the organ market--were routinely ignored. Yet it is a curious fact that American newspapers barely mentioned the targeted organ harvesting. Indeed, studies within the Falun Gong community demonstrate that the higher the Falun Gong death toll, the less the reporting. A former Beijing bureau chief of one of America's top networks accurately represented the average China journalist's view of Falun Gong in a candid conversation with me: The crackdown was indeed absurdly harsh, even by Chinese standards, but it was a drag to cover the story because "I hate both sides."

For American journalists, Falun Gong has three strikes against it. First, Falun Gong's emergence in 1999 took them by surprise, and journalists don't like feeling out of the loop. Second, reporters depend on the party's minimal cooperation for access and accreditation. Falun Gong is the party's enemy number one, as a Chinese spiritual movement from the heartland is more difficult to contain than a separatist movement like the Tibetans'. This meant the hot zone was not just in Lhasa, but everywhere, and that news stories had to be suppressed directly rather than just by limiting geographic access. Stories about persecution and torture could bring retaliation--blocked websites, detention, and, worst of all, loss of the journalist's ability to actually work. Stories that stuck the cult label on Falun Gong or, better still, avoided the issue altogether, ensured access.

The third strike against Falun Gong is that many Beijing-based journalists have gone slightly native. They see themselves as the arbiters of Chinese social progress. Falun Gong, with its insistence on traditional values--marriage and morality--looked like an enemy of the New China that journalists actually like: the hip, urban, ironic, way-cool place where cynical artists dish out scorn for crass Western commerciality. Falun Gong, simply put, is a Buddhist revival movement with all that entails: passion, talk of miracles, are-you-running-with-me-Master-Li individualism, and a reflexive mistrust of establishments and outside agendas. By contrast, the Tibetans had the far safer veneer of an ancient, well-established religion, and Hollywood's Richard Gere (and even some dimly remembered associations with tantric sex). Here, journalists intersected with their U.S.-based editors who not only tend to be suspicious of religion--particularly revivalist versions--but who also had no idea of how to incorporate the mass murder of Falun Gong's followers into the preferred storyline of China's amazing progress.

Thus, in public, foreign businessmen casually inserted anti-Falun Gong rhetoric into speeches to please their Chinese hosts. In private, when Chinese security needed targeted Internet surveillance technology to catch Falun Gong practitioners, Cisco provided it to their specifications. Oversight in Washington of this sort of activity lagged because politicians absorbed the distorted perception pumped out of China by many journalists and succumbed to the lobbying pressures of businessmen eager to cut deals with Chinese officials. And human rights groups appeared curiously unwilling to protest despite the scale of the Falun Gong persecution and the vehemence of the Chinese government's resolve to continue it. The record suggests an informal pact with the Chinese government to trade away mention of Falun Gong in exchange for minor concessions, such as scripted labor camp visits and legal exchanges.

Falun Gong is only one in a long historical line of atrocities the West has chosen to ignore while they were happening. But hating both sides is no longer a valid strategy for the Beijing Olympics. We are assisting in the construction of a simulacrum of an independent, modern society, while the reality is actually quite fascist in nature. Like its forerunners, it alternates between demonizing Western democracy and lusting for the tokens of Western legitimacy to help it maintain power over its citizens--the same citizens it so fears.

U.S. coverage of China has been weak and our policies inconsistent. Terribly so. But it doesn't render us incapable of doing the right thing. Falun Gong has been getting little press in the torch relay fracas. That's not surprising. As an indigenous Chinese movement, rather than a separatist one, Falun Gong has taken a neutral position on boycotting the Chinese Olympics, sensing correctly that it has become a matter of Chinese "face" that the Olympics continue. But we in the West have our own version of face, a genocide line that cannot be crossed without our identity beginning to crack. No matter how much we ignored the crying, the persecution of Falun Gong demonstrably crossed that line, and even if the Chinese leadership calls off the torch relay or makes an effort to resolve the Tibet situation, it is too late for this Olympics.

Boycotts don't work, but the political opening ceremony, for better or worse, is Beijing's big show--its dog party. Let's admit that we screwed up, quietly declare a no-fault boycott of any ceremonies, and move on. President Bush, please stay home.

Ethan Gutmann, an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is the author of Losing the New China. He is writing a book entitled The New Chinese Resistance.