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Into Thin Airwaves

How a handful of unknown Chinese martyrs aided the cause of freedom around the world

Dec 6, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 12 • By ETHAN GUTMANN
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Back in January 2010, Secretary of State Clinton gave a pay-any-price, bear-any-burden address calling for the liberation of the global Internet. The price Washington was willing to pay? It promised $50 million to groups developing “new tools that enable citizens to exercise their rights of free expression by circumventing politically motivated censorship.” The burden it would have to bear? The only group that has actually pulled this off is named Falun Gong. 

Into Thin Airwaves

Now, it is a fact that if you ever have the desire to see a Chinese administrator do a squirmy, unpleasant little dance, you have only to mention the name of that officially despised Buddhist revival group. But it is also a fact that the State Department reads the New York Times, which credited the Global Internet Freedom Consortium—essentially a group of Falun Gong computer engineers—with the creation of revolutionary web systems that not only have enabled millions of Chinese citizens to surf beyond the Great Firewall, but also provided the platform for the vast majority of the citizen reportage that reached the West during the aborted Green Revolution in Iran. By May, the State Department, breaking a Washington taboo against sustained contact with Falun Gong, was reportedly ready to offer $1.5 million to the Global Internet Freedom Consortium. 

Miraculously, for once, the squirmy dance hadn’t had its full intended effect. And for some Falun Gong practitioners, the timing seemed to carry a touch of divine justice, if not an outright Hollywood ending. For just days before the Washington Post reported the State Department’s decision, in early May 2010, the man whose ingenuity had spurred the group’s work on Internet freedom died in China. 

All movements—even pocket-protector ones—have their legends and their origin myths, often set in an older, simpler place and time, as is this one. But although he never won a Nobel Prize, the man who died was real. And in 2002, when China experts in the West universally judged that his cause was a failure, he commanded the most successful Falun Gong action ever undertaken on Chinese soil—the hijacking of a massive city’s television signals for nearly an hour. Pulled off by a small gang with minimal experience or resources, the operation was strikingly uncharacteristic of Falun Gong at the time, but from it would grow far more sophisticated challenges to Chinese Communist party control over information in the years to come. Television hubs would become Internet routers, guerrillas would be replaced by geeks, infocops and robbers would go virtual, and the brawl would spill out from China into Atlanta, Tehran, and the State Department. But it all started in the city of Changchun with a man named Liang Zhenxing.

In the last known photograph of Liang—probably taken in mid-March 2002—his jaw is set, and his eyes seem fixed on some point outside the interrogation room. Connecting the dots—the six head-level stains on the wall—some observers detect a trace of blood on Liang’s left temple. Either way, Liang’s posture speaks clearly enough: His run is through.

Liang could hardly have assumed that Westerners would see the picture. The Chinese police briefly published it online as a trophy—and a warning to the Chinese people—confident that no Western media outlet would bother to publish anything substantial on one more captive Falun Gong practitioner. Liang endured for eight more years, but he ultimately died in Chinese police custody on May 1, 2010, in Gongzhuling’s Central Hospital. The cause of death was routine by Falun Gong standards: inexorable physical deterioration from beatings, electric shock, sleep deprivation, force-feeding. Under the strain, Liang may have accelerated things by throwing himself down a stairwell during a prison transfer, suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. In historical terms, Liang may have had an incredible run, but by the end he could no longer speak. 

Falun Gong sources such as Minghui, the internal web-based Falun Gong spiritual samizdat, reported his demise, but no extraordinary efforts were made to promote his obituary. Perhaps there was an unconscious reluctance there; Liang’s actions were still controversial. And Liang himself had always been an outlier practitioner—a heartland Horatio Alger, a real-estate player, a mover and a schmoozer and a playboy, giving his sudden conversion to Falun Gong a cross-and-switchblade veneer. In short, Liang was a product of Changchun.

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