US funding of Falun Gong’s GIFC software

Few topics ignite such automatic and knee-jerk responses as Falun Gong, so let me get the disclaimers out of the way up front: I have never been a supporter of FLG, which I see as a kooky cult. On the other hand, I’ve never been a supporter of the CCP’s harsh (to put it mildly) reaction to them, and I’ve been especially put off over the years by the sloganeering and tape-recorded rants that the topic arouses among the fenqing.

We all know the pre-recorded tapes, the ones that describe the “Dalai Lama clique,” or refer to Taiwan as “a baby needing to return to its mother’s arms,” and the ones that thank god Deng had the courage to open fire on the students lest China’s economic miracle be nipped in the bud and the nation hurled into chaos and corruption like Russia after the Soviet Bloc evaporated.

The scripts for FLG are equally predictable: their leader is a lunatic who believes, among other things, that he can fly. They don’t allow practitioners to see a doctor when they’re sick, causing a terrible threat of disease and loss of life. They recruit and multiply and they can’t be trusted. Of course, the No. 1 script is the “dangerous cult,” a phrase that has been permanently soldered onto the words Falun Gong and can be heard in virtually every conversation with Chinese people about it.

I’ve always believed the cult part, and I’ve never believed the dangerous part. I would see FLG members practicing their breathing exercises outside the National Museum in Taibei, and while they may have looked odd they certainly didn’t seem to be threatening anyone. In Country Driving, Peter Hessler describes how the family he shadows in Book Two participated in the dangerous cult before it was banned:

Falun Gong was hard to define. – in some ways it felt like a religion or philosophy, but it was also a basic exercise routine. All of these elements combined to create something enormously popular, and this was especially true in the economically challenged parts of northern China. In Sancha, practitioners liked having a new structure to their lives, and soon others began to join them. By the late 1990s, it seemed most villagers met every morning on the lot at the top of the dead-end road. Cao Chunmei and Wei Ziqi became part of the faithful, and years later she described that period fondly. “Wei Ziqi didn’t drink or smoke in those days, because Falun Gong says you shouldn’t do that. And he was so angry then. It seemed the people in the village were happy we all spent time together in the morning.

I can think of other things that sound a bit more dangerous than that.

Which brings me to a post that’s already several days old but that gave me enough pause that I knew I wanted to write about it. It’s by one of my very favorite bloggers, Custer, whose site is featured prominently on my blogroll. What the argument boils down to, in effect, is that since the Chinese government goes ballistic at the every mention of FLG and is hypersensitive to the point of derangement on the subject, it was a “terrible idea” for the US to give funding to software developers affiliated with our dangerous cult.

Regard­less of your feel­ings about whether FLG is an “evil cult”, there is no rea­son what­so­ever to give a ton of money to an FLG-affiliated group unless you’re inten­tion­ally try­ing to piss off Bei­jing.

That “ton of money”? $1.5 million. From the article he links to:

State Department officials recently called the group, the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, offering it $1.5 million, according to Shiyu Zhou, one of the group’s founders. A State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed the offer.

The decision, which came as the United States and China have recently moved to improve ties after months of tension, appears likely to irritate Beijing just as the two are set to resume a dialogue on human rights Wednesday for the first time in two years.

“GIFC is an organization run by elements of the Falun Gong cult, which is bent on vilifying the Chinese government with fabricated lies, undermining Chinese social stability and sabotaging China-U.S. relations,” said Wang Baodong, spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington. “We’re strongly opposed to the U.S. government providing whatever assistance to such an anti-China organization.”

I do understand that China is very, very sensitive and we need to go on tippy-toe whenever one of those touchy subjects like Taiwan and Tibet and FLG are in play. But to what extent do we allow that touchiness to affect our policies and determine who to fund and who not to? At what point does cooperation become appeasement? Back to the blog post:

Granted, the con­cept itself is a bit antag­o­nis­tic — devel­op­ing soft­ware to ensure Chi­nese peo­ple can cir­cum­vent the GFW — but it’s the kind of for­eign antag­o­nism plenty of Chi­nese neti­zens could get behind, espe­cially those who haven’t yet fig­ured out how to jump the GFW but are inter­ested in it. By con­nect­ing the soft­ware with FLG, the State Depart­ment is vir­tu­ally guar­an­tee­ing a polemic response from the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment, but let’s be hon­est, that’s prob­a­bly going to hap­pen any­way. The dif­fer­ence is that this approach is also sure to piss off plenty of Chi­nese neti­zens who might oth­er­wise sup­port it.

Yes indeed, offering freedom to those who do not have it will always be “antagonistic” to those depriving them of that freedom. (And I’m not saying the CCP doesn’t give its people plenty of freedoms; they do. But they sure don’t give them Internet freedom.) And yes, this certainly inflamed the usual suspects in the fenqing sector (which isn’t really that hard to do) and hurt some feelings in Beijing. And why did the US do this? Custer explains:

The answer, as it turns out, is lob­by­ists. The deci­sion to choose GIFC fol­lowed a four-year lob­by­ing cam­paign by the group, and caused a bit of con­tro­versy within the Obama admin­is­tra­tion, accord­ing to the Wash­ing­ton Post. There was also a fair amount of pres­sure, appar­ently, as the lob­by­ing cam­paign also tar­geted the media

And here I must take issue with the bolded part. It was not the FLG, or at least not only the FLG, that did the lobbying. From the article:

The decision to fund GIFC followed a three-year lobbying campaign by Washington insiders, congressional pressure and opposition from some human rights advocates and Internet experts. It was also controversial within the Obama administration, sources said, despite the commitment of President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Internet freedom.

In fact, if you read the article, most of the lobbying was done by one man, Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute, and not the FLG. Not only is this key piece of information missing, but so is the history of the GIFC software, Freegate, which is not some kooky FLG concoction. Back to the Washington Post:

Freegate figured prominently in the demonstrations that rocked Tehran last year as Iranian dissidents used it to access Twitter and YouTube, which were blocked in Iran, to organize protests and post videos of the marches.

At times, the traffic from Iran was so heavy that GIFC officials had to limit Iranian access, said [Shiyu] Zhou, who serves as GIFC’s deputy director. He said the main element preventing GIFC from expanding its current system — which can accommodate 1.5 million users a day — is its lack of servers.

But, he added, the $1.5 million funding from the U.S. government will not be enough. “We had asked for $4 million,” he said. “For this little amount of money we don’t expect to achieve the things we really want.”

One NYT columnist (not my favorite) had this to say about the software last year:

Freegate amounts to a dissident’s cyberkit. E-mails sent with it can be encrypted. And after a session is complete, a press of a button eliminates any sign that it was used on that computer.

The consortium also makes available variants of the software, such as Ultrasurf, and other software to evade censors is available from Tor Project and the University of Toronto.

Originally, Freegate was available only in Chinese and English, but a growing number of people have been using it in other countries, such as Myanmar. Responding to the growing use of Freegate in Iran, the consortium introduced a Farsi-language version last July — and usage there skyrocketed.

Soon almost as many Iranians were using it as Chinese, straining server capacity (many Chinese are wary of Freegate because of its links to Falun Gong, which even ordinary citizens often distrust). The engineers in the consortium, worrying that the Iran traffic would crash their servers, dropped access in Iran in January but restored it before the Iran election.

“We know the pain of people in closed societies, and we do want to accommodate them,” Mr. Zhou said.

So I think it’s important that readers know there is greater context to this story, and it is not a case of the US throwing money willy-nilly at the FLG. No matter how much we may dislike the cult, we have to give credit where it’s due, and this software certainly deserves some credit. It may even deserve funding, even if it results in some long faces over in Zhongnanhai and in Beida dorm rooms.

The other script present in some of the comments is the FLG’s rejection of medical treatment, something I find abhorrent but certainly no justification for the harsh repression of the cult starting in 1999. I don’t know how many people have died as a result of this belief, and I don’t know how many practitioners abided by it. Looking at what Hessler writes and other accounts I’ve read, most of the practitioners saw it as exercise, something enjoyable to do, just as they enjoy dancing in groups on the street as the weather warms up.

But the most important contextual nugget missing is the actual reason why FLG is so terrifying to the Chinese government, and it is mentioned in the WaPo article (and I’ve mentioned it in this blog numerous times before): in 1999, some 10,000 FLG practitioners surrounded the home of a party official (some accounts say it was closer to 20,000) in Beijing. The crackdown that ensued, harsh even by CCP standards, had nothing to do with concern for the lives of practitioners refusing medical help. (Were this such a pressing concern the government would clean up its hospitals and take other steps to protect citizens’ lives like cracking down on cars speeding through pedestrian cross-walks.)

No, any organization that can, pre-Twitter, spread its message to tens of thousands of Chinese citizens and motivate them to appear at a set destination at a moment’s notice is going to scare the living shit out of the Chinese Communist Party. To cite the leader’s belief that he can fly or his various nutty mantras as reasons for why the party forbids them (as some of the commenters do) is disingenuous. Those things are irrelevant. The medical issue is irrelevant. The FLG was amorphous and nebulous and out of reach of the party and had an unprecedented ability to mobilize the masses. And that is something the CCP will under no circumstances tolerate, and any group with power like that must be crushed at all costs. As if they care that the leader thinks he can fly.

Yes, giving the teensy $1.5 million grant to the GIFC was sure to rumple party feathers. And no, I do not support or like the FLG. But China gives direct comfort to far more execrable characters like Kim Jong-Il and Robert Mugabe, and you don’t see many Americans weeping in their coffee because as much as it might offend us we can shrug it off, or complain about it rationally. We know China does stuff like that. And besides, the software, unlike the FLG, has shown that it can be used for a good purpose and is not a tool of the devil. I’m very sorry if Chinese people are upset, but when seen in context this was not a terrible idea or an act of aggression. There are many more substantive things to raise hell about.