China’s brainwashing gulag

God, this is a difficult article to read. It may require registration — register, it’s worth it.

It tells the story of an innocuous building in Guangzhou used as a gulag for torturing Falun Gong and “re-educating” them. At the heart of it is an interview with a young lady, one Tang Yiwen.

“It is a brainwashing centre – one of many in China, almost one in every district,” says Tang Yiwen, a slight and soft-spoken 37-year-old interpreter who was grabbed off the street by police in February and taken to the Guangzhou institution. “It is said to be one of the most brutal.”

She said the inmates are mostly Falun Gong followers who, like her, have refused to renounce their beliefs even after serving three to four years in brutal labour camps like the one across the river.

She said the school put inmates through an intensive program of mental and physical torture that included beatings, prolonged interrogations, sleep deprivation and continuous exposure to video and audio propaganda.

The “brainwashing”, she said, was a more intensive form of “re-education” applied to Falun Gong followers in between stints at places like Chatou and Shanshui, the labour camp in Guangdong province where Tang spent three years until August last year. She said her visit to the Guangzhou City Law School has left her partially crippled in one leg.

The methods she and others describe sound eerily like the “struggle” sessions applied by Mao Zedong’s Red Guards to extract confessions of “rightist deviation” during the decade-long Cultural Revolution Mao set off in 1966.

“I used to hear from my father and old people how people, one a famous writer, had committed suicide in the camps,” Tang said, referring to that era. “I couldn’t understand. Why couldn’t they just hold out? After brainwashing in labour camp I understood why – it was really too brutal for human beings to stand. It was just like hell.”

On the face of it, the struggle between state and Falun Gong is a hopelessly uneven one, like the breaking of a butterfly on a wheel.

Like breaking a butterfly on a wheel — we seem to see that a lot in China, and in other societies where the government feels it must crush any hint of free thinking if it’s perceived to weaken its iron-fisted grip on power.

The article goes on to discuss the extremes to which the CCP goes to persecute the Falun Gong, and how miserable they’ve made Yiwen’s life.

There is also the full weight of the state propaganda department, which directs a hostile media campaign against Falun Gong, claiming the movement encourages suicide and neglect in adherents and takes their savings.

There is no legal redress for abuses: after the official ban in July 1999, the Chinese Supreme Court passed down a directive forbidding lower courts or lawyers to accept cases brought by followers.

On the Falun Gong side are people like Tang. She is crippled, unable to get a job in the teaching profession she loves and at risk of being jailed and tortured at any time. She said her husband was forced to divorce her, and she cannot get a passport to leave China.

Since receiving a pro-forma letter early in August from the office of the Australian Prime Minister acknowledging a smuggled-out account of her ordeals and her request for asylum in Australia, Tang has been constantly on the move, staying in a succession of temporary accommodations around China, fearing re-arrest by embarrassed and angry police.

Yet the butterfly is not broken.

There’s lots more.

I have my own issues with the Falun Gong. I find them kind of creepy, and I don’t like the way their representatives abroad try to manipulate public opinion. But as far as I know, they haven’t hurt anyone, and whatever their horrific crime is, it hardly merits torture and devastating persecution.

It’s just another one of those uncomfortable topics we’d all like to sweep under the rug. It doesn’t mesh with the view of China we want to have and with which we’re comfortable.

The Discussion: 17 Comments

Whatchoo talkin bout Willis? Americans constantly talk about China and the persecution of Falun Dafa fits perfectly into their paradigm of a totalitarian maoist state. Most American conservatives and liberals would believe that there was religious persecution even in China even if there was no actual proof. (Like the wankers who claim the chinese name, Xizang, is some sort of derogatory moniker of Tibet)

I’ll be honest with you. This is one case where the communist propaganda doesn’t really fall far from the tree. The core adherents of the Falun Dafa crowd are a bunch of creepy manipulative cultists. They claim a huge number of prafictitioners and like to portray themselves as some sort of spiritual and enlightened faith. Hogwash. Falun Dafa is essentially like any other New Age Heresy(I know this is a rather relative term in itself) designed to milk money out of its adherents for a charismatic leader out of a gullible and superstitious public(and the Chinese just happen to be a gullible and superstitious people). The only difference is that they are even possibly creepier than say the Scientologists or genuinely suicidal in its desire to but heads with the CCP.

All of that however, does not mean that the CCP should drag them off the streets into re-education camps or beat them into submission. That is simply excessive and unwarranted. However, a certain degree of repression of Falun Dafa is neccessitated by the simple fact that Chinese people as a whole ARE really superstitious and gullible and the spread of this religion is dangerous to the public order (and more importantly, the interests of the party). Perhaps when China is far more cosmpolitan and urbanized than it is presently, a degree of tolerance can be extended towards these spiritualist movements. But we can’t forget the lessons of history. The last time China had a major religious nutjob, someone ended up proclaiming himself the brother of Jesus Christ and instigated the bloodiest civil war in history that cost the lives of upwards 20 million people.

October 16, 2004 @ 1:42 am | Comment

It seems nearly all the accusations against Falun Gong apply equally well to the CCP:

* brainwashing
* making outrageous claims about what is possible if you believe in their ideology
* cynically appealing to the downtrodden and psychologically vulnerable
* destroying lives and livelihoods
* promoting a cult of personality around a charismatic leader

Falun Gong is not so different to the CCP, because both of them are a mystical cult founded on superstition. Unlike the CCP however, there are still people who genuinely believe in what Falun Gong stands for. The CCP is simply trying to protect itself from competition.

October 16, 2004 @ 3:23 am | Comment

Touche Peter, though I would question the cult of personality. The PRC has experienced the same thing as had the Soviet Union, the mediocrization and bureaucratization of communist party leaders. The mystique and influence of all powerful charismatic leaders is dead. Simply put, I doubt you’ll find many people in China who revere Hu Jintao. I think the communists figured out that its a bad idea to leave power in the hands of one man, especially if he happens to be utterly paranoid and power mad. Each successive generation of communist leaders have had less power and less charisma, as the party apparat and bureaucracy become institutionalized and fossilize.

Stalin > Kruschev > Brezhnev > Gorbachev.

Mao > Deng > Jiang > Hu

Stalin and Mao are feared and revered. There are even volumes of books written about them and certainly Russian and Chinese citizens of today can easily quote any famous quips they mave have once said. Gorbachev and Hu on the other hand…

Who knows, if the Soviet Union was any indicator, the 4th generation of the CCP leadership maybe its last.

October 16, 2004 @ 9:25 am | Comment

Not only that, Jing, but the reverence for Mao is fading fast, and has been on the way out for quite some time. Too many memories of his actual achievements, perhaps?

And I agree fully with your assessment of FLG. The police response is way over the top, but in a country which managed to shock its own government by revealing just how many people still honestly believe the world is flat, and that was only a couple of years ago, it may well be better to keep such groups in check.

And no, this is not a lowering of standards or an attempt to sweep anything under the carpet or anything. It would be far better if the government found kinder, gentler methods of dealing with such people. However, change takes time. The fact that I can go to church here if I want to is a huge step forward from the situation 30 years ago.

October 16, 2004 @ 8:55 pm | Comment

I have more trouble with it than you do Chris, I admit. As I said in the post, the FG give me the creeps. But doing what’s described in that article is something I can’t brush off or excuse, even if the CCP is more tolerant of other groups like Christians.

October 16, 2004 @ 9:57 pm | Comment

You’re right, and actually I have as much trouble with that as you do. All I’m saying is that change takes time. Who’s in the police force now? What were they doing in ’89? How many leopards have you met who’ve changed their spots? On the whole I’m optimistic about China, but I’m afraid we’re going to have to accept that a lot of evil shit is going to happen before China reaches the standards we would like to see, and I hate that as much as you do. Sometimes I’m terrified about what may happen to my partner and I, based on what’s happened in the recent past.

October 17, 2004 @ 5:59 am | Comment

It’s just another religion. All the accusations levelled at it here can equally well be applied to every religion, whether new or old (and therefore “established”). I agree that it’s pretty stupid, seeks to manipulate its followers, control the way they use their assets etc … but … that’s what a religion does. Either ban ALL religions, or leave this bunch alone.

And Jing – I agree with you that the Taiping precedent is part of the reason why the government is so touchy about this lot, but I think it’s the Boxers (Yi he quan) that are more influential … it’s the case study (as far as they’re concerned) of what happens if you try to embrace and incorporate a religious group like this, instead of suppressing them. In any case, contrary to popular belief, Cixi wasn’t some foolish woman convinced in their magical powers … contemporary documents make it clear that the only reason they decided to embrace the Boxers was because the government was too weak to suppress them, and was afraid of the consequences … in other words, under normal circumstances, there’s no other way any Chinese government could react, except to suppress them. But that has little to do with religion, and everything to do with power … the communists cannot tolerate any rival to their dominance … not in Buddhism (Tibetan invasion), not in Catholicism (attitude to the Vatican), and not in this lot either.

I really wish people would stop debating the merits or otherwise of Falun Dafa as a religion when they discuss the Chinese government’s treatment of this group. This is just falling into the trap of following govt. propaganda. They are not being suppressed because there’s anything wrong with their religion. They are being suppressed because they are rivals for the loyalty of the people.

October 18, 2004 @ 1:34 am | Comment

Asia by Blog

Asia by Blog is a twice weekly feature, posted on Monday and Thursday, providing links to Asian blogs and their views on the news in this fascinating region. Please send me an email if you would like to be notified of new editions. Previous editions ca…

October 18, 2004 @ 2:20 am | Comment

Li En, you said exactly what I was thinking, only much better than I can. I was reading yesterday about the way China is treating it Xinjiang Muslims, and we are far from the day when I’m ready to mete out praise for the CCP’s toleration. I really don’t care how creepy the FG is; there’s a religion here in America I find even creepier, but that doesn’t mean I believe its members should be tortured, brainwashed or killed. In China’s case, it’s all about power; whoever can win over the people’s minds must be suppressed and banned, like anti-CCP Web sites.

October 18, 2004 @ 8:22 am | Comment

Perfectly said, Filthy.
That’s incredible: you’ll always find someone excusing the actions of a tirannical power.

October 18, 2004 @ 8:25 am | Comment

I won’t pull any punches, and I’m not making any excuses. I prefer the tyranny of the CCP over possible sectarian strife in China. It’s as simple as that, whether the religion happens to be Catholicism, Falun Dafa, Islam, or whatever screeds evangelical missionaries are preeching nowadays, I want none of them in China. I want civil institutions in China as much as the next man, and the rule of law and democracy to come with it. However, I do not want those aforementioned institutions in the form of religious fundamentalism or quackery.

Filthy no. 9, you hit the nail squarely on the head. Falun Dafa isn’t alone, I would rather see all religions dissappear from China. Barring that, I want the next best thing, the dissappearance of religious fundamentalists. The Communist Party is attempting to destroy any religious political opposition. All I can say is “meh” and better luck to them.

October 18, 2004 @ 2:26 pm | Comment

The CCP wants no religion? Nonsense. Walk around town and you’ll see statues and paintings and photos of their god everywhere. Mao is its god and the party is the religion, which is why Jiang has always been the one ordaining the priests.

October 18, 2004 @ 2:32 pm | Comment

Richard, even if some loser in the Party is still trying to enforce Maoism as the official religion, trust me, I refer to him as a loser for a very good reason. Clumsy sentence, sorry.

The god worshipped by most in the Party these days is Mammon. Simple fact. Mao’s just there to ‘legitimise’ Mammon-worship.

But I don’t know which is worse, and don’t really care. To a large extent I agree with Jing. I would rather see things remain stable here so that the Chinese can build a stable, prosperous, and hopefully democratic society. I’m quite happy to drop by the local state-sanctioned church when I need my dose of religion for the time being.

Having said all that, I will be much happier when I don’t have to worry about what will happen to me next time I have to visit the police station. Or what will happen to my partner, or my students, or…..

October 20, 2004 @ 4:59 am | Comment

Pay a visit to Mao’s mausoleum and you’ll see that communism is (also) a religion.

October 20, 2004 @ 6:37 am | Comment

… and “stability” is the excuse of Beijing despots against freedom and democracy.

October 20, 2004 @ 8:05 am | Comment

Where are all the FD Web sites?

Help me out here. Before I thought of starting this Falun-focused Web site, I scoured the Internet looking for existing sites by Googling “falun gong dafa” (you try it) and came up with about 236,000 hits. (For a topic that’s…

November 7, 2004 @ 8:30 am | Comment

Here is a suggestion for you: There are a series of articles entitled “The Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party” published by The Epoch Times ( Since its publication in Chinese last November, over 1 million former Party members have publicly renounced their membership from the CCP.

Read it and you will understand why.

May 4, 2005 @ 9:55 am | Comment

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