In October 1999, three months after the Chinese government stepped up its repression of the spiritual movement in response to a series of peaceful demonstrations against Communist Party persecution, Xiongs apartment was broken into and ransacked. Drawers were opened. Documents and files were scattered. Yet nothing was taken. A year later, police in China detained some of Xiongs American friends–fellow Falun Gong practitioners–and questioned them about her role in the movement. The police told them that they knew about practitioners in the United States and listed off names including Xiong and her husband. “Im being watched,” said Xiong, still remembering the chill she felt that day. “I also received phone calls threatening me to stop Falun Gong.”
There are an estimated 100 million Falun Gong practitioners–a movement based on elements of Taoism and Buddhism–more than 65 million of whom are members of the Communist Party. To date, 100,000 adherents have been arrested, detained, or sent to labor camps, and more than 500 have been killed. On July 7, 1999, after Chinese President Jiang Zemin delivered a speech to the politburo on the need to eradicate Falun Gong throughout the world, China reportedly expanded its crackdown overseas–especially in the United States, home to some 2.4 million ethnic Chinese.
There are roughly 10,000 practitioners in the United States, including the movements founder Li Hongzhi, who is wanted in China. China accuses Falun Gong of being an “evil cult” that brainwashes adherents to commit suicide and refuse medical treatment. Western China experts, however, say that what the Communists really fear is a large civil-society-based group existing outside the Partys control or supervision. James Seymour, a China scholar at Columbia University, says Chinese authorities fear large, well-organized groups. “This comes partly from their own sense of insecurity and partly from their understanding that such movements have historically overthrown dynasties,” says Seymour.
Last April, in response to harassment in the United States, 50 Falun Gong practitioners, including a number of American citizens, filed a groundbreaking civil rights lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, accusing Chinas security ministries, its embassy, and various regional consulates of conducting a criminal campaign designed to systematically intimidate, injure, and suppress U.S. adherents of Falun Gong. According to the suit, the home of another vocal American practitioner, public relations executive Gail Rachlin, was broken into three times between July and October 1999; only an address book containing Falun Gong contact information was taken. In other cited cases, practitioners claimed that hired thugs had emerged from Chinese consulates and embassy buildings to threaten or beat them while they were distributing literature and protesting Chinas crackdown. Vehicles have been broken into; pamphlets have been destroyed; a car filled with Falun Gong literature was firebombed; phone conversations have been wiretapped; and practitioners relatives in China have been threatened.
The crackdown in the United States has also included pressure on U.S. government officials and businesses, which, though not illegal, is a clear attempt to subvert American standards of tolerance and religious freedom. Chinese consulates pressured city and state governments to revoke proclamations on behalf of Falun Gong. In October, Houston-area hotels suddenly cancelled reservations made by practitioners who flew in to protest Jiangs visit with President Bush. The Chinese Consulate in Houston denied any involvement, and the hotels claimed they simply overbooked, or admitted that they didnt want any disturbances. In another incident, the Chinese Consulate in New York City sent an open letter to all Chinese newspapers in New York, urging that Falun Gong be banned from marching in Lunar New Year parades. Asked about the incident, press secretary Tang Win of the Chinese Consulate in New York gave the standard denial: “We never get involved; there is no connection.”
The Chinese Embassy denies that it is seeking to crackdown on Falun Gong in America and dismisses the lawsuit as groundless. “Its rubbish; its fabrication of Falun Gong,” said Chen Ligang, counselor of the embassy, who also disputes the U.S. courts jurisdiction, citing the Vienna Conventions rules which, he claims, bar individuals from suing foreign governments. (International law experts believe China will eventually have to respond to the suit in the U.S. courts.)
Nevertheless, the U.S. government is beginning to take notice of the harassment. Tom Reynolds, an official in the FBIs civil rights unit, confirmed that he received reports of harassment against Falun Gong practitioners last summer, but would not confirm or deny that an official investigation was underway. A bill introduced by Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), currently before Congress, calls on China to stop interfering in the exercise of religious and political freedoms in America, such as the right to practice Falun Gong, and calls on the Bush administration to investigate reports of illegal acts committed by Chinese consular officials against practitioners in the United States.