FIVE TO TEN thousand adherents of the spiritual movement outlawed as an "[Chinese government's slanderous term omitted]" by Beijing in 1999 are believed to be held in dozens of camps across China.

And now the government has allowed a handful of Western journalists for the first time ever to peer behind the walls of one of China's "re-education" camps for Falun Gong adherents.

It's a bid to counter the view promoted by Falun Gong that the camps are in fact prisons, where torture and abuse of inmates are rife. One human rights monitoring group contends that at least 98 adherents have died in police custody.

The movement was founded 10 years ago by Li Hongzhi, a former grain clerk in Jilin province who now lives in exile in the United States.

Based on a series of five exercises that followers claim improves mental and physical health, Falun Gong was quietly tolerated by Beijing until 1999 when thousands of followers turned up unexpectedly to protest official harassment. Alarmed by its size, the government banned Falun Gong, arrested and allegedly tortured hundreds of followers. The crackdown has drawn widespread international criticism.


[... ]

We climb off our bus and are ushered through a gate into a walled courtyard flanked by an administration building to my left, and a dining room and recreation hall and a dormitory-classroom complex to my right. This is a showplace compared to what we've seen outside. A dozen women are playing basketball on an asphalt court in front of me, laughing as they chase the ball. The buildings and the exercise area are in pristine condition.

[... ]


We are moved on to our next location, the dining hall, where there are rows of tables and chairs, and the smell of food cooking back in the kitchen, which we're told is off-limits. Like a slow-to-move tour group we' re ushered into the three-story dorm and classroom complex.

[... ]

Across the hall is the library, where there are hundreds of paperbacks and dog-eared magazines in racks. On a table are the products of the inmates' labor. We've been told they toil over paper flowers as part of their rehabilitation. Here, too, I'm struck by the smell of new paint. All four buildings we've visited have been freshly whitewashed.

Upstairs, we're encouraged to speak with the women sitting on the stools in their rooms. Their bunks would do an army drill sergeant and Laura Ashley proud. Blue-and-white checked coverlets are stretched tight across the bed frame, with a rolled-up comforter sitting in precisely the same spot on each bunk.


We speak with a woman named Zhang Su Qing, who tells me she's been here for more than a half year, learning patriotism, education, law and science. No one has been more specific about the re-education program. I ask the eight women watching the video on life in space what they've learned from their months here.

"Science," they reply in perfect unison. Zhang assures me she's learned Falun Gong is a [Chinese government's slanderous term omitted], and just like Wang, she says she learned that the day she arrived.

We find one woman who says she is still a practitioner, saying she has benefited from Falun Gong - that it's made her less "hot-tempered."

Luo Sin Jie won't tell us how long she's been here or when she is supposed to be released. When I ask her about reported abuse she vehemently responds that she's being treated well.

The captain of the women's unit laughs when I ask about the large number of reports of abuse in camps like this, saying the women here are treated like "sisters" rather than inmates. We get no answers to our questions about where other inmates might be. I count at most half of the 483 inmates we're told are here.

Sharon Xu, a Hong Kong-based Falun Gong spokeswoman maintains there's a correlation between the tour of the "re-education-through-labor camp," and Beijing's bid to win the 2008 summer Olympics.

She says she's not surprised by what we saw. "The government is very good at putting on a good show," she says. "I don't think it's the reality."