July 7, 2001

In order to prove to the outside world that it was not persecuting Falun Gong practitioners, Beijing recently invited Western reporters -- as well as reporters from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau -- to visit the Masanjia "education-through-labor" camp in Liaoning Province and the Tuanhe camp in Beijing.

China has also said that accusations about its labor camps by overseas members of the Falun Gong are all fabrications. During the visit, reporters from Taiwan found no gloomy atmosphere at the labor camps. In fact, they did not even look like labor camps. The South China Morning Post described the visits as "a spectacular show performed in a dreamlike prison." Reporters saw a humane scene, with soft music, fresh air and tame little deer strolling around in rose gardens and chickens and rabbits everywhere.

After journalists reported what they saw, we cannot help but feel concerned. China has strictly limited news gathering by reporters. So what "truth" did China's labor camps reveal when they were opened to the media? Over the past two years, have reporters from China and overseas had the freedom to interview Falun Gong practitioners who were arrested, detained, imprisoned, beaten and cruelly persecuted? We can get an answer from the following examples.

During the Chinese New Year, China announced that seven Falun Gong practitioners had burned themselves to death. Officials used the announcement to launch an anti-Falun Gong movement nationwide. Beijing not only forbade the foreign media from interviewing the burned survivors or their families, but also forbade their families from visiting the injured. What kind of country is it that deprives people of their freedom of speech, their right to know, and even their most basic right to care for their families? Why did China restrict news coverage on the event? Were those people who burnt themselves really Falun Gong practitioners? What was the truth?

Falun Gong's international Web site has listed 222 practitioners tortured to death at police stations, detention centers, labor camps and prisons all over China. The website provides the names of those victims, as well as details about what happened to them. There were even pictures of livid, swollen or deformed body parts. These victims were beaten savagely, given electric shocks, forced to take drugs that damaged their brains, or subjected to other extreme cruelties.

If those kinds of things happened in a free society, it would immediately become headline news and shock the entire world. In China, however, the Falun Gong practitioners had to die behind layers and layers of concealment just because they believed in the teachings of Falun Gong: truthfulness, benevolence and forbearance. Even their families were not allowed to find out the truth. No lawyers dare file a petition on behalf of Falun Gong followers. They have no channels whatsoever for petitions. The Chinese media will not and dare not report these.

Apart from the stage-managed visits, what other freedoms do reporters from the free world have in China?

Certainly, not all the truth has been concealed. Ian Johnson, a Wall Street Journal correspondent in Beijing, won this year's Pulitzer Prize for international affairs reporting for his in-depth coverage of the Falun Gong. This series of reports was about how Chen Zixiu, a retired female employee of an auto parts company, was tortured to death by police. The reports were published on April 20, 2000.

Johnson also wrote a story about how a follower took risks to spread the Falun Gong teachings, and how Chen's daughter tried in vain for six months to persuade police to issue a death certificate for her mother. Chen's daughter was not a Falun Gong follower, according to recent reports, but after knowing what her mother had gone through, she too became a follower and was detained.

The Wall Street Journal's managing editor, Paul Steiger, commented that Johnson's reports were "a tremendous example of courage and determination to get a story in the face of strong police pressures against the reporting, combined with very sensitive and powerful writing." He also pointed out that in order to prevent police surveillance and harassment, Johnson often had to make detours around other cities, constantly change his cellphone numbers and live in common family homes.

Finally, he was able to tell the world a tearful, blood-stained story about how common people are tortured and oppressed by China's state machine. After completing the reports, Johnson left China, where he can never again be a correspondent.

If we observe the history of natural or man-made disasters in China, we can see a three-step method that Beijing has used to deal with them.

The first step is to conceal the truth from the public and impose a news blackout, or to allow only the Xinhua News Agency to report the "official version."

The second step is to accuse the media and critics of "conspiring to overthrow socialism." If that does not keep a lid on things, China will come up with accusations of "colluding with anti-Chinese forces overseas and pro-Taiwan independence forces." Then, all criticism will become as silent as a cicada in winter.

The last step is to pretend to pacify people or to show that the government has fulfilled its responsibility to take good care of the people. To clarify responsibility and pursue those responsible is something Beijing has never done.

We can see the same method in China's suppression of the Falun Gong movement over the past two years, as well as in its treatment of the Qiandao Lake robbery and mass murder case in 1994 and the explosion at the Fanglin elementary school in Jiangxi Province in March.

International human rights organizations have time and again investigated and condemned China's suppression of the media and human rights.

According to a human rights report released by the US State Department this year, China's human rights record was one of the poorest among the 195 countries. For many years, China's President Jiang Zemin has been one of "the Worst Enemies of the Press" listed by the Committee to Protect Journalists. The committee said in a report that the Jiang regime used harsh prison sentences as a method to maintain its iron grip and that China had detained more reporters than any other country in the world.

In another development, at the UN Human Rights Committee meeting in Geneva this year, psychiatrists from the US and UK condemned China for using psychiatric hospitals for political persecution. Their study revealed that more than 1,000 healthy Falun Gong practitioners have been detained at psychiatric hospitals, where they are given drug injections or electric shocks aimed at forcing them to give up their beliefs. There have been reports of people being tortured to death.

Where is the truth about these people? Was what was seen during the stage-managed visits to the labor camps real or just a lie? Ultimately, the truth cannot be suppressed. Certainly, in the near future, more journalists with a sense of justice will reveal more to the world. We look forward to this.

Chang Ching-hsi is a professor of economics at National Taiwan University. Chang Chin-hwa is an associate professor of journalism at the same university. Both are Falun Gong practitioners.

Translated by Francis Huang and Chen Ya-hui