December 10, 2005

Sean and Vanessa Hutchison are expecting a telephone call. And sure enough, it comes half an hour after the last one, just as they predicted. The same recorded message too, from a woman speaking with a Chinese accent.

"I would like to tell you the truth, listen carefully. Thank you," she says politely but firmly. Then follows a short, sharp criticism of a spiritual movement that has incurred the wrath of officialdom in communist China. And some advice, that "it is not a good idea" to phone the communist state in support of Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa.

For the Hutchisons, of Mandurah, the calls are a reminder they are people of great concern to Beijing. Both are part of the spiritual movement known as Falun Gong, which, to most Australians' eyes, would seem incapable of bothering anyone, let alone a budding superpower.

Practitioners talk of a peaceful practice that improves physical, mental and moral health through the daily practice of four gentle exercises and a seated meditation; plus their adherence to universal principals of truthfulness, compassion and forbearance (tolerance).

And, of a spiritual concept, not a religion. Says Sean Hutchison: "There's no worship of any individual; no attendance at churches or other places of worship; no monetary contributions; and no hierarchy or leadership levels to fund."


The clampdown on Falun Gong began in 1999 after a special police "6-10 Office" was formed. The name comes from the unit's foundation date, June 10. It has built a fearsome reputation but Liu has denied reports of abuse, saying: "They are treated like teachers treat their students (or) the same as doctors treating patients or parents with their children."

Falun Gong followers tell a different story, of hundreds of thousands of people held in inhumane labour camps where "re-education" occurs through hard labour and brutality. The victims have allegedly included pregnant women, the elderly and children.

United Nations and European Union human rights agencies have raised their concerns, including allegations of torture and mistreatment. The US Congress has called for the persecution to end.

Falun Gong followers, who have no centralised bureaucracy, claim to hold thousands of authentic photographs showing torture and beatings, all smuggled from China. Many have been published by them, to try to stir the international community into action. The alleged cruelties include beatings, sleep deprivation, starvation, applying electric batons to sexual organs and other body areas; locking people in cages suspended in filthy water, and in black boxes; strapping victims to "death boards" without movement for weeks or months; hanging people up by ropes; and shackling people in extremely stressful positions for long periods.

Hunger strikers were allegedly force-fed through plastic tubes that were painfully pushed through their noses to their stomachs. This was often done several times, causing internal bleeding. Many have landed in mental hospitals where the horrors allegedly include "electric shock acupuncture" and the forced administration of psychiatric drugs.

Even if people were "transformed" by renouncing their beliefs, they often must prove their sincerity by helping to "transform" others with the same tortures they'd suffered, it is claimed. One former detainee, Zhao Ming, now in Ireland, has told of feeling intense shame for having renounced Falun Gong during electric-baton torture. He said: "I thought, "That's it. I don't want to bear any more (but) I stepped out of the labour camp without any happiness, hope or relief because my spirit had been murdered."

But there are stories, also, of amazing courage by detainees who do not resist the violence allegedly perpetrated on them. Instead, they focused on maintaining a calm and compassionate state that gave them a buffer against it.

Many had even expressed sympathy for their torturers because of the moral harm they were doing to themselves. In this sense, the abusers were also victims of the repression.

Falun Gong sources say 2800 people are known to have died but the true toll will be much higher. China denies these reports.

Falun Gong was introduced to China by Master (teacher) Li Hongzhi in 1992 and was initially permitted and even encouraged by the Government as many Communist Party members and some top government officials were drawn to its reputed health benefits.

In 1996, Li published his book of core teachings, Zhuan Falun, or Law of the Wheel. It was a bestseller, though produced under state sponsorship with most financial returns going to the Government.

But the mood changed after a 1998 Government health survey revealed 70-100 million practitioners in China. The California-based Falun Gong Human Rights Working Group says some Communist Party ideologues were affronted by its huge popularity.

The "atheist party vanguards" could not accept that after more than 40 years of Marxist indoctrination, so many people, including party members, had turned away to seek moral and spiritual guidance from Falun Gong, says the group.

"They also had a vested interest in finding fault with Falun Gong as an excuse to mount ideological strikes against those more open-minded and supportive officials and to cleanse the party to their liking," says the group.

(In 1998 Li left China to settle in New York. His daughter's educational aspirations were a reason for moving.)

By early 1999, the Government was tightening the screws on Falun Gong and various other spiritual movements, prompting 10,000 practitioners to hold a silent, non-violent protest outside the Communist Party headquarters in Beijing on April 25, 1999.

The Government was reportedly frightened by the size of the protest. Then president Jiang Zemin is supposed to have ranted about an emergent threat to the party itself and the 6-10 Office was formed.

In July 1999 Falun Gong was declared a crime and, say Falun Gong sources, a huge propaganda campaign was launched to "foment lies and produce hatred-inciting materials to turn the populace against the practice".

Sean Hutchison says he knew nothing of all this when he and Vanessa lived in Perth in 2001 and a Falun Gong brochure landed in the letterbox. The brochure led him to the Rose Garden park in Nedlands, where a Taiwanese couple held introductory lessons free of charge, which is always the case with Falun Gong activities. Li Hongzhi has said: "When you promote it (Falun Gong), you should not seek fame or profit. You should serve others voluntarily."

Sean has practised Falun Gong ever since. Vanessa became a "diligent" practitioner only last year, after noticing Sean was more peaceful, happier and less prone to stress. A friendly, quietly spoken couple with a busy photographic business, they are among about 30 practitioners in WA and both help to raise public awareness of the persecution in China.

"The Chinese communists hope to silence us. Do I sit and keep quiet or do I address the fact that people are being murdered and tortured?" says Sean.

He has assembled a photographic exhibition which powerfully intersperses his own shots of tranquil land and waterscapes against a sampling of the torture pictures allegedly smuggled out of China. It has been shown around WA.

In February, the Hutchisons were among several local practitioners bombarded by recorded telephone calls attacking Falun Gong. Some of the calls were in English, others in Mandarin.

They came on the half-hour or hour between about 8am and 7.30pm for about two days. They complained to the police but a Telstra trace produced only an unknown international number.

Sean says similar calls have been received by practitioners in 60 countries. US authorities identified China as the source.

"I think they (the Chinese) have recognised a growing momentum and perhaps an increase in activities around the world as more and more people are learning what's happening," he says. The head of the crackdown, Luo Gan, has said they need to smash these activities in China and abroad."

The issue flared in Australia this year with the defection of Chinese diplomat Chen Yonglin and the asylum application of Hao Fengjun, a former 6-10 officer who left China with a suitcase full of documents allegedly revealing key aspects of China's anti-Falun Gong strategy. Australia was listed among some foreign countries warranting a secret task force. Both men claimed China had a spy network in Australia. One of its main duties was the monitoring of Falun Gong.

In another development, two Falun Gong practitioners have taken Foreign Minister Alexander Downer to the Australian Capital Territory's Supreme Court in Canberra.

Jane Dai and Zhang Cui Ying want an injunction to stop Downer using Diplomatic Privileges and Immunities (DPI) regulations to prevent the display of Falun Gong banners, amplified sound and car signage outside the Chinese Embassy in Canberra. A ban to this effect was imposed in March, under certificates signed monthly by Downer.

Dai's husband allegedly died from persecution in China. Zhang claims she was arrested, illegally imprisoned, tortured and humiliated when she visited China several years ago to appeal for justice for Falun Gong practitioners.

Human rights lawyer Bernard Collaery, who is representing the women, would not comment on the eve of the case but has previously said: "The desire to advance bilateral relations with China, including economic relations, has resulted in a supine position on human rights and is a national disgrace. This is a test case of freedom of expression in Australia."

Another WA practitioner, Denmark-based Jana Shearer, put it this way: "We are talking about an horrendous persecution of conscience that has infected politicians and business people around the world. "They have been encouraged to turn a blind eye to what is happening in China in order to keep their trade exchange open."