Article Review: The Australian: Mike Steketee: The price is rights

FOR much of the next four days, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao will be shadowed in
Australia by groups of Falun Gong protesters determined to make a point. It will
be an inconvenient intrusion amid the celebration of wealth bestowed on us by
the voracious appetite of the Chinese economy.
The Howard Government has worked
assiduously to push human rights to one side in the relationship with China. Hopefully,
the demonstrators will be able to make their point within sight of Wen, although
that is no sure thing given how eager we have been to bow to Chinese concerns
in the past.

By the way, it will be just a few days after the Government, Opposition
and media gushed over British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s sermon on the importance
of standing up for the values we believe in – democracy, the rule of law and justice
– "not just in our own countries but the world over".

The members
of Falun Gong, often seen conducting passive protests outside the Chinese embassy
and consulates, are planning to hold up banners demanding an investigation of
the "death camp" at Sujiatun in northeast China, where they claim 6000
of their followers have been taken to have their organs removed and sold, sometimes
before they are killed. The gruesome allegations have been made by a Chinese journalist
and the wife of a surgeon who worked at Sujiatun.

There are a few problems
with the claims. Both persons, who are now in the US, refuse to be identified
because they fear consequences for their families in China. This is understandable
but does not make verification easier. The journalist’s story was not published
by the Japanese news agency for which he says he worked and which he also will
not identify.

It appears the claims by Falun Gong have been at least substantially
exaggerated. Initial investigations by researchers for a US congressional committee
have identified the site at Sujiatun as a hospital, where it is suspected organ
harvesting occurs but on nowhere near the scale claimed by Falun Gong. The Chinese
Foreign Ministry has dismissed the allegations as "absurd lies".

Falun Gong description of the hospital as a concentration camp or death camp appears
to be wrong. While China has re-education camps, there is no credible evidence
that it operates the equivalent of gulags or concentration camps.

But given
past Chinese behaviour, the Falun Gong claims cannot be completely discounted.
It is well established that China conducts so-called organ harvesting, including
among the 5000 to 12,000 people sentenced to death each year, and not necessarily
with their permission or that of their families. It is a lucrative trade, with
overseas patients flying to China for transplants.

What is also clear is
that China has a terrible human rights record, including in its repression of
Falun Gong. According to the recently released US State Department report on human
rights for 2005, the trend in China is towards increased harassment and imprisonment
of those perceived as threatening government authority.

It estimates there
are tens of thousands of political prisoners and about 300,000 people in "re-education
through labour" camps, including thousands of Falun Gong adherents. The report
quotes overseas estimates that up to 2000 of its members have died in custody
and cites accounts of torture, rape and treatment in psychiatric hospitals.

is China so worried about people who practise meditation and exercise programs
to improve the body and mind but have no history of violence? In short, religion
and fanaticism. Members share beliefs that include elements of Confucianism, Buddhism
and the supernatural. The sect’s prolific publications run a strongly anti-Communist
line and, as the Sujiatun example suggests, it is quite willing to match the Chinese
Government when it comes to propaganda.

While many in China have renounced
their beliefs under duress, others have refused to do so, even at the cost of
torture or death. Beijing regards Falun Gong as a threat precisely because it
is beyond its control and China has a history of religious movements overthrowing

But it is a sign of paranoia, or perhaps a sense of vulnerability,
that the Chinese Government has overreacted to such an extent in the years since
10,000 Falun Gong supporters held a silent protest outside the leaders’ compound
in Beijing in 1999.

Last year, John Fitzgerald, a professor in Asia-Pacific
studies at the Australian National University, told a federal parliamentary committee
that many in leadership positions in China felt the Government’s banning of Falun
Gong and its subsequent persecution was a terrible mistake.

"But once
made by senior leadership, there is no going back," he said. "They find
themselves on the horns of a dilemma, having created, in a sense, a monster which
is their own state surveillance apparatus, which the state itself is going to
find difficult to control … People are now watching one another’s backs in relation
to freedom of religion, in particular, in ways we have not seen since the Cultural

Fitzgerald also directed a message closer to home: because
of the differences on the issue in China, "in my view, speaking boldly and
publicly about this assists democratic reform in China". But that has not
been Australia’s approach: not since the Howard Government sent a clear signal
in 1997 by splitting with other Western nations and withdrawing support for a
resolution condemning China in the UN Commission on Human Rights.

does raise human rights with China: once a year in a dialogue behind closed doors.
The Government argues that this approach is more effective than embarrassing China
in public. But it is hard to find the evidence that it achieves anything at all,
other than pleasing China.

That is something we are very anxious to do.
Representatives of Falun Gong were barred last year from the talks between the
Foreign Affairs department and non-government organisations that are supposed
to feed into the dialogue with China. Why? Because the organisation had the temerity
to mount a public display on human rights in China to coincide with the meeting.

After China complained about Falun Gong protests outside its embassy in
Canberra, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer issued certificates banning fixed
banners and amplified noise. The group claims Australia is the only democratic
country to impose such a restriction. So much for John Howard’s recent statement
about Australia’s "strong, unconditional and consistent" support for
"the expansion of democracy around the world". He forgot to add: except
when we have uranium to sell.

Last year, the Chinese embassy ridiculed
defecting diplomat Chen Yonglin’s claims that there were as many as 1000 spies
and informers working for China in Australia. Fitzgerald says the figure may even
be an underestimate. Chinese-Australian members of Falun Gong are particularly
targeted because they can be threatened through their families in China. It is
common for Australian citizens to have to change their email addresses and phone
numbers. In his own neighbourhood, a shop has closed down because the owner received
threats after displaying Falun Gong texts and discs on his shelves.

only does the Government ignore human rights abuses in China, it is not prepared
to stand up for its own citizens.

Posting date: 13/May/2006
article date: 1/April/2006
Category: Media Report


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