All posts by Anna Gal

Inside China’s secret brainwashing centers

Inside China’s secret brainwashing centers: ‘People only see what the government wants them to see’.

From the outside it looks like any other holiday village in China.
But hidden inside one of the region’s picturesque mountains is a dark and forbidding ‘brainwashing center’ where government officials routinely carry out horrific acts of abuse and torture on Falun Gong practitioners.
Falun Gong – a spiritual meditation based on the guiding principles of “truth, compassion and tolerance” – was outlawed as a “dangerous cult” by the ruling Communist party in 1999 because of its popularity.
The Chinese government has been mercilessly persecuting Falun Gong practitioners ever since by torturing, killing and locking them up in ‘black jails’ – a network of extra-legal labor camps and detention centers established by the Communist Party to detain citizens without charge or conviction.

Detainees who don’t agree upon arrest to change their beliefs are sent to brainwashing centers for “re-education” where they are immersed in propaganda and brutally tortured physically and psychologically until they sign a waiver renouncing their beliefs. It’s a government-run system so secret it doesn’t even officially exist. The goal: To wipe out Falun Gong.
Some of those who escaped persecution and resettled in Australia after being granted refugee status have shared their shocking stories with in a bid to expose the scale and severity of the human rights abuses in China and help bring them to an end.

Mr. Jintao Liu
Mr. Jintao Liu

Chemical technology student Jintao Liu, 36, was first taken to the mountain in an unknown location after police found Falun Gong books on his computer in November 2006. “They took photos of the Falun Gong books as evidence of my ‘crime’ and took me to the brainwashing center,” Mr. Liu told It was dark when he arrived.
“Outside I didn’t know where I was, there was no sun or anything,” Mr. Liu said.

“The area looked like a holiday village. The center was inside a mountain, a room. They use some of the buildings and houses there. Outside people don’t know [what goes on inside].”

Inside the mountain, Mr. Liu lived in a tiny, pitch-black cell. He was let out only to be subjected to brainwashing techniques and torture.
“They force you to watch the videos that defame Falun Gong,” Mr. Liu said. “The videos use false cases or take the words out of the context to defame Falun Gong teachers or books.”
Mr. Liu stood defiant and refused to watch the videos during his stint in the facility.

“They have security there that would drag me to a room and force me to watch the videos,” he said. “People were assigned to watch me, monitor me, force me, say bad words to me, and abuse me all the time.”
Mr. Liu was made to get up early every morning and do exercises because they stopped him from “doing Falun Gong meditation”.
“After the brainwashing center they couldn’t change my belief so they moved me to a labor camp,” Mr. Liu said.
He was not charged or convicted of any crimes but would spend the next two years in captivity.

“After that they still continued brainwashing me, forcing me to watch the video to defame Falun Gong,” he said.
The dungeon Mr. Liu was held captive in was just one of many of China’s brainwashing facilities established in abandoned houses, disused governmental buildings, remote hotels, and purpose-built compounds.
According to witnesses the centers are often disguised as institutions including schools and detention centers or tucked away out of sight in suburban areas.

Some victims have reported being shocked with electric batons, hung up by their wrists, stretched by their limbs until they break, and left in agonizing pain for days as they are abused and taunted by guards, who promise that the torture will end if they simply give up their spiritual beliefs.

Ms. Xiao Chen
Ms. Xiao Chen

Falun Gong practitioner Xiao Chen, 43, was sent to a brainwashing center during a three-and-a-half-year stint in a forced labor camp where she was tortured for refusing to renounce her beliefs. She was imprisoned without charge or conviction and torn from her baby son.

Ms. Chen said officials put inmates through an intensive program of mental and physical torture that included beatings, prolonged interrogations, sleep deprivation and continuous exposure to video and audio propaganda.
“If we still refused to recant, we were sent to an isolated room,” Ms. Chen said.

“In the isolation room, you could not see the sunlight outside and we were forced to watch brainwashing videos against Falun Gong.
“We would spend the whole day inside, being brainwashed, forced to watch videos, punished by squatting and being deprived of sleep, for extended periods of time.

“They would not allow us to take any showers or anything for many days.
“I felt the police were too cruel, especially to us Falun Gong practitioners, as they would torture us until we died or had a mental breakdown.”
Grandmother Fengying Zhang, 66, had a similar patience when she was sent directly to a brainwashing center and severely tortured after being arrested in her home for practicing Falun Gong in 2014.

Ms. Zhang told she was “cursed at”, humiliated and tortured but that she never let the abuse break her or change her beliefs.
“The brainwashing center is like a black jail,” she said. “Those people never give up but it doesn’t work.”
Ms. Zhang said the government stopped referring to the facilities as “brainwashing centers” after international pressure mounted on China to stop carrying out abuses against human rights.
“They changed the name of the centers to ‘re-education’ but they do the same thing,” Ms. Zhang said. “If people outside China keep silent to such atrocities and human rights abuses then it’s actually assisting evil and is going to put their conscience to trial in the future.

“The human rights abuses aren’t only hurting the people in China, but also the whole world by threatening peace and human rights.”
Mr. Liu, Ms. Chen and Ms. Zhang still bare deep psychological scars from their experiences but are among the lucky ones who eventually escaped persecution in China and resettled in Australia. But they haven’t forgotten the thousands of imprisoned Falun Gong practitioners left behind and the millions of citizens affected by oppression.

The brainwashing and abuse extends well beyond the confines of the ‘re-education’ facilities’ walls, they said.
“There’s no freedom or free information,” Mr. Liu said. “All the media are state/government-controlled. So the media broadcasts the propaganda from the government.

“The education we all heard from childhood is about how great the communists are, how great the police are, how great the Chinese government is.
“So we grow up and we really believe that.”
Mr. Liu said it was only after he “personally experienced this torture by police [he] started to see the dark side of the communists”.

“When I was tortured in the detention center and labor camp, I was asking myself ‘why are the policeman so bad and so evil?’ And I started to see a different side to what was promoted in the media and education,” he said.
“In China the people only see what the government wants them to see. They can’t even get on social media, on Facebook. The Chinese people don’t know the real facts because the information is blocked. A lot of people are poisoned and deceived by the propaganda and the lies.
“And that’s why this persecution can continue.”

Anastasia Lin: a Falun Gong practitioner seeking the Miss World crown – in China

Despite claims that her father is being harassed in China over her association with the spiritual faith, Miss World Canada 2015 refuses to renounce it and her humanitarian work: ‘I feel my presence in that country would give people hope’

Under different circumstances, Anastasia Lin would be a shoo-in for Miss World. A vocal human rights activist with prominent cheekbones, the Canadian candidate for the crown is also an accomplished piano player, a Chinese calligrapher, and an actress with more than 20 credits in film and television.

But this year’s contest takes place in Lin’s native China, which poses a threat for the finalist and her family as Lin practises the spiritual faith of Falun Gong.
Tens of millions in China practice Falun Gong, which combines moral philosophy, meditation and qigong exercises, and emerged out of ideas prevalent in alternative Chinese medicine.

Falun Gong believers have been detained and killed in Chinese labour camps in their thousands, according to activists. The religion was branded an “evil cult” and outlawed in 1999, following a silent demonstration by thousands of Falun Gong practitioners outside Communist party headquarters, who were protesting attacks on its members. Since then, nearly 4,000 practitioners of Falun Gong have reportedly died as a result of detention in camps, though human rights researchers believe the number to be much higher.

Anastasia Lin

Lin, an outspoken advocate on human rights and religious persecution, had refrained from publicly disclosing her faith. But having gained a wider platform thanks to winning the Canadian crown, Lin revealed her faith practice to the Guardian, hoping it would help stop the demonization of the Falun Gong faith and give voice to other Chinese people who are persecuted for their beliefs.
“If I don’t, the oppression will never stop,” Lin said.
Though she has kept her faith out of the public eye, she has been anoutspoken advocate for other minority religious groups persecuted in China, such as Muslim Uighurs, Tibetan Buddhists and Christians.
But it is for her outspoken advocacy work that she says the Chinese ministry of state security is trying to silence her by intimidating her father.
Lin has set foot in China only once since moving to Canada in 2003, but she says her father, who still lives in Hunan province, has been visited by security agents at least once. According to Lin, he is not affiliated with Falun Gong or any religious group.
Just a few days after winning the Miss World Canada crown on 16 May, Lin began receiving text messages from her father asking her to stop her advocacy work. She had highlighted her human rights work in a video and speech at the pageant.

“Do you know the security forces actually came to see me,” Lin said, recounting a text from her father. She said he warned her that if she continued to do her human rights work, she would risked turning her family against each other. “When I asked him more details, he just pleaded that I allow him to live peacefully by not bringing up rights abuses in China again.”

Since then, his business has suffered. “Now people are too scared to be associated with him,” said Lin, who has featured in Canadian films critical of the Chinese regime since the age of 18.
She doesn’t know if agents have visited him again as she said he refuses to talk about it during their brief phone calls. “Nowadays, he always mentions how great the Chinese president is,” she adds. “I think he believes that his phone is being tapped.”

Lin’s case is a classic example of how Xi Jinping’s regime tries to bring Chinese expatriates to heel through the harassment of loved ones left behind, explains Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Chinese activists’ parents and siblings are sometimes prosecuted on false allegations while others simply disappear. It amounts to psychological torture,” Richardson said.
But Lin continued her activist work, by writing a Washington Post op-ed in June and by testifying to the US Congress in July about religious persecution in China.

By coming out now as a practitioner of Falun Gong, Lin has become its highest-profile follower in the western hemisphere.
“It’s not an organised religion,” she said. “The teachings – established by qigong master Li Hongzi in 1992 – are about finding our authentic self. And this is what I’m trying to do by speaking up. If I don’t, the oppression will never stop.”

Lin’s experience comes amid harsher treatments of religious minorities and human rights lawyers, explains Sophie Richardson. “The Chinese state has become increasingly paranoid and authoritarian since Xi Jinping took power in 2013,” she says. Chinese Christians have been a notable target of late. Authorities have removed crosses from more than 1,200 churches since early 2014 and the country’s security forces this week launched a roundup of church activists who oppose the crosses’ removals.
Lin has also felt ostracised by segments of the Canadian Chinese community, despite her Miss World Canada win and the backing of the Canadian government for her activism. She said she stopped being invited to events by community leaders tied to the Chinese embassy and consulate since her crowning. And to those community events that she is invited to, she is “monitored” by the Chinese consulate.
“They send officials to all social events,” says the actress, who also believes that her phone is tapped.

Whether China will allow her to compete in the Miss World final in Sanya, on Hainan Island, is uncertain, as many Falun Gong practitioners have been denied entry to the country in recent years.
“My aim is not to put an anti-China slogan on the stage,” she insists. “After all, it’s a beauty pageant. But I feel that my presence in that country alone would give people hope. The regime would show itself worthy of hosting the [2022 winter Olympic] Games by allowing me to enter China freely.”

Why is Falun Gong Banned?

Leeshai Lemish looks at the history and causes of the Chinese Communist Party’s campaign against Falun Gong
If Falun Gong is benign, why is the Chinese government afraid of it?’ After nine years of persecution this basic question remains common. I’ll try answering it here.
In the 90s, Chinese parks brimmed at dawn with some 100 million people performing slow-movement exercises known as qigong. In 1992 Master Li Hongzhi introduced Falun Gong, outwardly a qigong practice like any other. But Master Li uniquely placed emphasis not on healing or supernormal abilities, but on self-cultivation towards spiritual perfection.
Falun Gong became an almost instant hit. Master Li travelled through China introducing the practice and its principles. Word of Falun Gong spread quickly, and it could soon be found in thousands of parks. The Chinese embassy in Paris invited Master Li to teach in their auditorium, and an official study found that Falun Gong saved the country millions in health costs.
Fast-forward to July 1999 and suddenly Falun Gong is public enemy number one. Practitioners are sentenced to ‘reform through labor’ camps where they are starved, beaten, and tortured with electric batons. By 2008, there are over 3,000 documented cases of practitioners killed by state persecution. Increasingly solid evidence suggests many more have been targeted as unwilling donors of kidneys, livers, and hearts. How many more, we have no idea.
Why, then, this bizarre persecution?
Weak explanations
Facing international criticism and domestic sympathy for Falun Gong, the ruling Chinese Communist Party scrambled to rationalize its campaign. It has claimed Falun Gong is a menace to society – a superstitious, foreign-driven, tightly organized, dangerous group of meditators. State-run media tell gruesome stories of mutilation and suicide, but outsiders aren’t allowed to examine them. When investigators somehow manage to scrutinize such cases, they find stories of individuals who don’t exist and crimes committed by people who have nothing to do with Falun Gong. Human Rights Watch simply calls the official claims ‘bogus’.
Some Western academics have suggested Party leaders feared Falun Gong because it reminded them of past religions-turned-rebellions. But the broad-brush parallels ignored how bloody those groups were – the often-referenced Taiping, for example, was responsible for 20 million deaths. Falun Gong has been strictly non-violent and had no rebellious plans.
One final flawed explanation is that the April 25, 1999 gathering of 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners in the political heart of Beijing startled Party leaders and triggered the oppression that followed.
But the peaceful demonstration actually came after three years of escalating state oppression already taking place. In fact, it was a direct response to practitioners being arrested and beaten in nearby Tianjin and a smear media campaign against them.
The individual leader explanation
The incident was pivotal, but for different reasons. That April day, Premier Zhu Rongji engaged members of the gathered group and listened to their grievances. Those arrested were released. Practitioners who were there told me they had felt elated about the open communication between the government and its people.
But that night, then Chairman Jiang Zemin rebuffed Zhu’s conciliatory stance. He labelled Falun Gong a threat to the Party and said it would be an international loss of face if Falun Gong were not immediately crushed. Indeed, many experts attribute the campaign to Jiang’s obsession with Falun Gong as much as any other factor.
The popularity explanation
What appears to have scared Jiang and other Party hardliners (some who are still in top posts, maintaining the campaign) was how popular and cross-social strata Falun Gong had become. In northern cities, workers practiced Falun Gong together in factory yards before heading to the machines. Professors and students meditated on Tsinghua University lawns. Party leaders’ wives and senior cadres had their own little group in central Beijing.
This fear of Falun Gong’s popularity explains why its main text, Zhuan Falun, was banned from publication weeks after becoming a bestseller in 1996. And why, when a government report estimated there were more Falun Gong practitioners (70 million plus) than Party members, security agents began interrupting exercise sessions.
The predatory Party-state explanation
For decades the Party has persecuted different groups – intellectuals, artists, clergy, conservatives, reformists – through political movements. Some are targeted because they are outside Party control or have their own ideology. Falun Gong, with its spiritual teachings, sense of community, and independent network falls into that category.
Others are targeted when Party leaders manoeuvre to align power to themselves. Falun Gong appears to be a victim of that, too, as the persecution provided an excuse for strengthening state security apparatuses. It gave the Party an opportunity to oil its machinery – from Cultural Revolution-style purges to Internet surveillance systems.
As torture survivor Zhao Ming told me in Dublin, ‘the Party’s machinery of persecution was there – Jiang pushed the button’.