The struggle between the Chinese government and the spiritual practice of Falun Gong highlights how weak the Chinese government really is, 2001 Pulitzer Prize winner Ian Johnson said Wednesday at Jesse Wrench Auditorium in Memorial Union.
Johnson’s lecture, which focused on his award-winning coverage of the Falun Gong movement in Beijing, was part of the Paine Lectures sponsored by the MU Department of Religious Studies, the School of Journalism, the Asian Affairs Center and the Center for Religion, the Professions and the Public. His book, “Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China,”highlights the events of the movement.
Johnson said the rebirth of spiritual hunger in China came from the collapse of communism. He said it left a vacuum for Chinese people in their daily lives.
Johnson said this led people to begin practicing Falun Gong. The principles of Falun Gong are truth, compassion and tolerance. Those who practice it do so by mediating and reading teachings from the book, “Wheel of Dharma.”
Falun Gong spread throughout the 1990s with as many as 100 million people practicing it at times.
“Falun Gong is a movement that has been forgotten over the years,” Johnson said. “No matter how you feel about the uprising, it was one of the most popular uprisings in the communist era.”
China officially banned Falun Gong in July 1999, and Johnson said persecution followed, as many practitioners of Falun Gong were taken into police custody where they were subjected to torture and brutality.
Huagui Li, who attended Johnson’s lecture, experienced this brutality first hand. While trying to print and handout fliers about Falun Gong, Li was arrested by police who were not wearing uniforms.
Li was taken to a detention center for 21/2 months. Li said she was put in a 30-square-meter cell with 30 murderers, prostitutes and thieves and was forced to listen to anti-Falun Gong materials. She was not allowed to sit down because they thought she was meditating.
After her stay at the detention center, she said she was taken to a labor camp for 51/2 months. While there, she was constantly surrounded by people trying to force her to give up her beliefs. Li said she was forced to do more than 10 hours of labor each day, making toys for export to the United States and Africa.
Sara Effner, a practitioner of Falun Gong who was in the audience, said she can’t understand why the spiritual practice is considered controversial, because it doesn’t lead to corrupt behavior.
“I was really impressed with (Johnson’s) description of what the persecution was like,” Effner said. “I only wish it could be stopped.”