During the past two years, the government of Communist China has waged an extraordinary and brutal campaign against the practitioners of Falun Gong, a spiritualist movement which combines physical and meditative exercises with basic tenets of Buddhist and Taoist philosophies. Although Falun Gong does not advocate a political agenda and has never made any attempt to disrupt the political or economic balance in China, it has been accused of plotting to overthrow the Chinese government and its followers have been subjected to imprisonment and torture. As of this writing, at least 85 Falun Gong followers have died while in Chinese jails.
“Falun Gong’s Challenge to China” is a remarkable new documentary which traces the history and principles of Falun Gong and tries to make sense of why the Chinese government is waging such a vicious campaign against the movement. Using videotapes, audio recordings and photographs smuggled out of China, plus broadcast clips from TV news coverage around the world, the film offers a story which will boil the blood of anyone who lives by the principles of intelligence and decency. In many ways, this is the most important documentary in release today, for it calls to attention not only the horrendous human rights situation in China but also how the so-called civilized democracies of the world have barely registered a peep of protest against this egregious state of affairs.
Falun Gong was founded in China in 1992 by Li Hongzhi. Originally, the movement was widely accepted and promoted by the Chinese government since Falun Gong’s focus on physical well-being led to significant savings in the beleaguered Chinese health care system when thousands of practitioners began to experience a new sense of wellness. Over time, however, the paranoia which infected the Communist Chinese government ever since its founding in 1949 began to take hold and alarms went off when an informal government survey found that nearly one-third of the Chinese population considered themselves to be Falun Gong followers. In 1998, the government reversed its acceptance of Falun Gong and began to use the state-run media to launch shrill and frequently idiotic propaganda to discredit the movement and its founder. The tactic failed totally, and the frustrated government banned Falun Gong as an “evil cult” and compared Li Hongzhi to Hitler (Li now lives in exile in New York). Peaceful and non-violent demonstrations by Falun Gong members began to spread, gaining embarrassing media coverage by US and international TV crews. The Chinese government reacted with widescale police attacks on the demonstrators and sweeping arrests; to date, at least 50,000 people are known to be arrested because of their association with Falun Gong.
“Falun Gong’s Challenge to China” produces heartbreaking photographic evidence of the worst of the Chinese prison system in its torture of Falun Gong followers. Also included are interviews with two Chinese-born American citizens and Falun Gong believes who were arrested and imprisoned in China, one of whom was forced into slave labor making brushes for export to the US. The Chinese government side of the story is also presented: the film features segments from a “60 Minutes” interview with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, who blandly brushes aside Mike Wallace’s questions on the Falun Gong crackdown, and an ABC “Nightline” interview where Ted Koppel is blithely informed by a Chinese diplomat that his charges about attacks on Falun Gong members are not true.
“Falun Gong’s Challenge to China” offers input from human rights groups ranging from Amnesty International to Freedom House on the situation in China and also includes commentary from ordinary Falun Gong practitioners (both Chinese and non-Chinese) who try to explain what they’ve gained from their practice. Conspicuously absent from the film is input from Western governments who have been strangely mute during the past decade in questioning why the Chinese government is waging war on its own people. Perhaps the greatest outrage here is the revelation that President Jiang was congratulated by President Clinton for defanging Mike Wallace in the “60 Minutes” interview. During the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton accused George Bush of “kowtowing” to the Chinese government…but during his eight years in the White House, Bill Clinton went beyond kowtowing into performing political f******o on the Communist Chinese hierarchy without bothering to feel the pain of those abused and killed by the Chinese government.
Filmmaker Danny Schechter (who has also written a companion book by the same title which is now in stores via Akashic Books) tells a tragic story in “Falun Gong’s Challenge to China.” However, the story is not over by any stretch. Despite its heavy-handed efforts, the Chinese government has failed to stop Falun Gong from being practiced in China and non-violent protestors continue to make their presence seen in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
Serious news coverage on the Falun Gong crackdown is gaining in prominence and the movement itself has spread beyond China’s borders to 40 different countries and an estimated 100 million followers. Falun Gong web sites proliferate, despite clumsy attempts by the Chinese government to hack them offline.
As a study in the human spirit, “Falun Gong’s Challenge to China” ultimately provides a resounding message of hope. As a film, it is a towering achievement which must be seen.

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