Cork student’s fight to free mother

UCC student calls on the Government to intervene on behalf of
mother currently imprisoned in China for her links with Falun Gong

A UCC student, whose mother has been detained by the Chinese authorities due to her connections with the banned Falun Gong movement, has called on Taoiseach Brian Cowen to raise the issue with the Chinese government during his visit to the country this week.

Tang Liang is a food science student at University College Cork. Both his parents were arrested in June due to their activity with the Falun Gong movement. His father Yu Lin Tang was later released. However Liang’s mother, Aiqin Wang, remains in detention in China.

This week, Brian Cowen is attending trade talks in Shanghai and Beijing. Tang Liang has seized this opportunity, launching a plea to the Irish leader to raise the issue of the continued detention of Falun Gong supporters, and wider claims of human rights abuses in China. Mr. Liang was accompanied by Ming Zhao, a former student of Trinity, who spent two years in prison because of his Falun Gong beliefs. Mr. Zhao was released in 2002 after the intervention of several high-profile political figures in Ireland, including Senator David Norris.

Mr. Zhao was a computer science student at Trinity in 2000. When he returned to his home in Beijing for the Christmas holidays he was immediately taken into custody by the authorities. Addressing a sub-committee on Human Rights at Leinster House in 2004, he claimed that on his return to China he was arrested without warrant for his association with the Falun Gong movement, and detained in a labour camp without trial. He was imprisoned for two years, enduring torture and brainwashing. He was released in 2002 after a successful campaign for his release and an intervention by former Taoiseach Bertie Ahearn.

During his detention, Ming Zhao claims that the Chinese authorities used electric shocks and physical violence to torture him. He is adamant that there is no rational explanation for the detention of Falun Gong practitioners, and that the Chinese government is simply seeking to monopolise people’s lives.

Falun Gong is a traditional Chinese spiritual discipline that is similar to Buddhism. It is a modern variant of the ancient Chinese practices of exercise, deep breathing, and meditation, that enthusiasts claim promotes physical, mental, and spiritual well-being by enhancing the flow of vital energy through a person’s body. While Falun Gong is practiced in over 70 countries worldwide, there has been a major crackdown on the association in China in recent years.

The Chinese government has been accused of human rights abuses towards those imprisoned. The supporters of Falun Gong describe the detention and persecution of its followers as religious persecution. However the Chinese government insist that they are acting in the best interest of Chinese society. They have labelled the Falun Gong organisation a cult.

Chinese authorities began clamping down on Falun Gong practices in 1999. Those found guilty of association with the Falun Gong movement are often handed lengthy prison sentences. They are reported to be treated in a manner counter to the charter of Human Rights. Organisations such as Amnesty International are concerned that the treatment of those imprisoned may have a broader impact on freedom of expression, association and belief in China.

For hundreds of years, China’s rulers have viewed as politically threatening those groups that combine elements of charismatic leadership, a high degree of organization, and popular appeal. They have labelled such organizations “heretical cults” or “sects” and have moved forcefully to eradicate them. Although Falun Gong practitioners claim they practice and promote truthfulness, compassion and tolerance, the Chinese government has deemed it a threat to society and branded it a cult.

In the online edition of the People’s daily newspaper, members of Falun Gong are accused of “organizing and using the cult organization to undermine the implementation of law, causing deaths by organizing and using the cult organization, and illegally obtaining state secrets.” In an article posted on the website of the Chinese embassy in the United States, the Chinese authorities brand Falun Gong practices as “cult heresies” which threaten to disrupt the normal order of religion. They go on to claim that their actions against the organization are in the best interest of the Chinese people: “To protect the human rights and freedom of religious belief of the Chinese people, the Chinese Government outlawed the “Falun Gong” cult in accordance with the law.”

Amnesty International has been quick to condemn the detention of Falun Gong practitioners by the Chinese government. In a report describing their concerns about the human rights violations resulting from the crackdown on Falun Gong, the association calls on the Chinese government to reform their policy against the movement. In the report, they call on the Chinese government “to stop the mass arbitrary detentions, unfair trials and other human rights violations resulting from the crackdown on the Falun Gong group”. Other associations, such as the Human Rights Website, have called for the immediate release of all Falun Gong prisoners and for permission to resume public and private Falun Gong practice.

According to the Amnesty International report, detainees are subjected to “re-education” processes. On 20 January, 2000, Yang Yong, a spokesman for the Changguang police station in Fangshan district in Beijing, confirmed to a foreign journalist that around 50 “extremist’’ followers of the banned Falun Gong movement had been locked away in a psychiatric hospital near Beijing. Yang Yong reportedly said that his police force was responsible for Falun Gong practitioners, the majority of them women, held at the Zhoukoudian psychiatric hospital. He told the journalist that the practitioners “are not patients, they are there to be re-educated”.

Since returning to Dublin and being granted refugee status here, Ming Zhao has been involved in many campaigns to highlight awareness of those persecuted for their beliefs. Former detainee Zhao has publicly criticised the Irish authorities’ cordial relations with the Communist state. In May 2005 he condemned the twinning of Cork City with Shanghai, criticising the lack of concern for Human Rights abuses in China.

In August 2008 Falun Gong practitioners held a protest at The Irish Times building on Tara Street Dublin, to protest over an article that quoted a Chinese official making disparaging remarks about the practice. The protesters said the comments made by the Chinese official demonised those who engage in the spiritual practice, which involves exercise and meditation. This followed a march in July 2007, coinciding with the eighth anniversary of the suppression of Falun Gong practitioners, where Mr. Zhao and others called on Chinese people living in Ireland to quit the Communist Party. Mr. Zhao claimed at the time that up to 23 million people had already publicly quit the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Irish relations with China have been strengthened in recent years, with many reciprocal business deals being brokered between the two countries. Taoiseach Brian Cowen is in China this week to discuss trade and commercial relations between China and Ireland.

Cork based student Tang Liang is hoping that Mr. Cowen will highlight the issue of Falun Gong prisoners and the suggested violation of their human rights. More crucially, he hopes that the Irish leader will raise the issue of his mother’s detention with Chinese officials.