New Internationalist

A look at the sky from the bottom of the well

Issue 371

Minorities in China whose mouths are being closed

Practitioners of

(also known as Falun Gong)

Falun Dafa is a practice combining slow, gentle body movements and meditation with the study of the universal principles of truthfulness, benevolence and tolerance.

On 25 April 1999 more than 10,000 Falun Dafa practitioners held a peaceful gathering in Beijing outside the Chinese leadership compound, Zhongnanhai – the biggest demonstration since Tian’anmen Square in June 1989. Within two months, the practice was declared illegal. Since then it has been actively suppressed.

Poems from prison At the end of last year, a Falun Dafa practitioner in China was sent to a detention centre because he refused to give in to officials’ demands to forsake his practice. Seven months later he was released due to lack of evidence. Another prisoner – who had been sentenced to death – asked him: ‘If you are right and kind, why were you sent here?’ He then wrote the following poem –

Atone I come here In this period of my life I come here to atone for your soul If you are willing Then It is mine You shall take care of it for me Don’t let it become broken again And don’t let it be covered by dust Until that day You bring it and hand it to me in good condition I’ll then give it back to you perfectly I come here To atone for your soul In this period of my life

The Facts1

100 million – the number of people practising Falun Dafa in 1998 before it was banned.

1,006 – the number of practitioners verified as being tortured to death from July 1999 to July 2004. Government sources inside China say that the actual number may exceed 1,600.

6,000 – the number of practitioners imprisoned – more than 500 for terms of over 18 years.

1,000 – the estimated number of people who have been forced into mental hospitals.

100,000 – the estimated number of practitioners who have been sentenced to forced labour camps.

Of the three Chinese territories that experience the greatest ethnic separatist unrest (Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia), it is Tibet that has received the greatest international attention. The Tibetans claim – and the Chinese refute – that the territory was once independent (so proclaimed by the Dalai Lama in 1912). It has been occupied by China since its People’s Liberation Army invaded in 1950. By 1959, Tibetan protests had escalated to armed rebellion. The Dalai Lama – who now lives in exile in India with more than 100,000 followers – wants a degree of autonomy for the territory that would guarantee religious freedom and political control. Other Tibetans – such as Tenzin Tsundue – want total independence from China.

Tenzin Tsundue was born into a Tibetan refugee family who laboured on India’s border roads. After graduating in Madras, South India, he crossed the Himalayas on foot to participate in the freedom struggle. He was arrested by the Chinese border police, imprisoned in the capital, Lhasa, for three months, and then pushed back to India. He joined Friends of Tibet (India) in 1999 and is now the organization’s General Secretary. The following poem is from his prize-winning book Crossing The Border2.

My Tibetanness Thirty-nine years in exile. Yet no nation supports us. Not a single bloody nation! We are refugees here. People of a lost country. Citizen to no nation. Tibetans: the world’s sympathy stock. Serene monks and bubbly traditionalists; one lakh3 and several thousand odd, nicely mixed, steeped in various assimilating cultural hegemonies. At every check-post and office, I am an ‘Indian-Tibetan’. My Registration Certificate, I renew every year, with a salaam. A foreigner born in India. I am more of an Indian. Except for my Chinky Tibetan face. ‘Nepali?’ ‘Thai?’ ‘Japanese?’ ‘Chinese?’ ‘Naga?’ ‘Manipuri?’ but never the question – ‘Tibetan?’ I am Tibetan. But I am not from Tibet. Never been there. Yet I dream of dying there.

The Facts4

4.6 million – the number of Tibetans in China, less than half of whom live in Tibet.

1.2 million – the estimated number of Tibetans who have been killed by the Chinese since 1950.

3,000 – the number of people believed to have been detained for political offences since September 1987 (many for writing or talking to foreigners about Tibet’s right to independence).

145 – Tibetans in (or likely to be in) a prison or detention centre as of January 2004 (a fall from approximately 800 in 1996).

57 – the number of minority nationalities (including Tibet) in the 1990 Census, which amounts to 8.1% of the total Chinese population.

Homosexuals (tongzhi) have been acknowledged in China since ancient times. Homophobia arrived with the British: a sodomy law – the result of British colonial rule – was introduced in Hong Kong in 1865. Systematic persecution of homosexuality occurred during the Cultural Revolution, when unknown numbers of gays were assaulted, imprisoned and executed. While there was a loosening up of attitude towards homosexuality during the economic reforms at the end of the 1970s, during the 1980s and 1990s homosexuality was treated as a mental illness, with tongzhi being detained in psychiatric institutions as a result. Tongzhi are now tolerated but not officially accepted.

Discussion of homosexual behaviour in Chinese literature refers back to three classic tales of love from the Zhou period (1100 to 221 BC). This is one:

Sharing the peach In ancient times Mi Zixia won favour with the ruler of Wei. According to the laws of the state, anyone who secretly used the ruler’s carriage was punished by having his feet amputated. When Mi Zixia’s mother fell ill, he got into the ruler’s carriage and went to see her. When the ruler heard of it, he only praised him saying: ‘How filial! For the sake of his mother he forgot all about the danger of having his feet cut off!’

Another day Mi Zixia was strolling with the ruler in an orchard. Biting into a peach and finding it sweet, he gave the remaining half to the ruler to enjoy. ‘How sincere is your love for me!’ exclaimed the ruler. ‘You forgot your own appetite and think only of giving me good things to eat!’

Later, however, when Mi Zixia’s looks had faded and the ruler’s passion for him had cooled, he was accused of committing some crime against his lord. ‘After all,’ said the ruler, ‘he once stole my carriage, and another time he gave me a half-eaten peach!’

If you gain the ruler’s love, you will enjoy his favour. But if he hates you, not only will your wisdom be rejected, but you will be regarded as a criminal and thrust aside.5

The Facts6

15 million – the reported estimate of homosexual people in China. Tongzhi remain reluctant to come out. As a consequence, this figure is likely to be an underestimate.

1988 – tongzhi was coined to describe gays and lesbians in China – tong meaning ‘common’ and zhi meaning ‘will’. The two were put together to translate the word ‘comrade’ from the Russian, which is how the term was first used in China.

1997 – the year that sodomy was decriminalized.

2001 – the year that the Chinese Psychiatric Association dropped reference to homosexuality as a pathological condition.

  1. The Falun Dafa Information Centre – See this site or for case descriptions of those who have died
  2. For copies of Crossing the Border write to Tenzin Tsundue at mailto:[email protected]?Subject=Crossing%20the%20Border.
  3. One lakh is 100,000
  4. JB Starr, Understanding China (second edition), Profile Books, London, 2001; Tibet Information Network:; Free Tibet Campaign:
  5. An abridged version of the story that appears in B Hinsch, Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1990
  6. Reuters 7 July 2000; US Citizenship and Immigration, China: Information on Treatment of Homosexuals, website:; Ping-Chun Hsiung et al (editors) ‘Lexicon’ (endnotes) Chinese Women Organizing: cadres, feminists, muslims, queers, Berg, Oxford, 2001.

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This article was originally published in issue 371

New Internationalist Magazine issue 371
Issue 371

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