This weekend, I went to see “Free China: The Courage to Believe“. This hourlong movie by Michael Perlman, who previously directed “Tibet: Beyond Fear”, boasts a few awards from some small indie, human rights, and “awareness” festivals. Like the similarly propagandistic but much less affordable Shen Yun dance performance, Falun Gong foot soldiers had plastered posters and postcards for the film in Chinese restaurants, on storefront windows, and on public information boards. Yet despite the heavy-handed advertising, it’s not often that a movie covering the broad subject of China comes to English-speaking audiences. Could this film be something other than a rehashed collection of dehumanizing stereotypes about the Chinese government? I set out to find out.
The frame of this film is simple enough, if you turn off your brain’s critical faculty. Somehow, a crazy cult which started in the 1990s represents “a return” to 5000 years of Chinese tradition, “the Dao”, and the Buddha. And in a comical flashback to 1960s Kuomintang propaganda, viewers are lead to believe that the picturesque landscapes and smiling old men in paddy hats who represent Traditional China™ were destroyed by foreign Bolsheviks, who, “despite the Great Wall”, washed up on Chinese shores along with the devious Japanese. Our stars of the film, “ex-Communist Party member” Jennifer Zeng and “Chinese American businessman” Charles Lee, represent China’s ordinary, peaceful citizens who are persecuted by a rogue regime.
In this morally black-and-white film, the heroes and villains are not difficult to identify. When the subject is speaking in English with Chinese subtitles (Zeng, Lee), they represent the forces of freedom and democracy. But when you see someone speaking in Chinese with English subtitles (CCTV presenters), watch out! You know these are the bad guys. But even more virtuous than the English-speaking defectors from China are the old white men who occasionally interrupt a personal anecdote to offer up some shocking “fact” about China. These characters include David Kilgour and Chris Smith, right-wing parliamentarians from the US and Canada, and Ethan Gutmann, who is affiliated with various neoconservative thinktanks.
Jennifer Zeng’s story
Staring into the camera with baggy and bloodshot eyes that cry on command, Zeng’s character is clearly meant to be sympathetic. But more often, our qipao-clad heroine comes across as a ruthlessly ambitious, double-dealing dragon lady. Despite her father’s apparent distaste for communism, she joins the Young Pioneers at age six—which is like the Girl Scouts, but for the Communist Party. By age 21, Zeng was a full member of the Party, never truly believing in its goals but simply wanting “to increase my opportunity in the society”. At some point, Comrade Zeng was roped into the Falun Gong business when searching for a cure to her hepatitis. Ah, now the convert from evil gets to show her dedication to “Truthfulness, Compassion, and Benevolence”, the supposed principles of Falun Gong that are repeated like mantra throughout the film.
Right? Wrong. Zeng repeatedly betrays her fellow prisoners, her family, and her supposed principles; always with some cringeworthy self-justification at the fore. When sentenced to a year of detention for her second Falun Gong-related offense, she immediately asks for a pen and paper to write an appeal. But when sticking to “truthfulness” doesn’t work out for her, Zeng not only writes a statement that she will no longer participate in Falun Gong, but also pens several attack pieces against the group. (Comrade’s snivelling excuse that she might have never left the prison otherwise would be less awkward if the film didn’t celebrate her co-star, Charles Lee, for persevering in his belief until serving out his sentence.) After assuming the role of prison guard by harassing a 19-year old girl so that she could not sleep, Zeng is released on time.
You might forgive Zeng’s husband and young daughter for wishing that she’d never joined the gang that landed her in prison, but comrade never does. In a dark lesson about the paranoid and cultic thinking that Falun Gong cultivates, Zeng casts her family’s prison visits as a propaganda tool by the regime; a devious ploy to pull at her heartstrings in order to make her renounce her values. As a free woman, she rages against her daughter, who innocently suggests after the ordeal that she reconsider her Falun Gong membership. Zeng swiftly abandons her family to live with a couple of English teachers that sponsor her visa to Australia. In Australia, her gift for storytelling is rewarded in the form of political asylum, and she wastes no time in publishing a “best-selling book” of torture porn marketed as memoir. Our hero finally ends up in Washington, DC to give riveting speeches to brainwashed masses and rub shoulders with prominent anti-China politicians.
Charles Lee’s story
Of an entire cast characterized by unwarranted smugness, the most syrupy and least genuine character is Charles Lee. You can’t even admire him for his steadfast adherence to shitty principles: while he supported the Tiananmen protests of 1989, he did not participate in them because he was too afraid of the government! Instead, Lee travels to the United States for his graduate studies, becoming “a businessman” – in what business, the film doesn’t say, but the title sure makes him sound more American! In another display of Falun Gong family values, Charles abandons his American fiancee (pictured frowning) to commit some cybercrime in Beijing. Proudly telling of how his coreligionists “tapped into” (hacked) Beijing television stations, he resolves to hijack some cables to pump more Falun Gong propaganda into the motherland.
In China, Charles is arrested for mucking around with sensitive communications equipment, but his bumbling incompetence is matched by that of the young police officers who detain him. When his captors step aside for a card game, Charles dashes out onto the street, hails a cab, and flies back to America. But because life in America is just not exciting enough, Lee returns to China in a couple of years with the intent to exploit “a new generation of devices”, surprising no one when he gets arrested at the airport. With the full entitlement of a “proud American citizen”, Lee starts a hunger strike in order “to let the outside world know what’s happening in China”—as if this were something other the normal prosecution of foreign cyberfraudsters. A delegation from the American embassy attends Lee’s court hearing, and he is sentenced to three years in prison.
There are some moments of unintentional humor in the film. After a bug-eyed Smith exclaims to the camera that, “in a Beijing internet cafe, when you search for Falun Gong, you get pages of hate-filled propaganda from the government”, the shot cuts to the interior of a Chinese internet cafe. But the young men pictured are not searching for political news; instead, they are absorbed in an online fantasy game. Another silly moment occurs after Jennifer Zeng describes her exhaustion from holding stress positions in prison. Ominous music turns to chirping birds, but Zeng cannot hide a sweaty, painful grimace as she contorts her body in a demonstration… of Falun Gong practice! Mostly, however, the tone of the film is grim, accusatory, and not at all uplifting.
Q’orianka Kilcher, best known for her role as Pocahontas in The New World, contributes a trite and repetitive theme song about “freedom” to the unmemorable soundtrack. The cinematography, at least for the original footage, is crisp. But the archival footage that Perlman deploys to show China’s brutality – Tank Man, running Tibetan monks, yelling Red Guards – comes out pixellated on the big screen. I also suspect that some “re-enactments” of torture scenes and the like were deliberately reduced in quality to give the impression of closed-circuit television footage. As the New York Times review points out, specific footage is not marked with its origin, so viewers are left to wonder about the authenticity of the images shown.
The background story
The Los Angeles Times puts the takeaway this way: “[the movie] will open some viewers’ eyes to the horrifying reality behind many a ‘Made in China’ label.” But what does this “horrifying reality” propose? That laogai labor camps are “an integral part of China’s economy” that played “a large part in the rise of China to the world’s #2 economy” behind the United States. Even if we jump down the rabbit hole and accept every figure presented in the film as fact, this claim still doesn’t make sense. China has “1.3 billion people”, but the laogai contains “2-4 million people”, with “100,000” of them professing Falun Gong. That’s the reluctant, unskilled labor of 3% of 0.2% of China’s population. According to Zeng, the laogai business mostly produces hand-knit sweaters, and Lee adds that he was forced to make Homer Simpson slippers. This absurd idea—that modern China’s economy is built on prison-made pullovers and plush toys—insults every single person who contributed to China’s development, the entire field of economics, as well as the intelligence of every viewer.
As would be expected for an apocalyptic cult, Falun Gong approaches everything with an exaggerated sense of its own importance. The whole premise of the film is to appropriate the accumulated discontent of “1 in 5 people in the world”, as expressed in 150,000 mass incidents in 2012, in service of a marginal movement that most Chinese people despise. Sometimes this arrogance borders on the comical, such as when it suggests that Falun Gong-exported software played an instrumental role in the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. At other times it’s deadly serious, such as white text appears on a black screen to assert that “Thousands of Falun Gong practitioners have been killed for their organs.” But why is FLG the only group making these extreme, incredible claims? Kilgour’s talking head pops up on camera: “They don’t smoke, they don’t drink, and they live healthy lifestyles.” In other words, Falun Gong is uniquely targeted because its members’ organs are the best and healthiest organs. You just couldn’t make this stuff up!
But actually you could, and Falun Gong regularly does. Just last week, Qingdao police arrested 16 practitioners for staging a “torture” scene, complete with tomato-paste blood, ropes, and planks. When specific, individual allegations come out, like they did about the “organ harvesting”, they are usually debunked if not ignored. Independent investigations by a Chinese dissident, a Canadian journalist, and the US government have shut down this biological horror fiction in 2006. The enduring power of these allegations, then, depends on journalists not doing their research. As that previously mentioned Canadian, Glen McGregor of the Ottawa Citizen, notes: “As a reporter, there is no risk in accepting the Kilgour-Matas conclusions at face value. Most of my colleagues in the Canadian media had… China couldn’t sue for libel, after all.” Falun Gong, by contrast, not only sues its press critics but also harasses, defames, and hacks them. The most basic Falun Gong libel against its critics is that they are all supporters of Communist Party rule.
So I hasten to say that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with wanting the “freedom to think, freedom to speak, freedom to write, freedom to gather, and freedom to believe”, as Zeng demands in a dramatically filmed speech. Most of these rights are already guaranteed within China’s constitution, even if there is controversy about their implementation. But let’s not pretend that Falun Gong is a movement for civil rights. Zeng and other Communist cadres, after all, upheld an authoritarian system of government for years while being good Falun Gong members. In fact, most of the anti-FLG “thought education” that Zeng complained about was directed at Communist Party members, rather than at ordinary citizens. Persecution only became a problem for her and other Falun Gong Communists when their faction began to be persecuted.
Although the director attempts to spin the story as one of “the courage to believe”, the two practitioners exceed the moral bounds of ordinary courage, displaying instead a frightening lack of attachment to anything besides Falun Gong. Charles Lee proudly reflects on how, during both of his visits to China, he was “not afraid of dying”. Even more creepily, Lee states how “I used my body as a way to awaken people”, through hunger strikes that progressed to bloody stools. In fact, Lee’s actions are a mere pale shadow of Falun Gong’s cult of death, which inspired five devotees in 2001 to burn themselves alive on Tian’anmen Square. The converted Jennifer Zeng, for her part, said that her “mind was so occupied with struggle” that she could not even think of her family. This sort of thinking is not “Free” and its spread would not create a “Free China”; it is inhumanly ideological and doctrinaire and a good reason to be wary of the Falun Gong.