Journalist’s film explores struggle of Falun Gong

Dan Murtaugh

Thirty people stand in a park and stretch their arms above their heads, practicing Falun Gong exercises. They reach as far backward as they can and then slowly move their hands forward to touch the ground.

The scene then shifts to violence in journalist Danny Schechter’s documentary. Chinese police officers punch, kick, handcuff and arrest other Falun Gong members in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

Schechter, who showed “Falun Gong’s Challenge to China” in Norris University Center’s Michigan Room on Monday afternoon, said he wrote and directed the documentary because he thought the media needed to cover the story from a different angle.

“I’ve reported on human rights abuses throughout my career, and this issue was one that hadn’t been addressed in an investigative manner,” Schechter told 15 people. “I’m just trying to cover it in a way it hasn’t been covered before.”

Schechter’s documentary traced Falun Gong from its roots as a form of exercise through meditation to its current status as an illegal cult in China.

Gang Lu, McCormick ’00, said he does Falun Gong exercises with a small group of Northwestern students every morning at 9:30 on the Lakefill. He said the extensive press coverage of the Chinese government’s treatment of Falun Gong has helped the group gain popularity throughout the world.

“Once China’s government started the crackdown, they helped us spread Falun Gong around the world,” Lu said.

Literature published by Falun Gong practitioners says Falun Gong is an exercise system that incorporates parts of ancient Chinese exercises, such as Qigong, and philosophies, such as Buddhism and Taoism, to enhance energy circulation in the body.

Schechter said the spiritual aspect of the exercise is what most scares the Chinese government.

“This is not a strictly physical activity; it incorporates a belief system,” Schechter said. “That makes it more disturbing to a government that wants to monopolize its nation’s ideas.”

After showing his documentary, Schechter, who won two National News Emmys for his work at ABC’s “20/20,” answered questions about the alleged abuses by the Chinese government.

Some people said the view Schechter presented was biased against the government.

Weinberg sophomore I-Lynn Teh said although she thinks human rights abuses are awful, she understands why China acted the way it did.

“The Chinese government’s chief goal is stability, and nothing else matters,” Teh said. “There are always two sides to a coin.”

According to Schechter’s documentary, the relationship between Falun Gong and the Chinese government has not always been combative. In 1992 the government even commended the group’s founder, Li Hongzhi, for reducing the country’s health care costs.

But the government’s opinion of Falun Gong began to change in April 1999, according to Schechter, when 15,000 Falun Gong members gathered in Beijing in a peaceful vigil to encourage the government to recognize them as a group.

The group’s organization and sheer numbers caused the Chinese government to worry, according to the documentary. Three months after the vigil, the government issued a warrant for Hongzhi’s arrest. Hongzhi fled the country and currently lives in New York.

Schechter said the government has perpetuated major human rights abuses against Falun Gong followers ever since. His documentary showed interviews with Falun Gong members who said they were beaten, tied up and tortured by state police officers.

After showing the documentary, Schechter sold and autographed copies of his book, “Falun Gong’s Challenge to China.”