(CNSNews.com) - The Communist suppression of the Falun Gong has caused renewed concern among civil rights leaders worldwide. They see the crackdown on the politically innocuous spiritual movement as an overreaction by a besieged regime, and a reflection of Beijing's contempt for international opinion of its poor civil rights record.
The imposing of prison terms of up to 18 years for promoting spiritual exercises that are no more subversive than Yoga also has thrown cold water on hopes that the recent admission of China to the World Trade Organization (WTO) would have a liberalizing affect on the Communist leadership.
"This tells us the Communist regime in China is unstable," said Harry Wu, a renowned Chinese dissident who spent 19 years in a Chinese labor camp in the 1960s and 1970s for expressing his political views, in an interview with CNSNews.com.
"Because it is so widespread, the Falun Gong obviously presents a serious threat to the Communists, otherwise they would not impose such severe sentences," said Wu, a research fellow at Stanford University and executive director of the Laogai Research Foundation in Milpitac, CA.
One-day trials of Falun Gong leaders, who also are members of the ruling Communist Party, resulted in an 18-year sentence for Li Chang, a former official at the Ministry of Public Security, and a 16-year term for Wang Zhiwen, a former Railways Ministry official. Two other defendants were sentenced to 12 and seven years.
China watchers and human rights organizations say the Falun Gong, which claims 100 million members worldwide, with most followers in China, is being targeted because the number of its practitioners exceeds the 60-million membership of the entire Communist Party.
One of the main charges against the Falun Gong leaders involved "endangering state security" by organizing 10,000 followers to surround the party's leadership compound in Beijing, and over-running Tiananmen in April. The demonstration was the largest since the 1989 crackdown on dissent, and President Jiang Zemin ordered the security forces to prepare a full-scale assault on Falun Gong.
The four Falun Gong leaders were arrested days before the party abruptly banned the group on July 22nd, and the legislature later rushed through a law on "evil religions" to retroactively criminalize many Falun Gong activities.
Another major charge against the Falun Gong defendants was that the group counseled followers to improve their health through Buddhist meditation rather than through standard medical care, a charge many civil rights observers found ridiculous.
"If there was any hope for improvement in human rights, surely it would be with some organization like this, but they won't even allow it to exist. They seem determined to put all of its followers in jail," William Saunders, human rights counsel with the Family Research Council, told CNSNews.com.
"I think, from a raw power perspective, the leaders of the Communist Party are afraid that the people are prepared to believe in anything but Communism. But it also shows paradoxically that the Communists' control on power is not slipping away, and if things are going to change, these old men will go kicking and screaming and taking people with them. They're not about to give up any power," Saunders said.
Harry Wu said that even though the Falun Gong practitioners tend to be apolitical, the Communist Party has every reason to feel threatened by the movement, especially in an atmosphere of cultural stagnation and at a time when the country's economy is undergoing major challenges because of WTO membership.
"More than 100 million of China's vast work force is comprised of labor forces from the countryside looking for jobs in the urban markets. How to keep these people stable is a major challenge for the Communists. If only 3 percent of this population want to take a risk, then you have an army of 3 million, and this has been the army of change in China over and over in the last couple of thousand years," Wu said.
"Before, the Chinese people used to look to the Red Book of Mao Zeedong for answers to problems. Today, they look at the Yellow Book of the Falun Gong," Wu said.
Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House, America's oldest human rights watchdog organization, told CNSNews.com that the persecution of the Falun Gong is a result of the United States dropping its emphasis on human rights in favor of free trade in its relations with China.
"The Clinton administration has completely reneged on any kind of American commitment to human rights, and this is the fruit of its policy," she said.
"Because of their age, the Communist leadership is on its way out, but the system is basically intact, and that's what's frightening. The United States could play an important role in pressuring China from without, but I don't see that happening now. I see an indefinite continuation of a very oppressive dictatorship," Shea said.
"Falun Gong has become the second Tibet for the Communists. If the Chinese didn't invade and occupy Tibet, the political aspirations of the Tibetans would be largely unknown in the world. But, because of the invasion, Tibetan resistance has solidified. It's the same with the Falun Gong. This movement will be a real headache to the Communist leadership," Wu said.