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The Plight of the Falun Gong

The Plight of the Falun Gong


The plight of the Falun Gong in China is no longer a front-page story in the West, but allegations that Chinese psychiatrists were involved in their persecution continues to trouble the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) (Stone, 2002b). The new China with its political and economic power on the world stage has been able to block investigations by the United Nation's Commission on Human Rights and to brush aside the many vociferous critics of its human rights record. That powerful China was on display for the millions of people who watched the splendid pageantry at the 2004 summer Olympics closing ceremonies in Athens, Greece, as a proud Chinese nation invited the citizens of the world to Beijing for the next summer Olympics in 2008. A triumphal Chinese state with a new younger regime in place and a growing sense of national pride may be more willing to acknowledge past mistakes, but it is unlikely to allow its human rights critics to rake up the many unresolved allegations: Tibetan Buddhism, suppression of the pro-democracy movement and a litany of other serious human rights complaints including the persecution of the Falun Gong (Amnesty International Testimony, 2002).

The WPA, responding to complaints and a resolution of its General Assembly members, had joined the active ranks of China's human rights critics and had been attempting to arrange for an independent investigation of the allegations of systematic political misuse of psychiatry in China. In January, after a meeting in Beijing with representatives of the Chinese Society of Psychiatrists (CSP) and a vice minister of health, the WPA leadership reported that the Chinese had acceded to the Yokohama Resolution and would permit an independent investigation (WPA, 2004). This, if true, was an astonishing achievement; such an agreement was without precedent in China's international dealings.

The WPA executive committee, meeting in Cairo, Egypt, in February 2004, appointed a task force of experts to carry out that investigation. (This writer was included on the task force.) The task force met in London in March 2004 and after reviewing the allegations that had been submitted to the WPA's Review Committee prepared a detailed agenda for its visit that was forwarded to the CSP. The investigation would have included face-to-face interviews with Falun Gong practitioners, their families, the psychiatrists who treated them and an examination of the relevant medical records at various psychiatric facilities. It should be emphasized that the WPA is not an organization with resources, procedures and technical infrastructure to carry out fact-finding investigations nor does it have the authority to subpoena witnesses, collect independent evidence or other similar activities. Nonetheless the task force made a good faith effort to prepare for the independent fact-finding investigation called for in the Yokohama Resolution. It was clear that the success of the task force would depend on the cooperation of not only the CSP but also the Chinese authorities. I must confess that I had many unresolved questions about the enterprise and was particularly concerned that the doctors, patients and families who cooperated with the investigation might suffer reprisals and that the WPA could not assure their protection.

The CSP, late in March 2004 and only days before the task force was scheduled to arrive in Beijing, rejected the proposed agenda. Their response--unlike previous communications with the WPA--took the standard hard-line position that the Chinese state had adopted in responding to all of the previous international criticisms of its persecution of the Falun Gong, namely that this was a domestic criminal matter, not an issue for outsiders. It seemed clear to me that Chinese government officials had intervened and quashed the investigation. The WPA was back to square one, in much the same position that other human rights critics of China had found themselves. The idea of an independent fact-finding investigation as planned by the task force now was out of the question.

Despite their disappointment the WPA leadership did not respond with confrontation or by threatening the CSP with expulsion as some critics might have wished. World Psychiatric Association's President Ahmed Okasha, M.D., remained calm in the eye of the storm. He maintained a cordial relationship with the CSP and was willing to consider alternative approaches. I made certain proposals to him in the hope we could get beyond the impasse. An unprecedented meeting was scheduled between the WPA and the CSP that took place in New York on May 4 (WPA, 2004). With the encouragement of Okasha, I had prepared three resolutions for that meeting in the hope that if there could be no independent investigation, a new approach based on negotiation and conflict resolution might break the stalemate in which China simply denied all allegations. If the CSP could acknowledge that there were, in fact, real clinical problems in the diagnosis and treatment of members of the Falun Gong, then I thought there might be a basis for continuing international collaboration and perhaps constructive change.

The key psychological issue from my perspective was to find a way to allow the CSP to acknowledge that there were serious problems without losing face and without risking reprisals from their own government. This, if it could be done, would provide a basis for continuing collaboration between the WPA and the CSP. Since there could be no independent fact-finding investigation as originally planned, this seemed a small step forward. The CSP--to the surprise of many--agreed in principle to the proposals. Confusing and misleading reports of the WPA and CSP agreement, however, have produced a swirl of controversy and condemnation (Hausman, 2004).

The points of greatest controversy involve the WPA's conciliatory reaction to China's decision not to permit the independent fact-finding investigation, the idea that some secret deal was made, and that language in the reported agreement between the WPA and CSP indicated that the WPA had somehow decided that there was no systematic abuse of psychiatry in China. I shall discuss these matters further but here it should be said that the language about no systematic abuse was not in my proposals. None of the evidence reviewed by the task force would justify such a finding. Okasha, in an editorial "On the China Issue" in October 2004, recently confirmed that understanding. It should be emphasized that some members of the WPA leadership believe that in some sense they are still pursuing the specific objectives of the Yokohama Resolution. My own personal opinion is that the Chinese government has made those objectives impossible and that future collaborations between the WPA and the CSP will require negotiation, not unilateral demands. In what follows, I shall describe the Falun Gong spiritual movement, review the allegations of abuse, and present my own personal views of China's rejection of the task force investigation and the results of the joint meeting with the CSP held in New York.


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