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We must hold Beijing to account for its treatment of Falun Gong practitioners

Anastasia Lin is an actress, human rights advocate, and the current Miss World Canada

On June 19, I travelled to Geneva to testify before the United Nations Human Rights Council. I spoke on behalf of a Canadian woman named Sun Qian, who's been imprisoned in China since February. The sole reason for her arrest was her spiritual belief. Sun Qian is a Falun Gong practitioner, and she has faced solitary confinement and torture in custody.

Toward the end of my speech, I switched from English to Mandarin. Suddenly, the Chinese delegate started banging on the table to stop my speech. Later on, Chinese delegate Yang Junzhi took the floor to respond.

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China, said Mr. Yang, "expresses strong indignation and resolute opposition to the unfounded claims of some NGOs," in a clear reference to me. He asserted that Falun Gong is not a religion, but an "evil cult," which propagates "evil theories" and causes "grave physical and psychological harms" to its practitioners. But his most extraordinary claim was that the government of China has "arranged help for those tricked into practising Falun Gong."

Read more: Canadian arrested for her religion pepper sprayed, shackled in Chinese detention

What is the truth about Falun Gong?

Falun Gong is a practice of five meditative exercises and a set of moral teachings. At its core, the basic tenets of Falun Gong are shared with many faiths. It is a belief that the universe has not just a material existence, but a spiritual one. That there is such a thing as a moral order – rooted in principles of truth, compassion, and tolerance – and that human life is enriched by striving to live in harmony with these ideals.

The popularity of these beliefs – official sources estimated there were 70 million practitioners in China by 1999 – is what caused the Communist Party to see Falun Gong as an ideological challenge, ultimately leading to a massive and ongoing campaign to eliminate it. According to the NGO Freedom House, since 1999, hundreds of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners across China have been subjected to arbitrary imprisonment and torture, solely for the peaceful expression of their beliefs. Thousands have died as a result of abuse in custody, and there is credible evidence that large numbers of Falun Gong detainees have been killed so their organs could be sold for profit.

The Chinese government uses propaganda and misinformation to undercut sympathy for Falun Gong. One method is calling Falun Gong an "evil cult"– a label that evokes visceral negative responses. The Chinese government claims, with no credible evidence, that practising Falun Gong leads to madness, murder, and suicide. Its media outlets report that practitioners are incapable of rational thought, thereby providing justification for the arbitrary imprisonment and forcible ideological reprogramming of innocent, law-abiding people. Sometimes they refer to Falun Gong practitioners as literal vermin – as "rats" that need to be smashed.

This should cause deep concern in the West. We know where this kind of dehumanizing rhetoric can lead, because we've seen it before in Nazi Germany, in Rwanda, in Bosnia. But instead of condemning it, we perpetuate it. We allow the Chinese government to set the terms of the debate.

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In the West, Falun Gong is obviously not persecuted. But it suffers another kind of indignity: being marginalized, ignored, or softly belittled. News organizations refer to Falun Gong "members," despite the fact that the practice has no system of membership. In far too many instances, Falun Gong is described merely as a group that was banned as a cult in China, a claim that is historically inaccurate and extremely prejudicial. Critical analysis of the Chinese government's propagandist rhetoric is almost entirely absent from the journalistic discourse.

This isn't entirely surprising; the Chinese government is powerful. Through its network of state-run media and the enormous commercial and political power it wields, it has a tremendous ability to influence how the Western world understands China. In the past, the party-state has successfully persuaded foreign publications to kill sympathetic stories on Falun Gong or to white-wash documentaries on its persecution.

This persecution is a human-rights catastrophe, yet it is often overlooked because the victims – Falun Gong practitioners like myself – are somehow seen as unworthy of sympathy.

Collectively, we have been more responsive to the slander of a dictatorship than the victims' cries. But we still have a chance to stop further killing in China. Sun Qian is still imprisoned in China. It's time to bring her home.

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