Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Falun Gong practitioners seek religious freedom

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The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is being asked to give a voice to people who've been silenced, persecuted and used for parts in China.

University of Manitoba social work professor Maria Cheung has spoken out against China's human rights violations since 2008 when Beijing hosted the Olympics.

When Bodies: The Exhibition came to Winnipeg last year with cadavers from China that had no paperwork to prove the bodies were donated, alarm bells went off for Cheung, who organized a protest. Practitioners of Falun Gong in China have been imprisoned and reportedly had organs harvested against their will. The concern was that the Bodies exhibit may have included Falun Gong members' cadavers.

Falun Gong is a spiritual practice that's a mix of meditation, movement and philosophy. It has millions of followers in China and the central government has outlawed and vilified it.

Cheung learned first-hand about the persecution of Falun Gong when she worked for the Canadian International Development Agency in rural China for six years.

Working with women in rural China from 2004 to 2010 through a CIDA-funded grassroots project, she learned about the 610 office. It's the government machinery that bypasses the judiciary and whose job it is to get rid of perceived threats to authority, such as the Falun Gong movement, said Cheung.

"I saw local authorities, using CIDA-funded poster board, put up posters to defame Falun Gong," said Cheung, a practitioner. "I saw signs pointing... to forced labour camps."

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) organizations she worked with on the CIDA project said they were briefed by the local 610 office and acknowledged the persecution in China is real.

When Cheung insisted all rural women -- including Falun Gong practitioners -- be included in the social work project, in keeping with CIDA's policy of inclusion, her partners wanted her to leave, she said. There was no point in kicking up a stink, she said.

"It's been very clear to me that there's basically no way, especially for a non-Chinese resident, of asking for justice within China because of the tight systemic control and the fear induced by CCP."

Back in Canada, after the CIDA project, Hong Kong-born Cheung started researching Falun Gong and the persecution of its practitioners.

"The propaganda used by the CCP parallels the use of propaganda against the Jews in order to justify the inhumane acts to extinguish them," she said.

She's interviewing survivors in Canada who left China.

"I know victims who are living in Manitoba. One was an old lady who was detained in her home for a period of time in China just because she practises 'truthfulness, compassion and forbearance.' " Those are the virtues of Falun Gong, said Cheung, who's since taken up the practice.

She and a colleague in Asian studies at the U of M plan to conduct research in Vancouver and Toronto. There are more Chinese people and Falun Gong practitioners there who were persecuted in China and discriminated against in Canada. In cities including Winnipeg, online articles have misrepresented Falun Gong as a cult that incites violence, she said.

When it opens in 2014, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights could expose the human rights violations against Falun Gong and other oppressed groups around the globe and come up with measures to prevent state-sanctioned abuse, Cheung said.

"Since the museum for human rights is a museum for the future, to prevent the atrocities that have happened and (are) happening, the Falun Gong experiences are valuable to human rights education."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 28, 2012 j13

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