Seattle Weekly uses Falun Gong as counterweight to Chinese President Xi

While Pope Francis was leading a star-studded tour of three East Coast cities last week, there was another international visitor heading for Washington, D.C. -- Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Clearly, Francis won out in the media coverage sweepstakes. Bloomberg may have had the best headline about the junction of the two: (“China’s Xi Can’t Compete with ‘Rock Star’ Pope in U.S. Trip”).

However, if you happen to live in the Seattle area, Xi’s visit was a bit hard to miss, because that’s where he spent two days before heading off to DC.

While Xi was ferried from Everett to Tacoma with stops at Redmond’s Microsoft campus and business meetings in downtown Seattle, whole interstates were closed for his 130-car motorcades for his 1,000-person entourage. Last Tuesday, his arrival caused a 17-mile-long backup on I-5 south going into Seattle and his Thursday departure caused similar headaches. The area around Xi’s hotel (the Westin) in downtown Seattle was a no-go zone for ordinary folks, but protestors got as close as they could.

And the religion angle? One was a Falun Gong practitioner who’d been tortured for years in Chinese gulags. A Seattle Weekly reporter happened to find her .

Hundreds lined the streets around Westlake yesterday for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Seattle. Supporters waved American and Chinese flags, while critics carried banners decrying the Chinese government’s 16 year crackdown on Falun Gong, a sect of Buddhism.
Multiple investigations have alleged that the Chinese government harvests organs from political dissidents, including members of Falun Gong, killing them in the process. The Chinese government has acknowledged that it has been harvesting the organs of executed prisoners, but promised last year to end the practice.
Echo Liu is a member of Falun Gong who fled to the US in 2011. Now a resident of Mill Creek, WA, she says that because of her participation in the sect, she was arrested three different times, leading to a two-week stay in a brainwashing facility and, later, a two-year stint in a forced labor camp.

What follows is a fascinating tale of this woman’s experience of the hell Falun Gong believers face in China. Here's one unforgettable detail:

Liu says that by listening to role call at the camp, she learned that some of her fellow inmates were disappearing. “Every morning and evening they would call names, the police officers,” she says. “At the detention center, [the prisoners] would never have a chance to look at each other face-to-face, but we heard their names. There are quite a few times that I heard familiar names that were missing. The next morning, I just couldn’t find the name be called again.”

A personal note: I wrote about this in 2009, as I’d heard rumors of the organ harvesting (a euphemism for killing people for their organs) done on Falun Gong prisoners, but I’d never met with people who knew about it first-hand. One of my stories on the Falun Gong made page one and I was dismayed to see the general yawn it received.

The Falun Gong folks don’t get a lot of attention in the media, I’ve found, because religious persecution is a hard sell in most outlets. The Washington Times gave me more space to report on it than any other secular publication I knew of, but it was depressing to see how much of the world didn't care.

There are a few things the Weekly article should have included, i.e. the obligatory call to the Chinese embassy in Washington (or the nearest Chinese consulate) to at least attempt to get a comment. Also, whoever edits these stories for the Weekly needs to know the correct Associated Press style for states (Washington is not “WA,” it’s “Wash.”), plus there were a few other style errors as well.

Most of all, labeling Falun Gong as a “sect of Buddhism” is simplistic. It also draws from Taoism, Confucianism and Chinese folklore.

The Seattle Times did a better job of explaining this movement in a brief piece outlining who are the protesters lining the streets for Xi.  But the Weekly went out and found a real person, showing some initiative and a counter-narrative to Xi’s triumphant Seattle stay.

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