The story of former Chinese journalist Yifei Wang’s agonising campaign to reveal the truth behind the brutal murder of her sister nearly 20 years ago, while being held in a Chinese prison on charges of protesting the suppression of banned meditation movement Falun Gong does not make for comfortable viewing. But Kay Rubacek’s carefully researched film, which includes interviews with former Chinese communist regime insiders – and incredible secretly shot footage inside the office of the director of the prison where the sister, Kefei Wang, died – is essential viewing for anyone who cares about international human rights.
Finding Courage is an apt title for a film that operates at a multitude of levels. There is the courage Yifei, who is living in exile in San Francisco, needs to tell her family’s story even as her husband Gordon, a reporter for Chinese state media untainted by Falun Gong membership, seeks to secretly gather evidence of the manner of Kefei’s death.
There is the courage of Yifei’s older brother Leo, who survived years of torture in prison and when he too finally finds refuge in America, meticulously reconstructs the torture chair used by brutal guards during his incarceration.
And there is the courage of the rest of the family and of the Chinese dissidents around the world who reveal their roles, and analysis, of a police state.
Swift and brutal
Most well-informed people will be aware of the suppression of Falun Gong in China, but many are likely to know little of its roots, or how it was initially encouraged by the Chinese state, before then Communist Party leader Jiang Zemin ordered its brutal suppression in 1999.
In its early years, the blend of ancient Buddhist practices, movements, and meditation centred on a belief in «truth, compassion, tolerance» attracted millions of followers, including party members and military servicemen and women. But its very popularity would prove its downfall as a paranoid party leadership saw it as a threat to the one-party orthodoxy. There was no room for freedom of conscience or inner space in a state predicated on total and totalitarian control.
essential viewing for anyone who cares about international human rights.
The reaction was swift and brutal; millions of families were torn apart, imprisoned, beaten and tortured. Publications, banners, books were piled high on the streets and burned by state functionaries. It was, the film’s narrator states, just another persecution campaign in the more than 50 enacted by the Communist regime since it seized power in 1949, of which the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 are only the best known.
The carrot and stick
The director frames the family’s story through early comments by a former labour camp director, an ex-judge, secret police agent, media worker, and military officer. They are all people who had loyally served the regime and, in some cases, played an instrumental role in cracking down on Falun Gong. As dissidents now safely living in asylum in the US, France, Australia, and other countries, they are at liberty to define what keeps people in the system. Principally it is money: with no national faith apart from total obedience to the party, the only thing the regime allows people to value is money. Materialism has become the new Chinese god and economic enticements and pressures are used as the carrot and stick by Beijing.
Yifei’s sister died after being arrested in a protest against the suppression of Falun Gong on Tiananmen Square in 2001. It took the Chinese state just six weeks to reduce a healthy woman of 34 to a tortured wreck, where beatings, the use of electronic batons, and forced feeding – along with being strapped X-fashion to an iron bedstead known as the Death Bed – took her life. Her sister, arrested at the same demonstration, managed to see the body before it was taken to a morgue (where it lies to this day, unburied because authorities fear local reaction if they permit a funeral), noted Kifei’s «swollen mush of a face» and that the body was naked from the waist down (earlier in the film, she relates how women members of Falun Gong were stripped naked before being thrown into a male section of a prison, where their fate needs no further explanation).
Yet to be held accountable
The tension in the film increases as Yifei’s husband, still in China, ruffles feathers with his campaign to see Kefei’s body. It is clear from the secretly shot footage that even the lowliest morgue attendants know what happened to the young woman.
Rubacek keeps the footage secretly recorded in a meeting with the director of the women’s prison where Kefei died, until the final sections of the film. Gordon goes to the prison with other family members. As a prominent, well-connected journalist, he is able to talk their way in and they are granted a meeting with the prison director. It is hard to cast the woman as a monster, but her casual disregard for the truth and blatant attempt to bribe the family – she suggests that they can see Kefei’s body if they make a statement stating that the death was not due to torture – seals her blame as a paid-up member of a murderous regime.
As dissidents now safely living in asylum in the US, France, Australia, and other countries, they are at liberty to define what keeps people in the system.
The film, yet to be released or widely screened at a festival due to pandemic-related cancellations, will likely attract the usual denials and denunciations from Beijing, but in a country that has also attracted wide attention for its brutal crackdown on Muslims, the closing statements says it all: «The murderers of Kefei Wang are yet to be brought to justice. The Chinese Communist regime is yet to be held to account for millions of deaths. Falun Gong practitioners are still being detained, tortured, and killed.»
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