Film Review: Free China: The Courage to Believe

Earnest, interesting, but not wholly satisfying treatment of China’s Falun Gong movement.

We are all familiar with the storied Great Wall of China, but in that country there exists another great barrier, known as the Great Firewall—i.e., their government’s militant censorship of the Internet. This practice is fueled by a desire for political suppression, and Michael Perlman’s documentary focuses on one of its major targets, the Falun Gong spiritual movement.

Founded in the 1990s in reaction to the Communist Party’s rigid attitudes, Falun Gong consists of martial arts coupled with three basic tenets of truth, compassion and tolerance. The movement became so popular that its followers quickly numbered some 70 million. Initially, the government tolerated it, before becoming threatened and demonizing Falun Gong as Public Enemy No. 1, responsible for ruining Chinese society. Practice and promotion were outlawed, and thousands were arrested and made to go through “thought education” of intense Marxism and atheism. New Yorkers might recall seeing ubiquitous pro-Falun Gong demonstrators on the street at the time. If the allegations here are true, I, for one, am ashamed that I never bothered to investigate their cause further.

The same cannot be said of this film’s two main protagonists, Jennifer Zeng, a former Chinese Communist Party member, and Dr. Charles Lee, a Chinese- American businessman. The former was jailed for her Falun Gong beliefs, while the latter, who found it impossible to stay placidly in the U.S. while aware of the persecution going on, went twice to China to investigate the movement’s amazing and unprecedented infiltration of government-controlled TV broadcasts. He was also caught and summarily imprisoned. Like Zeng, he was forced into factory slavery, making stuffed toys and Homer Simpson slippers for American companies like Nestle, despite international laws prohibiting this type of labor. Worse, many of those persecuted were used for organ harvesting at transplant centers, and the footage shown of prison camps here is as horrific as anything out of Auschwitz.

Although the controversial Falun Gong movement has itself been questioned by some, there is no denying the heartrending quality of the accounts of Zeng and, particularly, the valiant Lee, who recalls enjoying “The Simpsons” on TV until he was put to work (as actual footage from the cartoon satirically depicting Chinese factory workers is shown). The film also cites conglomerates such as Google and Cisco Systems as helping to abet China’s Internet suppression.

Execution-wise, Free China is not the smoothest of documentary entries. It’s accompanied by Perlman’s rather flat-footed narration and—although various concerned politicians and authorities weigh in—would have benefited from a somewhat broader scope in depicting this dilemma. In perhaps an effort to make the situation ultra-clear to the viewer, the approach here seems to have been somewhat oversimplified. Whatever your reservations, the sorrowful yet unbowed words of its two embattled protagonists—survivors in the truest sense who, happily, lead easier lives now out of prison–definitely stay with you.