Just over 20 years ago, the Chinese Communist Party began persecuting those in China who followed the spiritual practice of Falun Gong.
Today, Uyghur Muslims face imprisonment and torture at the hands of the Chinese government. Tomorrow, more innocent lives will fall victim to suffering at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party if Beijing’s totalitarian leaders do not face consequences for those human rights abuses.
In the new documentary film “Unsilenced,” director Leon Lee tells the true story of those who were persecuted and killed by China’s government because they practiced Falun Gong.
The film highlights the stories of those who “risk their lives and use their wisdom to find ways to counter the propaganda and fight for their freedom” in China, Lee says.
But the threats of the Chinese Communist Party extend far beyond its borders, the film director says.
It’s past time for America to recognize that the Chinese Communist Party “is the biggest threat the West faces,” Lee says.
Lee joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss China’s human rights abuses and the danger China poses to the Western world if China’s crimes go unpunished.
We also cover these stories:
- Republican leaders call on podcaster Joe Rogan to stop apologizing.
- Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tells truckers to stop their protests.
- TikTok announces new LGBT guidelines.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.
Virginia Allen: It was 1999 and there were about 100 million people in China following the spiritual practice of Falun Gong. Falun Gong is a set of exercises and meditations, but a religion in the sense that it evals a path to salvation for those who practice faithfully.
The practice was founded in China in the early 1990s, but grew in popularity very quickly. Soon, the Chinese Communist Party saw it as a threat. So in 1999, China banned Falun Gong.
Those who refuse to recant Falun Gong risk everything doing so. Their story is told in the new film “Unsilenced.” The movie is based on true events and follows the story of a small group of students who put their lives on the line to stand up against the propaganda of the Chinese Communist Party.
“Unsilenced” was written, produced, and directed by Leon Lee, who joins us here on the show today. Mr. Lee, thank you so much for being here.
Leon Lee: Thank you for having me.
Allen: Mr. Lee, “Unsilenced” is far from your first film. You have written, directed, and produced multiple films that shine a light on human rights abuses. Your 2014 film “Human Harvest” exposed China’s illegal organ trade and that film won a Peabody Award. And making films about human rights abuses, that’s really a weighty calling. Why have you chosen to make movies that expose injustice in our world?
Lee: Well, I had a love for cinema since I was young. I’m not very proud to say this, but I actually often skipped classes to go to the movie theaters. Then I was the typical student in China who really loves the country, loves the people, and loves the Communist Party. We were told that to love the party is to love the people, that the party is more important even than your parents.
Then in 2006, I left China, immigrated to Canada, and a friend of mine showed me the footage of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. I was very angry after seeing the footage, not toward the Chinese regime, but toward my friend. I ask him, “Why do you betray our motherland like this? Why do you believe this propaganda fabricated by the CIA?” That’s what I was told.
And my friend was patient with me and he said, “Take your time, do your own research.” And boy, as soon as I started doing my own research, the whole world opened in front of me. I learned so many things I did not know before.
And it is right then I wanted to do something. And then I actually came across a newspaper article about illegal organ harvesting in China, which was the subject matter of “Human Harvest.” I reached out to David Matas and David Kilgour, who were the two Canadians that pioneered the investigation. And eight years later we had the film done.
And since then I just kept going, making more films, shining lights on human rights atrocities in China, hoping to make a change.
Allen: Wow, that’s a long time to spend, eight years, pouring your heart and soul into that first movie, “Human Harvest.” And all your films are so, so excellent.
But your latest, as I mentioned, “Unsilenced,” such a powerful film, I just watched it and it goes into detail really from showing this personal perspective, from the perspective of these students, of young people who were in the middle of this situation in China in 1999, when Falun Gong was banned by the Chinese Communist Party.
Why was this a story in particular that you decided needed to be told?
Lee: When I was working on my last documentary, “Letter From Masanjia,” someone told me, “You need to meet Mr. Wang.” He had spent eight and a half years in a Chinese prison. He was from [a prestigious university]. And I knew the reputation of the university, it was considered China’s MIT. And I was very curious to know his story.
So we met. We sat down and he spent about half a day telling me his story in detail. I was completely blown away—the creative ways he and his friends came up to counter the government propaganda, his courage and determination facing all these difficulties in his life. It was just very moving.
And right then I felt that what he had done, that his spirit represented what in traditional Chinese culture people would do.
In a way I realized, wait a minute, this persecution of Falun Gong goes beyond a human right atrocity. This is part of the CCP’s efforts to eradicate traditional Chinese culture that started from the culture revolution. And in a way that the Falun Gung practitioners in China, they’re not only fighting for freedom of belief and freedom of speech, they’re fighting to be reconnected to their root.
And then I thought, I need to make a film. So, dozens of drafts later, and months and months, we finally got it done.
Allen: I think it’s just incredible to hear how that worked out, that meeting that you had with Wang in 2018 and the film so beautifully follows his story, the story of him and his friends.
And you mentioned some of those creative ways that they came up with to really push back against the propaganda of the Communist Party in China. … I don’t want to give too much away for our listeners because everyone needs to see the film for themselves, but share a little bit just of Wang’s story and of those practices that they used to actually be a voice of truth and to try and push back against that propaganda.
Lee: Sure. Wang is a Ph.D. candidate … and he had a bright future. If he wanted to work for a multinational company, if he wanted to start his own business, if he wanted to go to politics, it’s basically smooth sailing for him.
But he picked up this practice of Falun Gong, which, by the way, was actually welcomed and supported by the Chinese regime up until 1999, when they realized that there were more people practicing Falun Gong than the membership of the Communist Party. So they launched the crackdown and almost overnight these innocent, carefree students suddenly became the enemy of the states.
There were probably over 2,000 newspapers in China, hundreds of TV stations, and the entire internet space, everything is controlled by the government. So it’s incredibly difficult for Wang and his friends to really get their voices heard.
After being expelled from the university, they teamed up, they started distributing leaflets, sometimes door to door, sometimes using balloons. And they tried to contact Western journalists who are stationed in China, who themselves are under close surveillance by the CCP.
So everybody really has to risk their lives and use their wisdom to find ways to counter the propaganda and fight for their freedom and for their life.
Allen: And why were people like Wang willing to risk everything, to put their lives on the line to defend the practice of Falun Gong?
Lee: That’s a great question. I asked everybody I interviewed, “What’s your source of strength? How come you were able to do this in such difficult circumstances?” And what I got are actually mostly simple answers. Things like people felt is the right thing to do.
In other occasions, one for example, what he told me was that the essential tenants of Falun Gong are truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. So for him being true, truthful to himself, being truthful to others, stand up for the truth and speak the truth is very important.
At the same time, he realized very soon that this persecution is not only targeting the practitioners of Falun Gong, basically almost everyone in China is forced to get involved because we see neighbors are forced to turn in practitioners they know, husbands are forced to divorce their wives, and students are kicked out of school. Workers are fired from their workplace.
If, for example, a general manager or a party secretary, if someone in his or her workplace or unit is discovered to be a practitioner, then the entire management will be implicated.
So he felt that this [would] really destroy people’s conscience and morality in China, justice. So he wanted to not only defend Falun Gong, but also defend justice. So nobody would be forced to turn against others. I think that’s a key motivation for him.
Allen: Yeah. And it’s really illustrated very well, I think, in the movie. And I think you do such a good job of articulating and explaining in the film how China uses propaganda to further the message that the Communist Party wants to tell. So how does China effectively promote propaganda to get its citizens to believe what they wanted [them] to believe?
Lee: Well, No. 1, the Department of Propaganda, it is the actual name of that department. But later on, they changed it to Department of Publicity, but same thing really. They have a huge budget to effectively control every single media outlet.
The editors I interviewed told me they sometimes receive dozens of directives a day from the Department of Propaganda detailing what word to use, what words to censor, and even the size of pictures, how to effectively control people. And that’s on the media side.
On the internet, of course, we know the Great Firewall. People in China do not have access to Google, to YouTube, to Facebook, to the vast majority of Western media. So once people don’t have access to information, it’s a lot easier to manipulate the story, manipulate people’s minds.
And I interviewed someone who was from a secret unit in China’s Academy of Social Sciences, and there’s a whole task force, their mandate is to basically shape what people receive from the news and in order to shape their worldview.
I’ll give you, let’s say, two examples. One is, whenever there is some sort of incident, whether it’s a natural disaster or it’s some sort of catastrophe in the U.S., for example, you will see on Chinese media, there will be extensive coverage so that the Chinese people will have this impression, “Oh, things are not going well in the U.S.”
Another example is, if there is an election in Taiwan, of course, decades ago, they would just completely censor the news, but nowadays they can’t censor it completely, so they report it, but it’s a tiny article coupled with a big picture.
And the picture is, sometimes in Taiwan’s parliament, they still actually fight physically, so they would have a picture, a chaotic picture, of physical fighting in Taiwan parliament. And readers will come to their own conclusion: “Oh my goodness, after all, democracy is not that good.”
So there are very sophisticated ways to manipulate people’s perception. And this gentleman who I interviewed with decided to defect, not returning to China. So he told us what was really going on.
Allen: There’s a line in the film that Wang speaks. He says, “One day the lies will be seen for what they are.” And how far do you think we are from that day, from people actually seeing the lies of the Communist Party and then working to expose them? Because you’ve just outlined how China uses propaganda, they’ve been doing it for decades, for years and years and years. Are we moving in the right direction at all?
Lee: Absolutely. I’m actually very hopeful and I’m hopeful for a reason. I’ll give you two examples. One, quite often in my screenings, whether it’s in North America or Europe, I see Chinese people coming to see my film. And if I compare their reactions, say 10 years ago to now, I can certainly see a big difference.
In the very beginning, people were accusing me, “How come I don’t make films to promote Chinese culture? Why I wanted to help the Western anti-China forces to defame our country?”
But last time, for example, I had a screening of my documentary in Vancouver and three young girls from China came, they waited until everybody left and they approached me. They said they were on an exchange program from China. They’ve been in Canada for two months, but the last two hours was the highlight of their two months in Canada. They had no idea that this is happening in China. And they promised me when they go back, they will tell everybody they know what they’ve learned here.
So that’s giving me hope.
And I was also told that some of my films were among the most pirated political films in China.
Allen: That’s when you want your movie to be pirated, right?
Lee: Yes. That’s good to know.
Another very important thing I like to mention, which I think is probably the most underreported thing about China now, in 2004, there was a website set up, which started this … movement, which essentially is to quit the CCP and it’s affiliated organizations, like the Youth League or the Young Pioneer, and people just go there and say, “I quit.”
In the beginning I didn’t pay much attention. It’s a website, right? The last time I checked, there were over 380 million people in China, 380 million people have gone to the website. Some used aliases, some used their real names; some will just say, “I quit,” some actually write a long essay detailing why they wanted to quit.
And I reach out to the organizers of this website, and I wanted to see some data myself. As far as I can tell, this is real. This is the real deal.
Allen: That’s encouraging.
Lee: It takes courage in China, even to use an alias, to bypass the firewall, go to the website, and say you quit. And these people are the seeds. When the right time comes, they will be the force for change.
Allen: That’s encouraging to hear. Well, we’ve spoken about Wang and his incredible story that’s featured in the film, highlighted in the film “Unsilenced.” Now, again, I want people to go see the movie for themselves, but share a little bit just about how Wang is doing today.
Lee: Well, if you ask me, I don’t know if he would admit to it, but I think he suffers from PTSD. From the first time I met him, the way when he drives, he still looks back at his shoulder and he’s really careful. And when the film is released, I invited him to premiere, but he declined. I think he doesn’t want too much limelight.
At the same time, I think he’s really enjoying some quality time with his family here. He has a great job and he continues his efforts. He’s not hiding somewhere. I believe he still attends different forums and events to tell his story.
So I’m happy that even after eight and a half years in a harsh Chinese prison, although he suffered a lot, they did not really break him.
Allen: Yeah. It’s really incredible. It’s incredible to watch his story played out on screen and the determination that he walked in, I just can’t really put words to it.
And I think so many people right now are thinking a little bit more about China, who maybe previously haven’t. For one, it’s obviously in the news a lot. And then there are conversations taking place around the Olympics. And in just a few days, the Olympics kick off in Beijing and I think the world is watching.
But what do you think that the message is that is being sent to China by allowing them to host the Olympics? Did the international community make a mistake on this?
Lee: From the perspective of the CCP, I had interviewed people who are relatively higher-ups and for a long time, they were actually amazed that the West is either naïve or, for lack of a better word, let’s just say they were just so amazed that they actually got their way, that the West actually believed that by engaging with the CCP, somehow the dictators will change their mind and make China more open and more democratic.
So now they realized, OK, it seems like the West is reaching a new consensus that the CCP poses a threat to our way of life in the West. But at the same time, they realized that people are not willing to take action.
Take the diplomatic boycott, for example. It is clear that the West wants to send a signal, maybe to satisfy a domestic audience, but they’re not willing to go the extra mile to take concrete action. They’re not willing to really challenge the CCP. And I think they’re emboldened.
I’m very worried about what’s going to happen to Taiwan. I’m worried that now the CCP realizes that the West is forming a new consensus, they will do other things to try to accelerate their goal—which, at the end of the day, is global dominance—because they consider democracy, especially [the] United States, as an existential threat to the CCP. And they have a long-term goal.
So whether the West boycotts the Olympics is actually, that doesn’t mean much to me personally. What I worry more about is, do we recognize that the CCP does not represent 1.4 billion Chinese people? Do we have the wisdom and the courage to distinguish that and then formulate our policies to deal with the CCP, to deal with their aggression? Clearly understand that the CCP is the biggest threat the West faces and have corresponding policies? Otherwise, it’s not looking good.
Allen: And from what you’re saying, in other words, sounds like China … right now doesn’t feel threatened by the U.S., by the West. … They’re just seeing a lot of talk and not maybe a forceful action to make them really change their ways.
Lee: Right. I think the CCP leaders are ruthless, but they’re not stupid. They’re very sophisticated. So they understand what’s going on. They understand the weaknesses of the West, in particular the United States at the moment. So they will exploit all the weaknesses, whether it is ideology, whether it is freedom of speech here, whether it is the political situation here in the U.S.
So I think it’s critical that people from all walks of life and from all sides come to recognize that despite the differences, there’s one thing that should truly unite us, that’s the threat posed by the CCP.
Allen: And then what should the American government be doing? What action should they be taking that they’re not right now?
Lee: No. 1 is to really recognize that the CCP is not representing the Chinese people. So when the U.S. administration uses terms like “China,” now the CCP can hide behind 1.4 billion people and say something like, “Oh, you are hurting the feelings of 1.4 billion people.”
Lots of CCP leaders, their wealth and their family are actually in the U.S. And the U.S. already has the legal tools to sanction people who committed human right atrocities and even seize their assets. So that would be very effective. Then they will actually, the CCP will hear this loud and clear.
And also, what about some concrete support to the groups [that are] fighting for their rights in China?
So these are all things that can be done.
In my interaction with people in the federal government, in the U.S., I don’t think it’s a lack of tools that they have, it’s really a lack of political will.
Allen: And then when it comes to people like me, to our listeners who hear this and who say, “OK, well, I’m maybe not in a position of authority, of government leadership, but I want to do something”—I mean, when I finished watching the film “Unsilenced,” frankly, I felt very angry. I wanted to do something. I want to wanted to help. But we’re left with that question of, what does that actually look like practically? And we know, obviously, so much persecution has taken place in China. Right now, even as we speak, the Uyghur Muslims are facing a tremendous amount of persecution. What can we do?
Lee: It’s actually easy, awareness is the most powerful thing. I truly believe it. So if you haven’t seen the film, come to watch it, share with your friends and family.
If enough people realize what’s going on, if they know what’s going on in China, if you know that what happens in China has a direct impact on our lives here in America, I think that will be the most powerful thing. The politicians will be forced to take action.
I do want to mention that a lot of people may feel the urge to do something because the human rights atrocities in China are so terrible. Yes, of course. But also, even for a practical side, if we can urge the CCP to, if somehow can have them be more transparent, it actually benefits everybody here as well.
Think about the pandemic. There is dispute on the origin of the virus, yeah. But there is almost no dispute that in the beginning of this pandemic, the CCP censored this outbreak, they punished Dr. Li Wenliang—who was the whistleblower. He later died of COVID. If they were more transparent, if they worked with international society, then we wouldn’t have such a pandemic worldwide.
So share it with your friends and family, call your representative, tell them that this means a lot to you. If enough people do that, we will then see the change.
Allen: “Unsilenced” is playing right now in select theaters. So you can look up and see if it’s playing in a theater near you. But Mr. Lee, is there any other way right now for individuals to access the film?
Lee: At the moment, it’s only in theaters. You can go to unsilencedmovie.com, look at the list of theaters. I’m hoping to somehow get it onto the streaming platforms so more people can watch it. But so far, I don’t have any confirmation yet.
I hope that the platforms will have the guts to pick it up because there will be a large audience who wants to see this. We’ve got very positive feedback of our first week. I was told that many screenings ended with the standing ovations. So people want to see this.
Allen: Yeah. And I certainly recommend to anyone, if you watch it, bring some tissues. It’s a really, really powerful film, very, very well done.
And Mr. Lee, thank you so much for your time, for your work on this movie, on so many powerful films, and for taking the time to share a little bit about why you chose to make this movie and why it’s so important for this moment in history.
Lee: Thank you. Thank you so much.
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