China Change, November 3, 2015
Wu Zeheng (吴泽衡), the founder of Guangdong-based Buddhist group Huazang Dharma, was sentenced to life in prison and lifetime deprivation of political rights on October 30, according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency. Wu was also levied a fine of 7.15 million yuan. The Zhuhai Intermediate People’s Court handed down the sentence for “organizing and using a heretical religious organization to undermine the implementation of the law.” Along with Wu, four coreligionists were sentenced to between one and five years imprisonment. The judgement also declared that Huazang Dharma was a “heretical religious organization.”
Guangdong’s official provincial newspaper Southern Daily reported that Wu Zeheng promulgated fallacious and heretical theories and published superstitious books, bewitching and deceiving his followers and exercising control over them. The authorities said that he “peddled ‘kaiguang’ instruments, wantonly making vast profits,” “forced his disciples to buy a house for him, and also purchase his calligraphy at inflated prices.” He was also accused of “forcing female disciples into bed with him under the pretences of ‘male-female double cultivation.’”
In July 2014, the Guangdong authorities conducted a surprise raid on the Huazang Dharma Center’s various enterprises and residences, at the same time arresting Wu and several dozen of his disciples—among them several children. On July 15 this year, after the Huazang Dharma case was tried for the first time in the Zhuhai Intermediate People’s Court, Xinhua published on the same evening a 6,000-character article accusing Wu Zeheng of “using the cloak of the ‘Buddha Dharma’ to grow a large organization,” and of calling himself “Enlightened Emperor” and “Founding Father.” Xinhua also accused him of the crimes of “deceiving followers, illicitly accumulating wealth, seducing women, and manufacturing and selling poisonous foods.”
This isn’t the first time that Wu Zeheng has been jailed. In 2000, he was sentenced to 11 years imprisonment for “illegal business operations” and “unlawfully issuing securities.” Huazang’s website said that Wu was arrested on that occasion because in his book he called upon the country’s leadership to implement political reform and increase government transparency. While he was serving his sentence Wu suffered long term torture and torment: he was placed in solitary confinement, and consigned to lengthy hours of forced labor. The authorities severed his contact with the outside world, and barred visitors. At the same time, Huazang followers were also imprisoned, had their houses raided, or were watched by police.
A follower of Huazang Dharma, Michel (a pseudonym), told China Change in an interview that the government’s accusations were abject fabrications, created with the intent to slander. “The so-called ‘deceptively accumulating wealth’ claim is referring to Huazang having a shop selling Buddhist implements and prayer tools—this is very common in the Buddhist community. The so-called ‘selling poisonous foods’ is probably referring to a restaurant that Huazang had opened in Shenzhen. The guiding idea behind the restaurant was to make the body healthy through the consumption of healthy foods and beverages.” In response to the authorities’ accusations about Wu Zeheng’s personal life, Michel said this was pure character assassination. “After our teacher left jail in 2010, he’s been under police surveillance 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. There are cameras all through his house, including in the bedrooms and bathroom. How could he possibly have engaged in illicit sexual activities? CCTV reported that when he was arrested he was together with some woman. That was actually his daughter. Myself and many others were all there at the time.”
Wu Zeheng’s lawyer, Lin Qilei (蔺其磊), also criticized the court for holding a closed-door trial. “Since they’ve already determined that it’s a heretical religious organization, why not have an open trial?” Lin said to BBC Chinese in July, after the first hearing in the trial.
In May, lawyer Lin Qilei published Wu Zeheng’s own rebuttals to the government’s accusations.
The Huazang Dharma is a religious organization with Buddhist roots, founded by Wu Zeheng in the late 1980s. The Huazang website says that the group’s objectives are “to perfect personal integrity, and regulate personal conduct; through this, to understand deeply the value of life, and come to a correct view of human society.” They also call on all parts of society to “fast for charity and do a good deed every day.”
Michel told China Change that Huazang believers have engaged in numerous charitable acts, including: assisting in rescue operations after the 2013 Ya’an earthquake in Sichuan; assisting in relief after floods; helping retirement homes; funding schools for children living in poverty, and more.
The Chinese government has of late made it a custom to hand down a judgement without court procedures, using the media it controls to slander any individual or groups that fail to obey it. Others who have been subject to similar slander include journalists, lawyers, activists, and others.
After Wu was arrested, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, the World Organization Against Torture, and foreign governments and organizations have demanded that the Chinese government cease its persecution of Wu Zeheng and Huazang. USCIRF wrote in an open letter that the Chinese government’s persecution of Wu is part of its persecution of organized religion all across China, because the government sees such groups as a threat. “The government has persecuted, intimidated, and jailed religious leaders, especially those with significant followings like Wu,” USCIRF’S open letter said.
Upon his release in 2010, Wu was put under house arrest in his Zhuhai home. According to The New York Times, he largely abandoned his calls for the government to implement political reform. But the authorities took note that his Buddhist practice was increasing in popularity and influence. Although Huazang’s Weibo and Weixin social media platforms in China have been shut down, Wu still created videos and found other methods to spread his works online, attracting thousands of believers around the world.
With the rapid growth of religion in China, the Chinese government’s persecution of religious organizations has increased in turn. Since 1999 the Chinese government has carried out a harsh suppression against Falun Gong and its practitioners. Beginning last year, the authorities embarked on a campaign to tear down church crosses in Zhejiang Province where Christian communities have flourished, leading to numerous instances of resistance by parishioners, some of which resulted in violence. The suppression of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, as well as Buddhists in Tibet, has also heightened. The lawyers and intellectuals who have attempted to offer legal defense to these persecution religious groups have themselves been jailed, disappeared, or had their personal freedom restricted.