Hours before it was scheduled to air Tuesday night, CBC Newsworld cancelled a documentary that was bound to incur the wrath of the Chinese regime in Beijing.
Beyond the Red Wall was the brainchild of filmmaker Peter Rowe, about the Falun Gong movement in China, which has been declared illegal by the communist government there, and its members persecuted worldwide.
The show was scheduled to air at 10 p.m. on Tuesday (and again at 4 a.m. Saturday) but was replaced at the last moment by a re-run of a documentary on Pakistan, titled An Intimate Look at Pervez Musharraf. More likely, Red Wall was bounced because the Chinese embassy protested and threatened to cancel the CBC's coverage of the Beijing Olympics.
"I was called at 5 p.m. by Catherine Olsen (executive producer of CBC documentaries), who said there were some 'journalistic questions' about the show and they were pulling it, and wanted to re-cut parts and make it better," said Rowe, who produced it. (As of this writing, my call to Olsen remains unanswered.) "I found that odd because they'd had the documentary for six months."
In fact, he said, the documentary was aired at 4 a.m. last March, before the end of the fiscal year so it could be written off last year.
It seems the cancellation occurred when the Chinese embassy leaned on the CBC after it learned about the show. I had written about it last Sunday, mentioning the allegation that China "harvests" body organs of convicted Falun Gong practitioners, for sale to rich and needy foreigners. The newspaper Epoch Times urged people to watch the Red Wall, which made the Chinese embassy uneasy.
Jeff Keay of CBC media relations acknowledged the Chinese had contacted the CBC over the show.
"That's not unusual," he said. "We felt events in Pakistan warranted changing the program. It'll be scheduled for a future showing, but I can't say when."
Rowe is skeptical. "The program has been on the CBC website for six weeks -- and now suddenly it's been removed. Off the website completely. You figure why."
David Kilgour, a former cabinet minister who has travelled the world exposing China's abuse of human rights, its sale of body organs and the persecution of Falun Gong, was interviewed in the documentary and has no doubt the CBC bowed to pressure.
"I'm sure the Chinese threatened the CBC that running Red Wall would jeopardize the CBC's coverage of the Beijing Olympics. It's their style," he said. "When I was planning to visit Taiwan they urged me not to, and said it would damage relations with China. I went anyway and nothing happened. They did nothing."
When Prime Minister Stephen Harper was photographed with the Dalai Lama, China threatened this would damage relations. Then nothing happened. Beijing tried it on for size, and when it didn't work, it did nothing. Business as usual. China follows a policy of intimidation -- if a person or organization or country can be intimidated, it will be. If it can't be, it won't be. Beijing will try something else.
When Joel Chipkar, spokesperson for Falun Gong, phoned CBC's audience relations Tuesday evening to check the time of the show, he was told it was cancelled "for contractual reasons." They wouldn't elaborate.
Why China is so sensitive and hostile to Falun Gong is a puzzle. The only reasonable explanation is its growing popularity exceeds the popularity of the communist party -- intolerable to Beijing.
Falun Gong is a creed based on meditation, compassion and generosity. It has no political agenda. Its membership is some 100 million around the world. A defector from the Chinese embassy in Australia recently estimated about one-third of the embassy staff were intelligence officers aimed at undermining Falun Gong.
Rowe got interested in the movement when in his travels he often saw Falun Gong protesters at Chinese embassies and wondered why. The deeper he looked, the more "benign and harmless" the movement was -- "no agenda for revolution of political activity. Their sin was that they were more popular than the communist party."
Kilgour agrees, but is more upset the CBC seems to have caved in to Chinese pressure re the Olympics.
While that's a valid concern, I suspect the possibility of reprisals to the CBC's bureau in Shanghai influenced the decision to cancel Beyond the Red Wall.
Me, I was surprised that the CBC decided to air a documentary about Falun Gong -- but not surprised that China protested, and less surprised that the CBC surrendered.
I've not seen the program. Yet. When I do, I'll have more to say.
Next, it seems a natural for Discovery Channel or showing in the U.S.