US Appeals Court Revives Lawsuit Accusing Cisco of Aiding Beijing in Persecuting Falun Gong

By Eva Fu
Eva Fu
Eva Fu
Reporter
Eva Fu is a New York-based writer for The Epoch Times focusing on U.S. politics, U.S.-China relations, religious freedom, and human rights. Contact Eva at eva.fu@epochtimes.com
July 9, 2023Updated: July 17, 2023

A lawsuit that accuses California-based tech giant Cisco of facilitating the Chinese regime’s violent persecution of Falun Gong can move forward to trial, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled on July 7.

Adherents of Falun Gong, a faith group that’s been heavily persecuted in China since 1999, filed a lawsuit in 2011 against Cisco along with its two former executives, longtime CEO John Chambers and Fredy Cheung, Cisco’s then-vice president for greater China. The firm, the lawsuit alleges, supplied technology to help China’s communist officials build a vast surveillance network to identify and track Falun Gong practitioners, and facilitate their subsequent arrest and torture.

Reversing a 2014 lower district court decision to dismiss the case, the federal appellate court found the plaintiffs’ allegations sufficient for the case to proceed.

“We conclude that Plaintiffs’ allegations, accepted as true, are sufficient to state a plausible claim that Cisco provided essential technical assistance to the ‘douzheng’ of Falun Gong with awareness that the international law violations of torture, arbitrary detention, disappearance, and extrajudicial killing were substantially likely to take place,” ​​U.S. Circuit Judge Marsha Berzon wrote in the majority in the 2–1 opinion reinstating the suit. “Douzheng,” a term used by the Chinese Communist Party, refers to the violent political campaigns the regime instigates against perceived enemies.

Ms. Berzon said that the company’s actions, many of which took place on U.S. soil, constitute “aiding and abetting” the Chinese regime’s abuses.

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The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on June 12, 2017. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Terri Marsh, executive director of the Human Rights Law Foundation and a chief attorney for the plaintiffs, touted the development as a positive step toward curbing the persecution campaign.

“The message is clear: U.S. companies and their executive officers cannot further human rights abuses in China with impunity. They must be held accountable. They will be held accountable,” she told The Epoch Times.

The plaintiffs, citing Cisco’s marketing materials found on Chinese websites and elsewhere, allege that Cisco had acted as more than an unwitting commercial actor selling widgets to China. In its eagerness to win over the multibillion-dollar Chinese technology market, the complaint alleges, the company marketed itself to target dissidents and became a facilitator of the regime’s violent suppression of faith, designing and developing a comprehensive apparatus with U.S. technologies and talent in exchange for market access.

The system the plaintiffs refer to is “Golden Shield,” the Chinese security apparatus’s data-driven surveillance platform accessible nationwide in China. Cisco, they said, had designed, crafted, and given critical assistance in implementing and subsequently fine-tuning the Golden Shield project at a time when the regime was incapable of developing one on its own.

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Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers at the 2006 Oracle OpenWorld conference in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In addition to customized software, Cisco also provided testing and ongoing “skill training” and “technical training” to Chinese agents tasked with persecuting Falun Gong so that they could master the use of the technology, according to the plaintiffs.

From its San Jose headquarters, Cisco designed and manufactured key components such as integrated circuit chips for Golden Shield, and the company “intentionally incorporated the Falun Gong-specific signatures into security software upgrades at regular intervals to ensure Falun Gong activities and individuals were identified, blocked, tracked and suppressed,” the court filing states.

The resulting product was a surveillance system that could monitor Falun Gong adherents’ internet activities in real time, allowing the regime to identify, round up, and torture members of the religious group and coerce them into renouncing their faith. The system also builds detailed and constantly updated profiles of suspected and known Falun Gong adherents that Chinese security officers can retrieve anywhere in the country, with information including their location, family members, and contacts, the plaintiffs allege.

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Falun Gong practitioners march in New York City to celebrate World Falun Dafa Day on May 12, 2023. (Mark Zou/The Epoch Times)

Cisco representatives told The Epoch Times “there is no basis for the allegations against Cisco.”

“The July 7th decision by the Ninth Circuit did not make any factual findings or assess any potential liability, but rather simply found that the plaintiffs are permitted to raise their claims and have them further considered by the District Court,” a spokesperson said. “We build our products to global standards which promote the free flow of information, privacy, and freedom of expression. Cisco has a longstanding commitment to uphold and respect human rights for all people, and we are strongly committed to an open global Internet.”

All 13 plaintiffs, including a U.S. citizen, said they were identified via Golden Shield technology as participants of Falun Gong-related activities online and suffered detention for months to years at a time, during which they were subjected to torture.

“The physical torture the plaintiffs endured in detention and while imprisoned in forced labor camps included beatings with steel rods and shocking with electric batons, sleep deprivation, being forced to sit or stand for prolonged periods of time in painful positions, and violent force-feeding,” Ms. Berzon wrote.

The authorities have allegedly used information stored in the Golden Shield system as tools to exert mental pressure during their torture sessions, she noted.

Ms. Berzon also noted Cisco’s allegedly repeated invocation of Party rhetoric regarding Falun Gong. The company had allegedly marketed its services as useful to the “douzheng” of Falun Gong in early 2000s trade shows in Beijing, and a Cisco training session available in 2012 allegedly used “viruses” and “pestilence” in describing Falun Gong, “mirroring Party propaganda,” she wrote for the panel.

This article has been updated with a response from Cisco. 

Terri Wu contributed to this report.