Suit Claims Cisco Helped China Pursue Falun Gong

SAN FRANCISCO — Cisco, the maker of Internet routing gear, customized its technology to help China track members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, according to a federal lawsuit filed last week by members of the movement.

The lawsuit, which relies on internal sales materials, also said that Cisco had tried to market its equipment to the Chinese government by using inflammatory language that stemmed from the Maoist Cultural Revolution.

The suit was filed Thursday in Federal District Court for the Northern District of California in San Jose by the Human Rights Law Foundation on behalf of members of Falun Gong. It contends that Cisco helped design the controversial “Golden Shield” firewall that is used to censor the Internet and track opponents of the Chinese government. The lawsuit names several Cisco executives, including the chairman and chief executive, John T. Chambers.
It seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages and to enjoin Cisco from unlawful activity.

When evidence of the company’s activities in China became public in 2004, in the book “Losing the New China: A Story of American Commerce, Desire and Betrayal,” by Ethan Gutmann, Cisco disassociated itself from the marketing materials, stating that they were the work of a low-level employee. On Friday the company said in a statement that there was “no basis” for the allegations and that it intended to “vigorously” defend itself.

“Cisco does not operate networks in China or elsewhere, nor does Cisco customize our products in any way that would facilitate censorship or repression,” the company stated.

The suit claims that additional Cisco marketing presentations prove that it promoted its technology as being capable of taking aim at dissident groups. In one marketing slide, the goals of the Golden Shield are described as to “douzheng evil Falun Gong cult and other hostile elements.” Douzheng is a Chinese term used to describe the persecution of undesirable groups. It was widely used by the Communist Party in the Cultural Revolution.

The 52-page lawsuit describes the Golden Shield as a system intended to censor Internet traffic flowing into China, and to identify and monitor opponents of the Chinese government. The suit states that Falun Gong members who used the Internet were tracked by the Golden Shield and then apprehended.

Members of the group who were arrested were tortured, and one member was beaten to death, the lawsuit says. Another plaintiff who was arrested has since vanished, the suit claims, and is presumed to be dead.

The lawsuit challenges Cisco’s assertion that it did not help design the firewall system or customize technology that it sold to meet government surveillance and censorship requirements.

Terri Marsh, a lawyer for the Human Rights Law Foundation in Washington, said the group had compiled detailed information about Cisco’s role in the design of Chinese information centers that host Falun Gong database applications connected to network surveillance and tracking systems. This information will be disclosed in court during the discovery phase of the trial, Ms. Marsh said.

The lawsuit states that other documents lay out design suggestions to the Chinese Ministry of Public Security on how to pursue dissidents effectively.

The lawsuit is based on the Alien Torts Statute, a federal law that permits foreign nationals to bring lawsuits in United States federal court claiming violations of international law. They also have brought charges under the Torture Victim Protection Act and under California state law.

The suit names three Falun Gong members, Ivy He, of Canada; Liu Guifu, of New York State; and Charles Lee, an American citizen who was arrested when he went to China in 2003 and was held until 2006. It also is brought on behalf of eight unidentified Chinese citizens, who include those who were tortured and killed or are missing.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: May 26, 2011

An article on Monday about a lawsuit that claims Cisco helped develop technology for China’s Internet firewall misstated when and how the company’s activities were first thought to have been disclosed publicly. It was in 2004, in the book “Losing the New China: A Story of American Commerce, Desire and Betrayal,” by Ethan Gutmann, not in 2008 through a leaked PowerPoint presentation.

- New York Times