As the pages of this report demonstrate, the scale and cruelty of the Communist Party’s campaign against Falun Gong is staggering. But perhaps more remarkable yet is that Falun Gong has survived.
When the Communist Party launched its repression of Falun Gong in July of 1999, few observers expected the campaign to last more than a few months. After all, Falun Gong practitioners were peaceful meditation enthusiasts, and were utterly unprepared to withstand the full force of the Party’s well-oiled security and propaganda apparatus bearing down on them.
But over ten years later, millions of Chinese citizens still practice Falun Gong, and the number is said to be growing. Not only are people continuing to practice Falun Gong’s meditation exercises and seeking to follow its moral principles, they have mustered a sustained resistance, and are actively working to educate their compatriots about the true nature of their spiritual discipline and the human rights violations committed against them.
At some point in the last decade, you have likely encountered some manifestation of Falun Gong’s response to persecution: the silent vigils of meditation kept outside Chinese embassies or consulates, the appeals of a young woman whose sister is held in a labor camp in China, or the rallies and marches meant to raise awareness of persecution in China. You have likely heard about the media outlets that some Falun Gong adherents started to provide an alternative to Chinese state-run television and newspaper, or about how software developed by American Falun Gong practitioners is now used to circumvent government censorship of the Internet from China to Iran, Syria to Burma.
But what are the motivations and deeper meaning behind these actions? How has Falun Gong’s spirituality defined its response to persecution in China? And how has this response evolved over the past decade? This article seeks to shed light on these still misunderstood aspects of Falun Gong’s peaceful resistance.
Motivations and Beliefs
“The so-called ‘truth, kindness and tolerance’ principle preached by [Falun Gong] has nothing in common with the socialist ethical and cultural progress we are striving to achieve.” So reads an editorial dated July 27th, 1999, from the leading mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, Xinhua News Agency.
“Falun Dafa as created by Li Hongzhi preaches idealism and theism …, and thus is absolutely contradictory to the fundamental theories and principles of Marxism,” proclaimed another Xinhua editorial dated July 22, 1999.
These were the earliest reasons the Communist Party gave when it launched its now 11-year-old campaign to eradicate Falun Gong. By the party’s own admission, it was a matter of philosophical disagreement, centering around a perceived dichotomy between theism and atheism.
True, the persecution was also about Falun Gong’s size—over 70 million were estimated to be practicing—and its independence from the state. But it is unlikely that the Party would have pursued Falun Gong with such intensity were it not for the ideological differences between the two.
In the news coverage since July of 1999, this aspect of the story has been all but completely absent, lost amidst the Communist Party’s escalating rhetorical charges against Falun Gong and by reports of torture and killings practitioners in custody.
It has also been missing because it seems like an outlandish reason to seek to wipe out an entire popular religion. It is much easier to assume that the reasons for the persecution were matters of politics or personalities, rather than philosophical divergence.
Yet this ideological divide is key to understanding how the campaign against Falun Gong has played out, how Falun Gong has responded, and what it all means for China’s future.
By emphasizing that salvation and progress lay in moral rectitude, and not in secular pursuits, Falun Gong’s teachings challenged the Communist Party’s narrative of progress. While the Communist Party believed that progress could be measured through material advancement, Falun Gong sought progress through inner spiritual refinement--a process described not as forward advancement, but as “return” to a truer, purer self.
This worldview discouraged the pursuit of wealth or prestige, encouraged tolerance, altruism, and honesty, and declared that morality alone—as measured by the virtues of Truth, Compassion, and Tolerance—determined a person’s worth. And where the Communist Party believes human nature to be inherently bad and requiring control, Falun Gong holds that human beings are innately good.
Each party’s respective beliefs have defined how they have responded to the other. The Communist Party, believing in the power of materialism and with few means of understanding intangible or spiritual motivations, has sought to repress Falun Gong through control, coercion, and physical violence.
Falun Gong’s response to persecution, by contrast, is shaped by a faith in human beings’ innate goodness, and the belief that if people are simply presented with the truth, their consciences will compel them to act with justice and benevolence.
The Beginnings of Falun Gong's Resistance
When the communist party and its security apparatus began the crackdown on Falun Gong on July 20, 1999, it was met in Falun Gong circles with a considerable amount of surprise and disbelief. Although tensions with the party had been brewing ever since Falun Gong left the state-sanctioned qigong association in March 1996, the notion that a full-blown suppression and Maoist-style political campaign would be rolled out to target them was hard to fathom.
Three factors made this especially incomprehensible. First, the practice of Falun Gong had affected positive change in adherents’ lives of adherent. It made people healthier, more positive, and more productive, a fact acknowledged by senior Party officials themselves in the late 1990s. Second, Falun Gong adherents based a significant part of their self-identity on the idea of being law-abiding and honest citizens—the last people who should become a target of suppression. Third, Falun Gong had no political aspirations and there was therefore no reason for the Communist Party to feel its monopoly of political power threatened.
Falun Gong practitioners’ initial response to the campaign, therefore, was to assume that the Communist Party had simply made a terrible mistake; that the Party was misinformed about the nature of Falun Gong and the popular support it enjoyed.
Adherents’ response was characteristic of what political scientist Kevin O’Brien describes as China’s “rightful resisters”: people who did not want to challenge the government, but instead wanted it to uphold its own laws and protect existing social contracts. These are people who, rather than going underground to engage in subversion, sought the government’s attention and made appeals to its institutions.
To that end, Falun Gong practitioners from across the country traveled to local petitioning offices where they hoped to explain why Falun Gong was no threat to the government and request that their rights be restored.
It did not turn out well. The local appeal offices became gateways to labor camps and prisons. Police would simply stand outside, asking every petitioner if they practiced Falun Gong. If the answer was yes, the person was immediately taken away.
Practitioners soon began looking beyond their local government offices and toward Beijing, calling for dialogue, reconciliation, and understanding. Like most aggrieved Chinese citizens today, they had more faith in the wisdom of the central government than in their local leaders.
Yet the results were no better. On any given day from late 1999 to early 2001, hundreds of Falun Gong adherents from around the country would turn up on Tiananmen Square to stage silent protests, to meditate, or to unfurl banners proclaiming Falun Dafa’s goodness and innocence. These images, and the scenes of police brutality that would invariably follow, became the iconic representations of the persecution to the Western world. But while they succeeded in getting media attention for a time, the persecution only grew more determined and severe.
A Chinese Samizdat
By 2001, the violence and incendiary propaganda against Falun Gong was reaching a crescendo in China. China’s state-run media continued rolling out regular reports detailing the purported evils of Falun Gong, and even students from elementary school through university were forced to denounce the spiritual practice and turn in classmates who openly continued to follow their beliefs. Meanwhile, reports of deaths in custody had become a daily phenomenon, and the brutal torture methods designed to forcefully convert Falun Gong adherents were being refined and enhanced.
It seemed that Falun Gong’s faith in the goodness of humanity had failed to pan out, at least with respect to the Party leadership. Confronted with the peaceful demonstrations and the efforts of practitioners to, in Falun Gong parlance, “clarify the truth” about the nature of the spiritual practice, the Communist leadership was unrelenting.
But hope remained that while the leadership may have been unresponsive, the Chinese people themselves could still be persuaded. It was, after all, the people who were carrying out the day-to-day suppression, from the small-town police departments and labor camp administrators to the schoolteachers forced to turn in unrepentant Falun Gong students to the neighbors who reported on neighbors. If only the people knew the truth, Falun Gong practitioners reasoned, they would no longer be complicit in such injustice.
Denied any voice in the official media, in 2001, the daily protests on Tiananmen Square gave way to autonomous underground printing houses in nearly every county and district in the country—China’s equivalent of the Soviet Samizdat, one could say. From their living rooms, adherents would establish secure Internet connections, access websites outside China using proxy servers , download usually censored literature on the persecution of Falun Gong, and use it to produce homemade leaflets.
Meanwhile, others would volunteer to distribute the literature, usually by nightfall. These actions were always taken at great risk to the participating practitioners. Untold thousands have been arrested and many killed for possessing and distributing these materials or for operating the production sites.
Today, large numbers of these underground printing houses continue to operate. As of 2009, the main overseas Falun Gong website, Minghui.org, reported being in regular contact with an estimated 200,000 such sites in Mainland China.
Evidence of these printing houses comes from a multitude of sources, from official statistics on police seizures of Falun Gong informational material to anecdotal accounts of citizens regularly waking up to find a VCD about the suppression waiting outside the front door. Meanwhile, Chinese government and Communist Party websites routinely refer to efforts to limit the circulation of Falun Gong-related literature.
In the spring of 2009, for instance, the Fujian Provincial Transport Administration issued a notice later posted online ordering that among the items to be targeted as part of a nationwide crackdown on illegal political publications were those that “slandered the country’s political system, distorted the history of the Party, …, [or] publicized ‘Falun Gong.’”
In addition to quietly distributing literature under cover of night or among close friends and acquaintances, some Falun Gong adherents have also been known to go door-to-door, looking to tell their stories to common citizens. While such actions may appear like the proselytizing we may be familiar with in the West, the goal here is not religious conversion but improving understanding of a persecuted faith, and the stakes are incredibly high. One account of this process comes from author Liao Yiwu in his 2009 book The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up:
One morning in December 2004, two neatly dressed women showed up at my door. Both of them seemed to be in their late fifties and looked like peasants from the nearby suburbs. One woman glanced around and whispered, We are not beggars. We are Falun Gong practitioners…Each woman was carrying a bag that I found out later on contained stacks of Falun Gong literature. It took me a few seconds to compose myself. I had a daring idea. I invited them in, fumbled around for a notebook, and decided to interview Chen, one of the two women.
Chen began the interview by thanking Liao for his open-mindedness.
Nowadays, the government’s brainwashing campaign and the threat tactics have made many people scared of being associated with Falun Gong…. I don’t blame them. Thousands of practitioners have been locked up and tortured to death. Who wouldn’t be afraid? But people need to find out the truth about us…. No matter how the government tries to distort the truth by slandering and persecuting us, we believe truth will eventually prevail.
Chen proceeded to tell her story of how practicing Falun Gong brought her relief from illnesses and taught her how to live a more positive life. She told of how she was imprisoned once the persecution began, how she traveled to Tiananmen Square to appeal to the central government, and how she was subsequently sent to be tortured with electric batons at a psychiatric hospital. Liao listened to her story, moved both by the brutality of what the woman had suffered and by her courage and tenacity in the face of persecution:
I used to think that if every Chinese followed the principles of truth, benevolence, and tolerance, as preached by [Falun Gong], we would totally resign ourselves to oppression. The Communist Party could rule this country unopposed forever. I guess I’m wrong.
Over the years, such personal encounters have indeed produced results. Clearly Liao himself was sufficiently touched and convinced by Chen’s story to take the chance of including it in his book. In recent years, dozens of human rights lawyers have risked their careers and their own freedom in order to speak out against the injustice done to Falun Gong practitioners.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens who do not practice Falun Gong have posted declarations to the overseas Minghui.org website publicly apologizing for past participation in anti-Falun Gong activities and voicing gratitude towards adherents and founder Mr. Li Hongzhi for their kindness, courage, and patience in awakening the goodness in the hearts of the Chinese people. In 2009 alone, 13,153 such statements were posted.
Despite these victories, small-scale underground printing houses and one-on-one conversations could never compete with the decibel level of the state-run media. But the idea had potential. By challenging the Communist Party’s narrative on Falun Gong, practitioners could at least make people think twice before reporting on their classmates, sending family members to reeducation classes, or torturing the Falun Gong adherents in custody.
The question then became how to reach more people, and the answer would come from abroad.
Falun Gong first began spreading outside China in the early- to mid-1990s, brought over mainly by Chinese graduate students pursuing advanced degrees abroad. Falun Gong meditation sessions often centered around university campuses, and the composition of adherents overseas reflected this history: one demographic survey of North American Falun Gong practitioners, conducted by University of Montreal historian David Ownby, revealed that 67 percent are university educated, and 43 percent hold Masters degrees or PhDs.
This expertise, concentrated in the science and technology fields, proved invaluable in countering the suppression in Mainland China. In addition to controlling the country’s media, the Communist Party also exercises control of the Chinese Internet. When the campaign against Falun Gong began, Chinese authorities began investing in sophisticated Internet censorship and surveillance technology, hermetically filtering information about Falun Gong and other politically sensitive topics.
Then, in 2001, a small group of Chinese-American Falun Gong adherents began engineering an antidote to China’s online censorship and surveillance.
The group, comprised of software developers, computer engineers and NASA scientists, spent their free time developing secure censorship-circumvention tools, the most popular of which are known today as Freegate and Ultrasurf. These tools proliferated in China, allowing millions of unique users to access information online without fear of surveillance, and to communicate freely with each other and with the outside world. Now the most popular anti-censorship tools in the world, they have also found large user bases in Iran, Burma, Vietnam, and elsewhere.
Writing in the New York Times in June 2009, Nicolas Kristoff hinted at the impact these tools have on Chinese citizens:
“'Freegate was a kind of bridge to the outside world for me,’ said a Chinese journalist with dissident leanings, who asked not to be named. ‘Before accessing the Internet through Freegate, I was really a pro-government guy.’”
Falun Gong’s growing community of adherents and supporters abroad have also sought to directly challenge the Communist Party’s dominance of Chinese-language media. In 2001, Chinese-American Falun Gong practitioners started a general-interest Chinese newspaper called DaJiYuan (The Epoch Times), and in 2002, others launched a 24/7 Chinese-language satellite television station to broadcast into China news about Falun Gong and human rights, as well as topics like official corruption, civil society advancement, traditional Chinese culture, and the democratic process and principles of the Western world.
Challenging the Regime
The appearance of efforts such as these by Falun Gong practitioners has raised questions about whether the spiritual practice either is or has become a political force.
It is a charge that adherents of Falun Gong almost universally deny, for the practice’s teachings stipulate that it should not be corrupted by involvement in politics, money, or power. Falun Gong practitioners themselves do not seek political power in China or elsewhere, and have never sought to form a social movement to advocate for any particular policies or causes, aside from their wish to end the suppression against them in China.
Ask what they will do if and when the persecution ends in China, and most Falun Gong practitioners will likely say that they will go back to meditating in parks before going to work, just as they did before 1999.
Yet this can be difficult to reconcile with some of the causes and approaches taken up by many Falun Gong practitioners in recent years, particularly their support of a movement that encourages Chinese citizens to renounce their ties to the Communist Party. But a closer look at these activities reveals that even they reflect Falun Gong’s apolitical orientation.
The movement to withdraw from or denounce the Communist Party (the Tuidang movement, as it is called) got its start in late 2004. It was then that the DaJiYuan newspaper, staffed largely by Falun Gong adherents, ran a book-length series of editorials called Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party.
The series describes the history of the Communist Party in China, with particular attention given to events like the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, the Tiananmen Square Massacre and the crackdown on Falun Gong. Beyond mere descriptions of historical events, the series also passed judgment on the very nature of the Communist Party itself as an entity that is intractably inhumane. It argued that China would never be free for as long as the Communist Party ruled.
But while they denounced the Communist Party, the articles did little to prescribe what a replacement political system should look like. They gave scant attention to the processes or institutions that should govern China and consistently stopped short of advocating for democracy.
Instead of drawing on liberal democratic values or language, the articles reached back to the same moral traditions that informed Falun Gong, employing Confucian, Daoist and Buddhist theology to illustrate arguments. The Tuidang movement is, in many ways, less about political revolution and more about spiritual and ethical revival.
Within a few months, millions of Chinese citizens had read DaJiYuan’s editorial series. Copies were emailed, faxed or mailed to China by the millions. Inspired by their message, thousands soon began visiting the DaJiYuan website (with the help of Freegate and Ultrasurf anti-censorship technology) to post their statements denouncing their ties to the Communist Party. Within a year, thousands grew to millions.
Today, tens of million names have been posted to DaJiYuan website renouncing the Communist Party, and over 20,000 people have left detailed accounts of why they are joining in the movement. While some use their real names, most sign their statements with aliases because of the risk of retribution, reinforcing the assessment that the declarations’ significance lies more in the change brought to people’s conscience than in whether or not they formally belong to the Communist Party.
In their statements, many speak of the suffering they endured under communism, or of being disillusioned by corruption in the party. Some ask forgiveness and absolution for past sins committed during the June 4th Massacre or the Cultural Revolution, and express empathy and solidarity with the suffering Falun Gong adherents. And many convey a sense of relief, of freedom, and of hope that China’s future can be better than its recent past.
“I have witnessed the Communist Party’s inhumane persecution of the kind people who practice Falun Gong,” reads the statement of Yin Xianghui. “But I was mislead by the Communist Party for many years, and believed that the persecution was only committed by a few individuals and not representative of the Communist Party as a whole. I was fortunate to read DaJiYuan’s ‘Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party.’ I have been awakened, and now have a more profound understanding..”
“I declare that I no longer associate with the Communist Party...I would like to move toward a brighter tomorrow, and have a pure conscience.”
In September 2009, a group of eight individuals posted collective statement on DaJiYuan’s website, declaring:
“The Communist Party has ceaselessly brought disaster and persecution to the people...we withdraw from the party, and find ourselves clean and pure again. The toxic culture of the Communist Party once caused us to forget our human nature, our conscience and moral standards. We were numb to the question of right and wrong. After reading DaJiYuan’s editorial ‘Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party,’ we see clearly once more, and have found ourselves again.”
In July of 1999, the Communist Party leadership argued that Falun Gong must be defeated because its values—epitomized by Truth, Compassion, and Tolerance—were antithetical to the officially atheist ideology. Today, Falun Gong adherents and supporters are turning that argument on its head, asserting that the future of China lies not with Marxist materialism, nor with the forces of violence, coercion or fear, but instead with honesty, justice, and common humanity.
Caylan Ford is a master's degree candidate in international affairs at The George Washington University, where she studies Chinese politics and international security. She is currently writing a thesis on organized dissent in China. She is also a volunteer analyst and editor for the Falun Dafa Information Center.