NEW YORK -- Over the next several days, the world’s media will debate the legacy of Jiang Zemin, from his efforts to co-opt elites and entrepreneurs into the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and his “Three Represents” theory, to his abdication of Party rule to Hu Jintao beginning in 2002.
For hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens, however, Jiang will be remembered principally as the architect of the most systematic, deadly, and protracted assault on human rights and religious freedom in decades: the persecution of Falun Gong.
First introduced publicly in 1992, Falun Gong is a traditional spiritual discipline belonging to the Buddhist school. It combines meditation, “qigong” exercises, and a moral philosophy centered on the virtues of truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance. (more info)
For the first half of the 1990s, Falun Gong enjoyed considerable official support from Chinese government and Communist Party officials, who saw it as a way to improve public health. By 1999, estimates by China’s State Sports Commission put the number of Falun Gong adherents as high as 70 million people, exceeding the total membership of the Chinese Communist Party. (more statistics)
Although Falun Gong does not espouse any political ideology or aspirations, Jiang Zemin came to see Falun Gong as a threat to the CCP on account of its popularity, independence from the state, and traditional spiritual philosophy. In the spring of 1999, Jiang almost single-handedly decided that Falun Gong must be “eradicated.” On July 20, 1999, he initiated a Cultural Revolution-style campaign of propaganda, book burnings, mass imprisonment and coercive “transformation” of Falun Gong practitioners.
In 2001, CNN’s senior analyst Willy Lam wrote that senior officials criticized Jiang’s suppression as a way “to promote allegiance to himself.” (news)
The consequences of this decision have been devastating. Hundreds of thousands—and possibly millions—of innocent Falun Gong practitioners have been jailed extra-judicially in prisons and reeducation-through-labor camps. Falun Gong prisoners of conscience comprise the majority population in many of these camps, where they receive the longest sentences and most severe torture.
Under Jiang’s leadership, the Communist Party sanctioned the systematic use of violence and torture against Falun Gong adherents in order to force them to recant their practice of Falun Gong. (see Washington Post’s “Torture is Breaking Falun Gong”) These tactics have led to 3,400 confirmed deaths, with the real death toll likely many times that number. Amidst the persecution, there are also allegations that large numbers of Falun Gong prisoners have been killed on demand to supply China’s organ transplantation industry. (report)
In order to execute the campaign against Falun Gong, the Communist Party developed and refined its mechanisms of repression under Jiang’s leadership and his successors. It has built makeshift and permanent detention facilities, created an extrajudicial security force called the 610 Office, refined torture methods, has backslid in the development of the rule of law, cracked down on press freedom, and created the most expansive system of internet censorship and surveillance in the world. Though originally designed to target Falun Gong, mechanisms of suppression are now being used to suppress other Chinese citizens.
In response to Jiang’s role in orchestrating the attempted eradication of Falun Gong, he has been the target of dozens of international lawsuits. In 2009, courts in Argentina and Spain indicted Jiang and other top Communist Party leaders on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. (more info)
Jiang Zemin’s passing will not bring back to life the thousands of Falun Gong practitioners who have been killed over the last twelve years, nor is it likely to diminish the ferocity with which the persecution is carried out today, which has become ingrained in the CCP’s apparatus. Indeed, Falun Gong practitioners continue to be unlawfully imprisoned and tortured across China to this very day. For them, justice will come only when Falun Gong and the Chinese people are free from this suppression.