The Gestapo-like “610 Office”

Chinese officials deny it exists. Western media and scholars barely mention it in passing. And Chinese lawyers compare it to the Gestapo.

It is called the 610 Office, and it is the extra-legal police task force responsible for carrying out the mission of eliminating Falun Gong.

There is no legislation establishing the 610 Office—named after its June 10, 1999 date of creation—nor are there laws delineating its powers. Instead, it was established by former Communist Party leader Jiang Zemin and announced in his speech to elite cadres over a month before Falun Gong was officially banned. Jiang’s orders for the new bureau? “Immediately organize forces,” “form battle strategies,” and “get fully prepared for the work of disintegrating [Falun Gong].”

Copies of Jiang’s speech about the 610 Office were immediately circulated to every level of China’s bureaucracy, telling cadres they “must cooperate” closely with the 610 and its affiliates. Aided by the fact that all Chinese judges were Communist Party members, Jiang essentially placed the agency above the law, in violation of Article 5 of China’s constitution. 

As the persecution intensified, so did Falun Gong adherents’ determination to continue practicing and to demand redress. The regime’s response was to grant the 610 Office increasingly wide-ranging powers. Jiang gave orders to use “every means necessary,” a mandate that led to what the 610 Office soon become most notorious for—the use of extreme torture.

Along with beatings to the face and body with heavy objects, some of the most common torture techniques that 610 personnel administer or supervise include sleep deprivation for days and weeks, shocks to sensitive body parts with up to six high voltage cattle prods simultaneously, the prying out of fingernails, and force-feeding human excrement.

“The immoral act that has shaken my soul most is the 610 Office and policeman’s regular practice of assaulting women’s genitals,” wrote Beijing human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng after a 2005 investigation into abuses against Falun Gong in northeastern China. “Of those persecuted, almost every woman’s genitals and breasts and every man’s private parts have been sexually assaulted in a most vulgar fashion. Almost all who have been persecuted, be they male or female, were stripped naked before being tortured.”

The aim of such methods is to extract forced confessions and “transformation,” marked by denunciation of Falun Gong. But for thousands, the result has been death.

In addition to torture, 610 agents administratively sentence Falun Gong adherents directly to labor camps, detention centers, and brainwashing classes—where they can be locked away for three years without a day in court.

The puppeteer

With such over-arching authority, one would expect the 610 Office to have an enormous staff, but available evidence indicates its manpower is surprisingly limited. According to an official webpage belonging to the municipality of Penglai, a Shandong province city of 490,000, the 610 Office there consists of only seven people.

The 610 Office’s real power lies in its ability to force the hands of other Party and government bodies. Tianjin’s central 610 branch, for instance, employs 50–60 staff who can directly order the city’s 30,000-strong police force, with one 610 officer often supervising over 100 ordinary policemen, according to the city’s former 610 operative Hao Fengjun.

Thus, it was the Central 610 Office that directed the arrest of over five thousand Falun Gong practitioner in Changchun in March 2002. “Every day the police ‘interrogated’ all of the practitioners on the 610 Office’s blacklist,” said Wang Yuhuan, who was arrested at the time and later spoke with Gao.

Similarly, when Gao and another lawyer tried visiting their client, a Falun Gong practitioner held in a labor camp, Gao recalls being told that administrators could approve requests to see any inmate. But to see a Falun Gong practitioner, “we would need special approval from the 610 Office,” camp officials said.

Guo Guoting, another Chinese rights lawyer, tells of a similar experience when he sought permission to see a Falun Gong practitioner imprisoned in Shanghai. When it comes to Falun Gong prisoners, the 610 Office calls the shots, he said in an interview from Vancouver, Canada, where he now lives in exile. “As for the prisons themselves, they have no power.”

This reach also extends to courtrooms, Guo says. “I know that the Falun Gong cases are not decided by the judge, but according to the 610 Office’s instructions. They handle these cases.”

How does the 610 Office pull this off, then? How has it managed to garner such power? The answer lies in its structure and the way it has latched onto existing Chinese Communist Party machinery.

After a Leadership Team and 610 Office were established under the CCP’s Central Committee, corresponding bodies were created at every administrative level as well as in major social organizations, large companies, work units, and universities. Each branch is closely linked to the local Party committees, the political-legal committees, or Public Security Bureau offices.

The above-mentioned Penglai 610 Office, for example, is listed under the political-legal committee, part of a national network of CCP organs that oversee arrests, interrogations and prosecutions. Such connections are what enable the 610 Office to manipulate the criminal justice system. 

The website of the Public Security Bureau assigned to Qingdao’s Ocean University of China reports that the school established an office for the purpose of “disposing of the Falun Gong problem, namely the 610 Office, within the school’s public security [bureau].” The Women’s Federation in Jinan flaunted on its website that a study it conducted after monitoring local residents who practice Falun Gong was published in 610 Office newsletters. 

But it is through a still-pervasive Party structure that the 610 Office is able to penetrate down to the most basic units of Chinese society. An internal memo dated April 21, 2001 was addressed to all “working committees, village and town committees, and neighborhood committee offices,” in west Beijing’s Mentougou district. It relays orders to increase local surveillance of Falun Gong and for “every work unit” to integrate “inspecting and controlling… with the current re-education work.” 

The circular further instructs township and neighborhood committees to “closely cooperate with the work launched by the public security organs,” as they search door-to-door for Falun Gong adherents.

Neither the close surveillance nor the Party’s belief in its imperativeness appears to have faded with time, either. A different memo dated April 2006 gives the same instructions, almost verbatim, to Party committees at the township and county levels. 

Quotas and Cash

While some local officials have enthusiastically followed such instructions, others are hesitant to act against their neighbors. Indeed, when Falun Gong was first banned, there were reports of public indifference or even silent opposition to the campaign. Under such circumstances, the 610 Office developed various incentive mechanisms to pressure lower officials and ordinary citizens to cooperate.

In 2000, The Wall Street Journal’s Ian Johnson, who won a Pulitzer for his coverage of Falun Gong, described a “responsibility system” that the 610 Office instituted. Under this arrangement, local officials were fined potentially ruinous sums for every practitioner from their jurisdiction who reached Beijing in order to petition the central government.

Such evaluation became more formalized over time. A 2002 chart from Guangzhou shows a complex system for awarding and deducting points based on collaboration with the 610 Office. The table is to be completed by each township and neighborhood in the Tianhe district as part of its year-end assessment. Among the items listed are: “Deduct 8 points for every practitioner who has not been transformed”; for failing to “establish a personal dossier for every Falun Gong practitioner… deduct 3 points per person”; and “for every time a group of more than three people gathered to exercise together in public, deduct 5 points.”

Another common 610 technique is imposing quotas on each level below.  A typical quota includes the number of practitioners that need to be arrested over a certain period of time.

Officers who fail to meet their annual quota face demotion or may even lose their jobs. Hao Fengjun, the former Tianjin 610 officer, says he had a change of heart after he witnessed how a woman named Sun Ti, who practices Falun Gong, was tortured as part of the “transformation process.” As his disillusionment with the 610 Office’s work increased, so did the severity of the measures used to keep him in line.

Hao tells of one episode in February 2004 when he was placed in solitary confinement, made specifically for policemen, for 30 days after calling the state’s anti-Falun Gong propaganda “lies.” 

The former policeman says that during his detention he was not allowed to call his family. The cold temperature in the cell made his hands “swollen like steamed buns” and his ears emit pus. After being released, he was moved to the mailroom until he fled to Australia in 2005 with a bundle of smuggled 610 documents.

Though he says many of his colleagues disapprove of their work, plenty others were quick to tap into the 610 Office’s system of rewards. “There were people who worked very hard because the more Falun Gong practitioners they arrested, the more bonuses they would get,” says Hao.

Even more lucrative than arresting practitioners in China is collecting intelligence on overseas adherents; basic information about practitioners’ personal lives, if deemed valuable, typically fetches as much as 50,000 yuan (over $6,000). Through a system of informants otherwise leading ordinary lives overseas, the 610 builds entire profiles of overseas communities. Hao says he “personally received intelligence information about Falun Gong practitioners in Australia, the United States, and Canada” so detailed as to reveal where people worked and which activities they joined. 

Is it working?

Since Falun Gong protests on Tiananmen Square died down in 2002, a prevailing sentiment among many Western journalists and scholars is that the Communist Party has succeeded, perhaps brutally, in crushing the group.

Yet Party documents and insiders tell a different story. In 2006, 610 Offices were still concerned that Falun Gong banners were being too visible. In 2005, Chinese authorities reportedly confiscated 4.62 million items of Falun Gong material. The Party still ranks Falun Gong as first among the “five poisons” it fears most (democracy advocates, Taiwan independence supporters, Tibetans, and East Turkistan activists being the others). 

“We were all clear,” Hao says, “that our internal communication was all about how the persecution is failing.”

Sarah Cook is a Marshall Scholar completing an LLM degree in International Law at the University of London, and has served as an NGO delegate on Chinese torture cases to the United Nations Human Rights Commission.