Commemorating the Historic April 25 Appeal, 25 Years Later

Over 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners peacefully gathered on April 25, 1999, at Fuyou Street in Beijing to appeal.

Over 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners peacefully gathered on April 25, 1999, at Fuyou Street in Beijing to appeal.

Today marks 25 years since over 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners held a historic appeal in Beijing for the right to freely practice their belief. The appeal was prompted by a period of growing repression and the arrest of 45 Falun Gong practitioners in the city of Tianjin, raising nationwide concerns about believers’ freedoms.

This peaceful exercise of rights ostensibly protected in the Chinese constitution was later rewritten by state media as an attempted “siege” of Zhongnanhai, the central government compound. This narrative was then regurgitated by Western media and scholars. The event was later used to justify the brutal persecution of believers.

On the 25th anniversary of this appeal, as well as in today’s webinar, we dive into what really happened that day and why it matters.

Contrasting Character

This event showed that Falun Gong practitioners were peaceful in their response to repression from the very beginning, while the CCP was deceptive and later violent.

Practitioners used the appeal process stipulated by Chinese law to request that their basic rights be respected and to call for the release of 45 practitioners unlawfully detained in Tianjin.

By contrast, CCP officials initially released the detained practitioners and stated that there would be no ban on Falun Gong, only to abruptly revoke this promise months later when the CCP banned Falun Gong and launched the violent campaign to eradicate it. The CCP’s propaganda apparatus then twisted what happened on April 25 and portrayed the event as a violent protest aimed at overthrowing the government.

Escalating Repression Leading up to April 25

After its introduction to the public in 1992, Falun Gong’s popularity ballooned in China, with an estimated 70-100 million people practicing by 1999 according to Chinese government estimates.

Hundreds of Falun Gong practitioners gather in a meditation site in Guangzhou, 1998.

Despite the CCP’s initial support of Falun Gong and officials’ praise of the practice for its health benefits and promotion of moral values, as the number of Falun Gong practitioners grew, so did concerns among some in the CCP leadership that it could pose a challenge to the regime’s authority, despite being a personal spiritual practice and not a political movement.

As early as 1994, the regime’s security forces began investigating Falun Gong. However, investigators repeatedly reported that the practice was simply teaching people to live healthy lifestyles and improve their moral character. After a 1998 investigation lead by former chairman of the National People’s Congress, Qiao Shi, the official concluded: “Practicing Falun Gong brings only benefits and no harm.”

Despite the findings of these investigations, some CCP leaders wary of the practice’s rapid spread continued to push efforts to decrease its popularity. From 1996 to 1999, state-run media ran pieces aimed at attacking and marginalizing the practice. In July 1996, the General Administration of Press and Publication issued a policy forbidding the publication of Falun Gong books.

The first arrests of Falun Gong practitioners in China took place on April 22, 1999, after believers requested that a state-run news agency retract an article making false claims about Falun Gong. The arrests sparked nationwide concerns for practitioners’ freedom.

Police from the Tianjin Public Security Bureau told practitioners that the arrest order had come from Beijing, so they should go appeal there. Calls to gather spread by word-of-mouth and early the next morning, people began lining up at the national appeals office near the central leadership compound of Zhongnanhai. Falun Gong practitioner Deng Guoping, who later fled China to Australia, recalled in an interview:

On that day, thousands of people came from all directions voluntarily. We did not know each other. We stood there for a whole day. Nobody issued a formal written notice telling us what we should or should not do. Around 9 p.m., information came from the front row near the appeals office and the words were passed on one after another: ‘some practitioners have already met government officials. Tianjin has released the 45 practitioners. A new round of meetings with government officials will be held after a couple of days. Everyone should go home now.’ Thus we believed that some of us had met government officials and trusted that the officials knew we were good people and got our message.

The spontaneous April 25 appeal was nevertheless the largest protest in Beijing since the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square a decade earlier and brought Falun Gong to international headlines for the first time.

The CCP’s Response

Zhu Rongji, a top CCP official and China’s premier at the time, invited four practitioners into Zhongnanhai to hear their requests and then orchestrated the release of the 45 people detained in Tianjin that same evening. When the news was announced to the gathered practitioners, all 10,000 practitioners peacefully left and even cleaned up after police officers in the area.

Days later, a spokesperson for the State Council declared there would be no ban on Falun Gong, and for months after, Falun Gong practitioners attempted to return to their normal meditation activities. But practitioners in many regions found that their exercise sites were blocked by police cars, or interrupted by hydraulic cannons sprays, and multiple practitioners who went to the April 25 appeal in Beijing were confronted by police at their homes for doing so.

It became evident on July 20, 1999, that during that window, however, a crackdown on Falun Gong was being plotted behind the scenes. Jiang Zemin, the Party general secretary, was apparently displeased with Zhu Rongji’s response to the April 25 appeal and jealous of Falun Gong’s popularity. He then single-handedly ordered the practice be eradicated.

Police detain Falun Gong practitioners protesting on Tiananmen Square (Associated Press)

Hao Fengjun, who was working in the Public Security Bureau in Tianjin at the time and later defected to Australia recalled, “After April 25, 1999, the Chinese government enhanced the work of collecting facts and information on Falun Gong and prepared fully for the persecution of Falun Gong.” On June 10, Jiang created the 6-10 Office, an extralegal security agency tasked with wiping out Falun Gong. Jiang ordered its director Li Lianqiang to “Defame their reputations. Bankrupt them financially. And destroy them physically!”

So began a brutal persecution consisting of large-scale harassment, detention, torture, and killing that continues 25 years later.

The appeal of April 25, 1999, was a turning point in the history of Falun Gong and China. It showed the Chinese Communist Party’s willingness to suppress peaceful appeals for freedom of belief and expression, as well as its capacity to use state media to justify its repression by manipulating the truth. Despite the regime’s efforts to eradicate the practice, Falun Gong continues to be practiced in China by millions and has spread around the world to over 70 countries. The April 25 appeal stands as a reminder of the importance of protecting fundamental human rights and the courage of those who stand up for them.

Join our webinar this afternoon to hear from a Chinese scholar who was present that day sharing his firsthand experience, alongside discussion by experts on Chinese religion and dissent. Click here to watch.

Additional Reference Material

  • Read the National Review article by Ethan Gutmann on the April 25 appeal, which concludes: 

“A post-Communist civil society in China will include a role for Falun Gong, and we should better understand the real history of the movement. For today, it’s enough to dispel at least one myth that feeds the misplaced idea that the West has no business commenting on an obscure family quarrel. Falun Gong did not start this war. The Chinese Communist party did. And the party should be held fully accountable for the results.”

  • Read an interview with Hao Fangjun, a former policeman who defected to Australia, and his account of what happened on April 25 and beyond.
  • Watch the documentary, “A Decade of Courage,” explaining the April 25 appeal.