Falun Gong Persecution and Activism in 2009

As China enters the second decade of the 21st century, to casual observers, its cities and towns are permeated with symbols of modernity from skyscrapers to 3G cell phones. And yet, as this report goes to print, tens of millions of ordinary citizens remain trapped in a decade-old nightmare more reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution than of what might be expected in a leading economic power. A significant body of evidence testifies to this reality.

In compiling this report, the Falun Dafa Information Center has drawn on a wide range of sources. These include first-hand accounts from practitioners, their families, and human rights lawyers, Chinese government websites, foreign media reports, research by Amnesty International, reports by the United Nations, and a thorough study by the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC).

From these sources emerge two central, yet opposite, aspects of the Falun Gong story as it played out in 2009 and early 2010: an ongoing human rights crisis of immense proportions, on the one hand, and Falun Gong practitioners’ non-violent activism, on the other.

Falun Gong Persecution inside China

  • Tens of millions of Falun Gong citizens face lawlessness and brutality: In late 1998, the Chinese government estimated the number of adherents nationwide to be approximately 70 million, a number cited on multiple occasions by Western media outlets such as the New York Times and Associated Press in the spring of 1999. Though it is difficult to gauge the precise figure of Falun Gong practitioners inside China at present, both editors at Falun Gong’s main Chinese-language website and Western media reports during 2009 placed the number in the tens of millions, pointing to the continued popularity and even growth of Falun Gong inside China.

    These millions of Falun Gong practitioners in China remain at constant risk of detention, torture, and death because of their religious identity. In 2009, the lawlessness and brutality of the Party’s treatment of citizens who practiced Falun Gong remained staggering. Suffocating surveillance, late night raids on practitioners’ homes, beatings with electric batons, and long-term imprisonment were routine features of the Chinese authorities’ relentless efforts to identify and forcibly “transform” every single Falun Gong practitioner in China. Meanwhile, reports of deaths from torture or other abuses in custody continue to flow from China on a nearly daily basis.

  • Largest group of prisoners of conscience in China: Several independent reports in 2009 focused attention on the potential scale of the Falun Gong prisoner of conscience population. In July, researcher Ethan Gutmann estimated, based on dozens of interviews with former detainees, that Falun Gong practitioners comprise 15 to 20 percent of those held in labor camps, prison camps, and long-term detention facilities. Drawing on credible reports of the overall population in these camps being between three and five million, Guttmann estimates that 450,000 to one million Falun Gong adherents are in detention at any given time. An extensive set of testimonies published by the group Chinese Human Rights Defenders in February 2009 similarly found that, “Falun Gong practitioners make up one of the largest groups of detainees in the camps.” In its 2009 Human Rights Report, the U.S. Department of State noted that: “Some foreign observers estimated that Falun Gong adherents constituted at least half of the 250,000 officially recorded inmates in RTL [re-education through labor] camps.” While the full accuracy of this last formulation is questionable given the gross underestimation of the labor camp population in official Chinese figures, the evaluation nevertheless reinforces the assessment that at least 125,000 practitioners remain detained in labor camps across China.

    By comparison, Reporters without Borders cites 30 journalists and 72 “netizens” imprisoned in China. The highest estimates for Tibetans and Uyghurs held in custody do not rise above 10,000. Taken together, this information indicates that Falun Gong practitioners are the single largest group of prisoners of conscience in China, and perhaps the world.

  • Nationwide persecution surge surrounding ten-year anniversary: Advancing the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) decade-long persecution of Falun Gong was a key national priority in 2009. As reported by the CECC, Falun Gong was prominently featured in the mandate of a specialized security taskforce called “Project 6521.” The entity was assigned to suppress dissent surrounding politically sensitive anniversaries, including the ten-year mark of the campaign against Falun Gong. According to media reports, the operation was led by top Party leaders—including Vice President Xi Jinping and Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang—and carried out by the Public Security Bureau (PSB) and local Party branches throughout the country. Further corroborating the nationwide crackdown were references to intensified efforts to stamp out Falun Gong on official websites in districts, towns, and cities across China.

  • Continued large-scale abductions: Thousands of adherents were detained throughout China in 2009. The Falun Dafa Information Center confirmed 2,513 such abductions, with the largest numbers being in Hebei and Shandong provinces. Given the difficulty of obtaining information from inside China—each of the above cases required that those close to the abducted adherent be aware of the detention and have the wherewithal and courage to break through the Internet blockade to tell outsiders about the case—the actual number of detained adherents is certainly much higher.

    Among the documented cases, most victims were arrested on the basis of their being known to the authorities as Falun Gong practitioners, even if this identity consisted of studying Falun Gong tenets and practicing its meditation exercises in the privacy of their homes. In many cases, adherents were abducted after they were found possessing Falun Gong books and related materials, either during door-to-door searches by security agents or upon being stopped on the street. Once detained, the pattern of subjecting adherents to severe torture to force them to disavow their faith—including sexual abuse, psychiatric torture, and shocks with electric batons—remained commonplace.

  • Over 2,200 practitioners sent to forced labor and prison camps for up to 18 years: From January to December 2009, the Falun Dafa Information Center documented 1,352 cases of practitioners being “sentenced” in sham trials and by judges acting under Party coercion to prison terms of up to 18 years. Thousands more were sentenced to “re-education through labor” camps. From June to December 2009, the Center documented 878 adherents being sentenced to such camps for up to three years.

    While incarceration in labor camps remained more common, in relative terms, the year 2009 saw a notable increase in the CCP’s use of judicial avenues to imprison Falun Gong practitioners. This enabled the Party to lock adherents away for much longer periods of time than is possible within the labor camp system, all the while reinforcing a “rule of law” veneer that might deter international criticism. Even these seemingly high figures, however, only provide a partial picture of the total population of Falun Gong practitioners held in prison and labor camps as explained in the above finding about prisoners of conscience in China.

  • Over 100 deaths from torture and abuse: The Falun Dafa Information Center documented the deaths of 109 adherents in 2009 because of severe abuse or neglect in police custody, though the actual toll is certainly higher. While most practitioners died following long periods of incarceration, there continue to be cases of adherents—including individuals in their 30s and 40s—who are killed within weeks, days or even hours of being taken into custody. Sixteen cases were recorded during 2009 of individuals who died within two months of their latest detention. In many other cases, adherents were released into their family’s custody on the verge of death, only to pass away shortly thereafter.

    The victims were of all ages, professions, and locations, with the northeast region of the country seeing the highest number of deaths. Deaths in the four provinces of Heilongjiang, Liaoning, Jilin and Shandong alone accounted for nearly half of the total number of documented cases. This follows trends from previous years and correlates to the popularity of Falun Gong in the region prior to its ban in 1999.

    In addition to deaths from torture, in 2009, concerns continued to be voiced of ongoing systematic forced organ removal from Falun Gong prisoners of conscience. In particular, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture commented that the Chinese authorities had failed to provide a satisfactory rebuttal to allegations of organ harvesting from Falun Gong adherents.

  • Long-term effects of Olympic crackdown, intensified persecution ahead of Shanghai Expo: The aftermath of the CCP’s use of the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a cover to justify a crackdown on “undesirables” such as Falun Gong adherents continued to be felt by practitioners in 2009 in two key ways. First, over half of the 1,352 individuals whose “sentencing” to prison camps was reported during 2009 were detained in the lead-up to the Olympics. This phenomenon reinforces assessments that Falun Gong detentions ahead of the games were not temporary measures to curb potential dissenters during the international event, but rather, were efforts aimed at accelerating the longer-term goal of wiping out the group.

    Second, “Olympics-style” repression campaigns were carried out in Harbin and Shanghai in 2009 as security forces applied the “lessons” learned for increasing surveillance and public mobilization against Falun Gong to other international events. In the first half of 2009, at least 66 Falun Gong adherents in Shanghai were abducted by security agents in connection to the Shanghai World Expo, scheduled to run from May 1 – October 21 2010. Reports from the municipality’s Yangpu and Pudong districts indicate that authorities have offered monetary rewards of up to 10,000 Yuan (~$1,500) to citizens who report on Falun Gong adherents, particularly those engaged in distributing literature or other information about the persecution.

  • The role of the extralegal 6-10 Office: Central to the lawlessness surrounding the treatment of Falun Gong practitioners is the CCP’s 6-10 Office. Ten years after its creation, the extralegal security agency remains active throughout the country.

  • Escalated intimidation of defense lawyers: Throughout the year, a group of approximately 30 lawyers continued to defend Falun Gong adherents, despite Party directives banning such action. On repeated occasions, lawyers defended practitioners in court, presenting detailed arguments as to their innocence and the broader need to observe the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion.

    In response, many of the lawyers known to represent Falun Gong adherents faced escalating harassment, monitoring, disbarment, and even detention or torture at the hands of the authorities. In two of the most severe cases, Gao Zhisheng was “disappeared” by security forces in February 2009, resurfaced briefly in April 2010, clearly under threat from authorities and then went missing again; while Wang Yonghang from Liaoning province was himself “sentenced” in November to seven years in a prison camp for defending Falun Gong. Two other lawyers, Tang Jitian and Liu Wei—who have collectively represented at least 20 practitioners in recent years—have been disbarred for defending a Falun Gong practitioner in Sichuan province in early 2009.

  • Media and Internet taboo: Falun Gong remained one of the most taboo topics of coverage for both Chinese and foreign news organizations reporting from China in 2009. Meanwhile, Chinese practitioners faced imprisonment and torture for discussing Falun Gong in public, distributing leaflets, or downloading information related to the practice from the Internet. Falun Gong and related websites were among the most systematically and hermetically blocked by China’s Great Firewall. In addition, Falun Gong content was a key target of new censorship and surveillance software called “Green Dam Youth Escort” that the authorities attempted to introduce in 2009. Although the authorities retracted orders requiring installation of the software, the online activities of Falun Gong adherents, both within and outside China, continue to be systematically monitored via other avenues.

Activism and Support for Falun Gong in China and Beyond

  • Grassroots movement in China remains strong and nonviolent: At great risk to themselves, millions of adherents inside China engage in daily grassroots actions to resist the persecution of their faith, raise awareness of the brutality suffered by practitioners, and awaken the kindness in the hearts of their fellow citizens lest they participate in such violence. A vast network of underground print shops—reported to number 200,000—continues to function. At these sites, practitioners access overseas Falun Gong or other websites and download information for producing leaflets and video CDs about the practice and the rights abuses suffered by practitioners. Also disseminated are publications such as the Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party or videos on the Tiananmen Square Massacre, aimed at informing the public of the Party’s broader history of brutality. In a micro-level “name and shame” tactic, practitioners also disseminate details about perpetrators of torture within their local communities.

    Such efforts increasingly yield tangible results. Embarrassed over the exposure of their crimes, in recent years, some perpetrators have ceased mistreating practitioners or do so with significantly reduced zeal. Villagers have protested to the local authorities to release detained practitioners or gathered outside courtrooms during sentencing hearings to voice their disapproval over the imprisonment of their innocent neighbors. And, remarkably, 13,153 non-practitioners published statements on the overseas Minghui website in 2009, expressing their remorse for past participation in anti-Falun Gong activities and voicing gratitude towards Falun Gong adherents and founder Mr. Li Hongzhi for their kindness, courage, and patience in awakening the goodness in the hearts of the Chinese people. Meanwhile, similar sentiments were often expressed in other symbolic renunciations—this time of the Communist Party itself and affiliated organizations—that were posted online by 10-20 million people during the year, as they sought to distance themselves from the brutality of CCP rule.

  • Falun Gong practitioner-designed technologies at forefront of drive for Internet freedom: A group of scientists and engineers who practice Falun Gong began shortly after the launch of the persecution to design software that could be used to circumvent the “Great Firewall.” Several of their technologies emerged in 2009 at the forefront of efforts to enable censorship circumvention, drawing millions of users and occasional thank you notes. In addition to China, a growing number of users in other countries, such as Burma and Syria, have made use of these technologies in recent years. In 2009, usage in Iran skyrocketed, the combined result of the release of Farsi-language versions and popular protests following elections there in June.

  • Support from international community, indictments of top Communist Party officials: The year 2009 also saw encouraging developments on the part of the international community’s support for practitioners in China. Amnesty International published urgent actions on behalf of several individual practitioners at risk of torture. In July, 61 members of the U.S. Congress issued a bi-partisan letter to President Obama, urging him to “speak very clearly and specifically in support of Falun Gong” and referring to the campaign against the group as “one of the most unjust and cruel persecutions of our times.” In March 2010, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed Resolution 605 calling “for an immediate end to the campaign to persecute, intimidate, imprison, and torture Falun Gong practitioners.”

    Beyond the United States’ borders, in two landmark rulings near year’s end, judges in Spain and Argentina found several sitting and former Communist Party officials—including ex-leader Jiang Zemin—liable for torture, crimes against humanity, and genocide for their role in the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners.


It is within this context of international recognition of the persecution of Falun Gong amounting to one of the most severe human rights crises of the 21st century that the Falun Dafa Information Center makes the following recommendations. It is our hope that with international cooperation and courage we will soon witness the catastrophic tragedy that began on July 20, 1999 finally coming to an end.

  1. Governments and NGOs must ensure that Falun Gong is given due attention in any discussions or research of human rights or religious freedom in China. Though Falun Gong features in such discussions and analysis, the number of reports, press releases, and other actions by governments and human rights groups addressing the plight of practitioners in China falls far short of what one might legitimately expect with regards to a population constituting the largest group of prisoners of conscience in China. Although documenting even a small fraction of human rights abuses committed against Falun Gong is an onerous task, resources should nonetheless be devoted to the issue in a manner comparable to the relative size of the victimized population. The Falun Dafa Information Center recommends that, among other efforts made to rectify this situation, human rights bodies—both governmental and nongovernmental—dedicate at least one permanent staff member to covering the Falun Gong issue. This would follow a similar approach to that taken with regards to other severely persecuted minorities in China, such as Tibetans and Uyghur Muslims.

  2. Assist Falun Gong adherents who are peacefully seeking an end to persecution in China. As articulated above, for the past eleven years, Falun Gong practitioners have demonstrated ingenuity, dedication, and a commitment to nonviolence in their efforts to stop the horrific human rights abuses they face. As adherents inside China take great risks to awaken the consciences of their fellow citizens, they are contributing not only to the end of the persecution, but also to the broader peace and stability of Chinese society. In addition to the moral obligation to assist such activism, it is in the interests of the international community to do so if it wishes to see China emerge as a responsible international stakeholder. As such, the efforts by Falun Gong practitioners inside and outside China to end the persecution and promote public education of universal values of integrity, nonviolence, and human dignity should be supported and encouraged.

  3. Governments, NGOs, and media should characterize Falun Gong appropriately as a “spiritual practice” and avoid derogatory labels originating from Communist Party propaganda. Over the years, the Falun Dafa Information Center has noticed a consistent and disturbing trend in coverage of Falun Gong by international media and even some human rights groups. Specifically, that labels used to refer to the practice remain grossly inaccurate, often involving derogatory terms such as “sect” or “cult” that originate in CCP propaganda. Such mischaracterizations by international actors have a profound ripple effect inside China and can contribute to human rights abuses, as individuals who come into contact with Falun Gong practitioners are forced on a daily basis to make decisions about whether to report Falun Gong practitioners to police or not, which can have life or death consequences. The Falun Dafa Information Center therefore recommends the terms “spiritual practice,” or “mind-body meditation practice” as labels accurately reflecting the nature of Falun Gong and urges their incorporation into future reporting about the group.

  4. Offer protection to Falun Gong refugees fleeing persecution in China. Governments must ensure their mechanisms for receiving and providing safe harbor to victims of religious persecution are made fully available to Falun Gong practitioners. This report clearly shows the danger Falun Gong adherents face in China, including those who practice their beliefs in the privacy of their own homes. Several of those tortured to death in 2009 were individuals originally detained not for any action they took, but merely for being identified as a Falun Gong adherent.

  5. Continue pressing the issue of Falun Gong with the Chinese authorities in both private and public statements. Officials should make unequivocally clear their government’s support of Falun Gong and condemnation of the persecution in both public fora and during private meetings with their Chinese counterparts, such as bilateral human rights dialogues. Similar to U.S. House Resolution 605, such statements should request that all Falun Gong prisoners of conscience be released, that information controls be lifted, that international investigations into torture be permitted, and that the campaign to eradicate the group be stopped.

  6. Governments and corporations should ensure that their activities in China do not yield grave human costs. Governments should ensure their policies and activities do not facilitate or serve as a catalyst for Chinese officials to further the suppression of Falun Gong. The 2008 Beijing Olympics resulted in the destruction of families, the long-term imprisonment of thousands, and the deaths of at least several dozen innocent Falun Gong practitioners. The Shanghai World Expo and other international sporting events were similarly used in 2009 as a pretext to crack down further on Falun Gong. Corporations that do business in China should similarly be aware that Falun Gong adherents imprisoned illegally in labor and prison camps have been forced to make products for export for foreign companies. Moreover, Internet surveillance software, much of it provided by Western corporations, has enabled Chinese security agents to abduct, torture, and sometimes kill innocent Falun Gong practitioners.