Tomorrow marks 24 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’ freedom to practice their faith. A peaceful exercise of rights ostensibly protected in the Chinese constitution, the appeal was later rewritten by state media as an attempted “siege” of the government compound Zhongnanhai and used to justify the onset of a brutal persecution that had already begun percolating among certain officials in the party-state security apparatus. Let’s look into the significance of this historic day and the events leading up to this appeal. The Significance of the April 25 Appeal The significance of the April 25 appeal lies in the contrasting conduct of Falun Gong practitioners and the Chinese Communist Party. The practitioners responded to growing repression by peacefully gathering to express their concerns and appealing through a process stipulated in Chinese law. They simply requested that their basic rights be respected and called for the release of 45 practitioners unlawfully detained in Tianjin. This response demonstrated Falun Gong practitioner’s civility and respect for Chinese law as well as a commitment to their core principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. On that day, high-ranking officials initially released the detained practitioners and stated that there would be no ban on Falun Gong. But this promise was abruptly revoked on July 20, when the CCP banned Falun Gong and launched a brutal, nationwide campaign to wipe it out. The CCP’s propaganda apparatus then twisted what happened on April 25, portraying the peaceful appeal as a violent protest aimed at overthrowing the government, and used it to justify the vicious persecution, while calling all of Chinese society to turn on Falun Gong. 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. (Pictured: Guangzhou meditation site, 1998.) Despite the CCP’s initial support of Falun Gong and officials’ praising of the practice for its health benefits and promotion of moral values, as the number of Falun Gong practitioners grew, so did concerns of some in the CCP leadership that it could pose a challenge to the regime’s authority, despite being a personal spiritual practice not a political movement. As early as 1994, the regime’s security forces began investigating Falun Gong. However, undercover agents repeatedly reported that the practice was simply teaching people to live healthy lifestyles and improve their moral character, with multiple investigations reaching the same conclusions. 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 these findings that Falun Gong was not only harmless but actually beneficial to society, some CCP leaders wary of the practice’s rapid spread continued to push efforts to decrease its popularity. From 1996 to 1999, state-run magazines periodically 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 slandering and making false claims about Falun Gong. The arrests sparked concerns nationwide about practitioners’ freedom to practice. 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 a national appeals office near the central leadership compound of Zhongnanhai. As practitioners’ numbers grew, police guided them to line up outside of that building. 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 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. Yet practitioners in many regions found 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 whole scale 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 single-handedly ordered the practice be eradicated. 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 almost 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 appeal of April 25 stands as a reminder of the importance of protecting fundamental human rights and the courage of those who stand up for them. Additional reference materials: 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 the 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. 2013 Press Release by Falun Dafa Information Center: "Behind Falun Gong's April 25th Appeal in Beijing"