A grassroots movement, like no other in history, is growing in China
It used to be you could hardly turn a corner in China without a taste of Falun Gong. Practitioners filled the nation’s parks at the break of dawn for their Tai-chi-like exercises. Its texts, regularly bestsellers, lined the shelves of Wangfujing’s bookstores. And in the summer of 1999, countless adherents filled the streets of China’s capital in protest of an unlawful ban that would soon to morph into what leading human rights attorneys have called “genocide.”
If in the 1990s Falun Gong was in the Chinese public’s eye, as the new century approached so too was it in the West’s: in 1999 and 2000 reports of bold Falun Gong protests on Tiananmen Square as well as, often, their tragic consequences, were daily news in the Western press. Most any avid news reader could claim at least some inkling of familiarity with the group and its ban.
But since then, as told in an essay by Leeshai Lemish (essay), Falun Gong has largely disappeared off the media’s radar, if not the public’s consciousness. And indeed, gone are the days of thousands assembled in protest at the symbolic heart of the Chinese state; the trademark yellow banners, shouts of protest, and open shows of police violence in response have largely been absent over the past five years.
Then where has the Falun Gong gone, if anywhere? And what has become of it? Has the world’s largest communist state—a Goliath against a David by any reckoning—pulled off its proposed “solution” to the “Falun Gong problem”—that is, “eradication”? Many have read the absence of public protest as a tacit “yes.” However, little could be further from the truth.
The force, or inspiration, behind Falun Gong’s early protests has not died out, and much less has its following. Quite the opposite, it has only grown, matured, and evolved. With a tenacity born of spiritual conviction, the group has weathered eight years of brutality to today stand as a catalyst for social and political change in China on a scale few could have imagined. At present it is waging a human rights effort comprised of everything from phone calls to flyers, public exposés to cable splicings, underground print shops, and even the arts. And daily, a chorus of non-Falun Gong voices is joining in, tired of oppressive rule, to demand change.
As little-known as this is in the West, it likely amounts to the single largest grassroots movement in the history of China—if not the world. Never has Chinese history seen a movement of the sort, blending as it does nonviolence, high-tech, and religious conviction.
This is a story that, once complete, will likely be told in China for generations to come.
Coercion and Crisis
By late 2001, China’s Falun Gong found themselves at the receiving end of a Maoist-style campaign designed to “eradicate” the meditation group. For many the darkest days of communist rule had returned.
It was in that year China’s leaders officially sanctioned “the systematic use of violence against the group,” according to the Washington Post, combined with “a network of brainwashing classes” and a campaign to “weed out followers neighborhood by neighborhood and workplace by workplace… No Falun Gong member is supposed to be spared.” The Post told of James Ouyang, a 35-year-old electrical engineer, and other adherents like him “being beaten, shocked with electric truncheons, and forced to undergo unbearable physical pressure.” One Party official who had advised the regime on the suppression stated that, “All the brutality, resources and persuasiveness of the Communist system is being used—and is having an effect.”
And so it seemed. Ouyang, as the Post’s story recounted, had by the time of his release from labor camp confinement denounced Falun Gong’s teachings and rejected the practice. He had joined the ranks of the “reformed,” as Party officials call them. Statistically, his break from the practice meant one less student of the Falun Gong.
But was this what Ouyang really wanted? Was it an expression of his own will, of free choice, or of some realization? Hardly.
The Post story tells in heart-wrenching detail how Ouyang was “reduced to an ‘obedient thing’” over the course of ten days of torture. He was stripped and interrogated for five hours at a time. Any failure to reply “correctly” (with a “yes”) led to repeated shocking with electric truncheons. He was ordered to stand still facing a wall; for any movement, he was shocked; for collapsing of fatigue, he was shocked. By day six Ouyang couldn’t so much as see straight—the result of staring at plaster three inches from his face all that time. He was then shocked yet again, his knees having buckled, after which he finally gave in to the guards’ demands. For the following three days he denounced Falun Gong’s teachings. Still officers continued to shock him, causing him to repeatedly soil himself. Only by day 10 was the denunciation deemed “sufficiently sincere” by authorities. He was then transferred to brainwashing classes, where after 20 days of 16-hour sessions and a formal, videotaped rejection of Falun Gong, Ouyang finally “graduated.”
Cases of “reform” like Ouyang’s are quickly held up by Party officials as models of success. Hence the videotaping. To the larger world outside the labor camp, or those tucked away in Beijing’s central leadership compound, it looked indeed as if the Party-state was scoring “victories” against the Falun Gong.
But lost upon onlookers was—and often still is—the tenuous nature of such “successes.” Few have considered how terribly forced, and fragile, they are. They are predicated upon the regime’s ability to coerce. They demand of people statements they do not believe in, and do so, often, with stunning displays of cruelty. The “transformed” individual, once back out in the world, is always a liability for the state. He must be made to continually feel threatened, to be reminded of the pain and brutality once felt. He must be isolated, lest interactions with other, “unreformed” adherents rekindle that original affinity with the practice. And he must be deprived, in terms of access to the written teachings of the practice, or even dissenting (non-state controlled) information about what is being done to its followers. Failing any of these coercive measures, the “transformation” might well wear off.
This has of course been a dangerous proposition for a government that cannot afford to provide basic education or health care to hundreds of millions of rural citizens who suffer abject poverty, or that witnessed some 87,000 riots and “mass incidents” just two years ago. Does it really have the resources, or the charisma, to pull off such tactics forever? As one New York Times correspondent put it, writing in 1999, “Has it come to this: that the Chinese Communist Party is terrified of retirees in tennis shoes who follow a spiritual master in Queens?”
Nor would it seem China’s rulers have considered the long-term stakes of the campaign. What does it mean for the world’s largest political regime to outlaw and try to “eradicate” a group of meditators who aspire to live a life of virtue? The Xinhua News Agency, the official mouthpiece of China’s Communist Party, affirmed what the Party was up against in an unwittingly candid commentary just one week into the campaign. Xinhua declared that, “In fact, the so-called ‘truth, kindness, and forbearance’ principle preached by [Falun Gong’s teacher] Li Hongzhi has nothing in common with the socialist ethical and cultural progress we are striving to achieve.”
Others, such as China-analyst Willy Lam, soon observed the deadly fruits the Party was reaping. Writing in the same year of Ouyang’s ordeal (2001), Lam declared that, “China is on the brink of a chengxin crisis that threatens not only to tear asunder its moral fabric, but derail economic and political reforms.” “Chengxin,” Lam explains elsewhere in his essay, is the Chinese term for “honesty” and “trustworthiness.”
Today, nearly a decade into the campaign against Falun Gong, the chengxin crisis has sunk to new depths as witnessed in the by-now daily revelations of tainted goods issuing forth from China. Few have connected poisoned toothpaste to the plight of Falun Gong, but the connection seems hardly a stretch. Knock out of the picture 100 million of your country’s best citizens, and scare witless anyone who would try to live similarly to them, and you have a recipe for disaster. Or poisoned cough syrup, if you will.
Many persons like Ouyang never really came to loathe Falun Gong. The denunciations for the vast majority of “reformed” adherents were wrung out of them, quite literally, with torture and threat. What they did learn to loathe, however, was the Party-state. Ouyang told the Washington Post, “Now, whenever I see a policeman and those electric truncheons, I feel sick, ready to throw up.” The professions of Party loyalty secured in the bowels of China’s gulag, in other words, did not quite amount to Revolutionary zeal.
Instead, witnesses from China suggest, they bred a deep resentment of the oppressor. And questioning. As the title of an essay by Falun Gong’s teacher put it, “Coercion cannot change people’s hearts.” Falun Gong had given so many so much—vibrant health, newfound meaning, mended relationships, and a positively contagious sense of optimism. To renounce the practice was for many a return to a state of brokenness.
It wasn’t long, then, before public declarations nullifying the forced recanting began to appear. Titled “solemn declarations,” the statements started appearing on Falun Gong’s main website, Minghui.org, en masse. Hundreds of adherents were writing professions every day. Tong Shixun, who was abused by authorities in a Shandong province labor camp, wrote in September of 2001 that he wished to “solemnly declare as null and void everything I said and wrote while I was not in my right mind as a result of intense persecution.” Like many others, his declaration was accompanied by a vow to resist the persecution. “I’m determined about my practice, and will seize this opportunity of time to expose the evil taking place,” Tong wrote. “I will redouble my efforts to clarify the truth and set right my mistakes.”
Today, six years later, a staggering 373,000 some statements have been received by the website. The figure gives a glimpse at the massive changes happening. Consider what goes into each single statement. First the individual must be willing to make a public declaration. This act alone can land, and has landed, one back in the gulag. Then the person must have access to the Internet; unlike in the United States, only 1 in every 26 persons in China owns a computer, let alone has Internet access. Additionally, just to reach the Minghui website—and know of the possibility of a declaration—requires access to sophisticated software, so tight is China’s Internet censorship. Finally, to communicate one’s statement to the website is itself a task, as a vast array of Internet filters and monitors are in place to prevent any communication about Falun Gong from taking place. We might imagine that for every person who issues a statement that makes it through and gets tallied, another 50 adherents exist who have returned to the practice unannounced.
Accounts from even remote, rural villages received by Minghui’s editors and the Falun Dafa Information Center confirm this sense. Many report that the vast majority of their locale’s pre-1999 ban practitioners have returned to Falun Gong, often with a commitment stronger for it.
In some cases taking up Falun Gong is not so much a matter of return, but beginning. Such was the case for 32-year-old Zhang Xueling, of Shandong province. According to the Wall Street Journal, Zhang took up the practice after a chance encounter in jail. Zhang had been incarcerated for probing the death of her mother, Chen Zixiu, 58, who was murdered by Chinese police for her faith. In prison Zhang met a number of Falun Gong prisoners of conscience. They were the only persons kind to her in the prison, she observed. The experience moved her. After her release she herself began to practice Falun Gong.
“I used to be a materialist and believed that everything in life could be gained from hard work,” Zhang told the Journal. “But Falun Dafa makes more sense. At its root are three principles: truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. If we adhere to these, isn’t that a deeper meaning to life?”
Sources in China point out, however, that many have held to the faith right through, defying any attempts at Party “transformation.” Some have simply gone untouched. Many have weathered the storm. Others, as in the case of Ms. Gao Rongrong, a 37-year-old accountant in Shenyang city, have paid the ultimate price. Gao was tortured to death in the grisliest of fashions for refusing to recant. To date more than 3,000 Falun Gong are known to have been killed in the persecution.
If the Falun Gong’s mounting size has grown unnoticed to outside observers, so too has its strength. Particularly, its strength of conviction. If the greatest nonviolent movements of the 20th century are any indicator, however, this is an oversight. Gandhi once proclaimed that, “A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.” Much less one that is millions strong, tempered, and growing.
The first layer of conviction is the more immediate of the two. From the fateful July day in 1999 when their faith was outlawed, the Falun Gong have considered their plight to be (quite rightly) a case of flagrant injustice. That is, the banning, and subsequent escalation to violence and killing, contravened China’s constitution on multiple fronts as well as international covenants signed by China. Freedom of religious belief, at least on paper, is ensured in China. It was not until October that China’s legislature enacted laws that would legitimate the group’s suppression—never mind that they were being applied retroactively. The practice had broken no laws with its quiet, placid gatherings in China’s parks, nor even with its mass gathering to petition the central government near Zhongnanhai, the central leadership compound, in April of 1999 after several of its practitioners were physically assaulted by Tianjin city police. (In fact, it had been Tianjin authorities who directed them to the central petitioning office in Beijing.)
This is a conviction that runs deep, for it is shaped on a spiritual level. Many quickly realized the persecution was directed at not so much what they did, as what they believed—at who they were. The stakes were altogether different. What was on the line was not so much loss of rights, but of self, or soul.
One practitioner from China, Zhao Ming, has described this sense, saying, “My personal experience shows that the persecution of Falun Gong is completely targeting our belief.” Zhao was tortured in a Beijing labor camp, where he was held for two years. “[It] is completely persecution of our spiritual belief. We didn’t do anything illegal … torture is used to ‘transform’ people into machine-like puppets without a conscience, who can be used as instruments to harm others.” Indeed, if the whole basis of the Falun Gong is to become morally outstanding and healthy persons, one wonders what exactly China’s rulers wish to “transform” them into instead.
But brainwashing is not easily enacted in this case, of course. For so many of the Falun Gong, the practice proved a wellspring of inspiration and goodness. For some it was a source of renewed health and vigor. For others it was a philosophy with deep resonances, a new lens through which to see and navigate life, at once empowering and ennobling. It also gave meaning to suffering, much as in the Buddhist faith; most came to see it as suffused with spiritual value. Thus, two things naturally followed with the onset of persecution. First, it was not something people were about to drop overnight. And secondly, they were willing to suffer for their faith. The persecution was not just an affront on politically-granted rights: it was a form of violence to humanity, or even to the cosmos. The process of self-cultivation, as they call it (see page 53), is a path of effacing self as much as anything, of putting others first, even at the expense of one’s own welfare, when need be. The Party, in a word, had picked on something bigger than even its own size.
But conviction has also had a second layer for China’s Falun Gong amidst all this, one that is more outwardly directed. This latter conviction is born of a sense of compassion, of outward concern, nurtured by the practice. Recall that the process of self-cultivation (see page 57) is a path of effacing self as anything, of putting others first, even at the expense of one’s own welfare, if need be. In this case, though, it is not so much fellow Falun Gong that the adherent is concerned over (though this is certainly the case as well), but the average fellow citizen. Other citizens are caught up in the ordeal, and equally victims, the Falun Gong feel. That is, insofar as the individual has been misled by the Party’s crusade against the Falun Gong, and learned, from it, to hate.
When practitioners of the Falun Gong speak of such persons as having been “poisoned” by Party propaganda, they refer to a form of harm and contamination to the soul. And as the Falun Gong teaches to love one’s neighbor as oneself, few are the adherents not compelled to extend a helping hand to these persons. One member likened it to helping a sick child who, when infected, is compromised and at risk but oblivious to it. I have seen a number of persons speak similarly of such folk, the “other victims,” with tears in their eyes. History supports Falun Gong’s perspective here, for how else could one view, say, the youths of Germany who, through a daily diet of anti-semitic rants, learned over time to hate the Jew and even take part in his slaughter.
Though probably most of China’s Falun Gong have never heard of Martin Luther King Jr., daily they would seem to testify to his pronouncement: “At the center of non-violence stands the principle of love.”
From Banners to Bandwidth
Of this conviction has arisen an incredible tale of unlikely, and unsung, acts of tremendous courage. And acts from those we might least expect—the elderly, the young, the broken—to be a force for change in China. What began as a simple call for a breathing space has grown into a massive rights effort involving a stunning array of participants and means. Few in the West have a sense for the history now in the making.
At first the Falun Gong’s efforts were informed by a belief, perhaps at times naïve, that the persecution was in effect a colossal misunderstanding. That is, that the Communist Party leadership had somehow got it wrong; they didn’t understand what Falun Gong was about, really. How else could this have happened, many recall asking, when the group, which has no political ambitions, strove only to be the best of citizens and neighbors?
Thus it was off to the capital of Beijing and other provincial centers to petition authorities. Since the dawn of the Chinese empire a system whereby citizens can “petition” the ruler has been in place, allowing ordinary citizens a means to express grievances and seek redress. As many as 10 million petitions were filed in one recent year, reports Human Rights Watch, and at any given time some 10,000 such persons (“petitioners” as they’re called) might throng Beijing’s streets.
It was a natural first recourse thus when the ban was announced on July 22, 1999. And indeed, just a few months prior, on April 25, a happy resolution seemed to have come about when several thousand Falun Gong petitioned the central government; then-Premier Zhu Rongji had personally met with representatives of the group and given assurances.
What adherents could little have imagined, however, was just how disinterested authorities were in hearing Falun Gong’s concerns. Untold thousands found themselves arrested for trying to petition, though it is a state-appointed right. Within a short time it was learned all petition offices had orders to arrest any Falun Gong who came through their doors. Jiang Zemin, who ordered the suppression, was said to have burned barrels of letters sent to him by beleaguered members of the group.
Soon violence came into the picture, with increasing frequency and degree. Witnesses reported beatings in public. Deaths came to light. And the news media clearly had but one agenda—one that was set by the Party. By the end of the campaign’s first month the People’s Daily, the voice of the Party, had carried a staggering 347 articles denouncing the Falun Gong. Propaganda marathons piped into homes throughout the nation around the clock through state-run television, branding Falun Gong a menace to society. And merely seven days into the campaign, authorities boasted of having confiscated more than 2 million “illegal” Falun Gong books; some cities even witnessed book burning rallies, courtesy of the Public Security Bureau.
Now the group had not only a group of thick-skulled authorities to try to enlighten—the entire citizenry now stood to be confused. Adherents thus took their petitions public as it were. Prominent symbolic spaces like Tiananmen Square became the site of contestation. Farmers, businesspeople, nurses, scientists, and even young kids could be seen unfurling yellow banners. Meant to educate, as much as anything, the message often declared “Falun Gong is Good!” or “Restore Falun Dafa’s Name.”
Party authorities proved no more amenable, predictably, to these acts. Typically the demonstrator would meet with fists and feet from Chinese police, followed by interrogation and then jailing or three years in a labor camp. The toll was heavy, and palpably felt.
With the year 2002 a changing of the guard took place, so to speak, followed by a new era of efforts that were more sophisticated and realistic, if not more determined. It was that year that a group of 50 some Western followers of Falun Gong traveled to Tiananmen and declared, again with yellow banner, simply “Truthfulness, Compassion, Tolerance.” By that time few Chinese followers were traveling to Tiananmen anymore, for various reasons, and even fewer would thereafter. It was the mark of a new era, though one in which Tiananmen would factor very little, oddly enough. Now the efforts would spread out to every city, street, alley and home.
By March of the same year, Falun Gong adherents in the northeastern city of Changchun (the practice’s birthplace, notably) managed to tap into the lines of a major cable network and replace normal programming with an informational video about Falun Gong. The feature ran on eight different channels and lasted fully forty-five minutes. For thousands of city residents it was the first time in three years they were privy to independent depictions of the practice and its plight; simply trying to read about Falun Gong online could land one in jail. So shaken was the government—local as well as central—that marshal law was ordered in Changchun and a manhunt begun. Orders were to “shoot to kill” and “shoot on sight” any seen attempting another tapping. Those involved in the episode were tracked down eventually, tortured, and killed.
Reports of similar feats of engineering soon came in from other provinces, such as Sichuan and Liaoning, with parallel Party reactions. The stakes on both sides had raised exponentially.
Around this time as well underground print shops, called “materials sites” by those involved, began mushrooming throughout the country. These were China’s closest answer to grassroots media in an informational landscape monopolized by the Party-state. Humble and roughly hewn, the sites were often tucked away in the corner of a Falun Gong adherent’s home. At their most basic, they would involve a printer of some sort; some, perhaps, a copier and possibly a computer. Here, in cramped quarters, the determined would assemble an array of homemade media—typically flyers, pamphlets, and VCDs.
Then, usually under the cover of night, teams of practitioners (or sometimes lone individuals) would set out across a given locale to distribute the goods. By the break of dawn flyers could be seen resting in bicycle baskets and posted on city walls; VCDs slipped under front doors; or pamphlets tucked under wiperblades or perhaps in a mailbox. By March 2002 the Washington Post had reported that thousands of VCDs were appearing in major cities. Meanwhile, one woman who has since escaped from China, Wang Yuzhi, describes in her memoir Chuanyue Shengsi (Crossing the Boundary of Life and Death) that as early as mid-2001, she had in one three-day span printed several hundred thousand flyers, which others in Heilongjiang province then distributed. For others, as with Wang, all expenses come out of their own pockets.
With time, the materials sites have grown only more robust, as has distribution. Several cities now report regular, non-Falun Gong citizens getting into the act of printing and distributing these materials.
Banners still unfold in support of the Falun Gong in China, but in a far less geographically focused manner than in the first two years. Whereas before Tiananmen was where all good banners went to serve, in recent years they have multiplied and spread to a creative array of places and spaces. On any given morning one might awake to see banners hung from bridges, apartment balconies, trees, telephone poles, and even the walls of the local police station.
It’s not just affirmative slogans that hang of late, however. Posters exposing persons, or entities, responsible for persecution now plaster targeted locales when problems come to light. Falun Gong practitioners will often canvass a given area after learning of rights abuses, often torture, at the hands of a certain police officer or official. The idea is to “expose locally,” as it’s called, and the effect is often immediate and palpable. An abusive prison guard might awake one day to see flyers posted on the walls of his building detailing his acts of evil at the local detention center; neighbors will likely have received the flyer, as will have relatives, co-workers, and a host of others. In a country where “saving face” reigns supreme, experience is showing that thugs can be “shamed straight,” so to speak.
Such exposure gains added weight, however, when put online and brought to the attention of the outside world. While it’s no simple feat to get such information out of China, volumes of it still manage to get through. A formidable part of the package is the “Fawanghuihui.org” (“Vast Net of Justice”) website, which at any given time might offer profiles of as many as 51,000 “evildoers.” A typical entry includes the authority’s name, work unit, gender, position, and phone number.
The last part—a phone number—is critical, and ties in to another grassroots effort of incredible proportions: phone calls. With petitioning offices sealed for the Falun Gong, and no recourse through the courts, adherents have had to become a legal system unto themselves. If websites such as Fawanghuihui.org and Minghui.org serve as virtual courts, phone calls to perpetrators are certainly one of the sentences. Across China and from countries around the world, adherents have been placing volumes of calls—staggering in quantity—to those most directly responsible for the group’s suffering.
But what’s the hope? Not so much “shaming straight” in this case. Rather, it goes back to the convictions shared by practitioners of Falun Gong. Principal among them is that every human being, no matter how base his actions, contains within the seeds of goodness, and on this account, is to be cherished. Reaching out is seen as an act of compassion; the perpetrator is harming himself, ultimately, as he harms others. Many describe their telephone conversations as attempts to “awaken” the “good” side of the perpetrator, to stir his or her conscience. Some authorities have declared openly over the phone: “I will never harm your people again—I was wrong.” Victories in life come in many forms.
Given that there is no public space allowed to China’s Falun Gong, be it physical or social, victories such as these are shared in virtual spaces, such as the Internet. No entity is of greater importance here than the Minghui.org website. Now in its eighth year, the site bridges communities both within China and around the world, and much more. It produces a range of publications ready for printing and distributing in China, even offering brief videos to burn to CD, with a choice of various, discreet labels. There one can find even the nuts and bolts of successful nonviolent protest: one of the web pages diagrams the parts and assembly of a banner-slingshot (for lack of a better term) by which one can hurl and unfurl a banner high above in treetops or over telephone wires—well out of harm’s reach.
The site’s daily online publication, meanwhile, has become a veritable goldmine of information and inspiration. Reports of persecution in China document torture and identify victims in need of help; accounts of activities around the world provide hope and awareness; forums provide a venue for the exchange of ideas; personal essays narrate individuals’ growth in the practice and fortitude in the face of oppression; and of course, “solemn declarations” allow those who have been broken by torture and brainwashing to begin anew. On any given day the site might receive communications from several hundred individuals.
This is not, of course, as easy as it sounds: Minghui.org and all of its kin are banned by the Chinese regime, and a mere visit to their webpages from inside China—should you manage to elude internet blocks—could mean a trip to prison.
Again, a coordinated international effort proves critical. Falun Gong practitioners in the West have since the earliest days of the persecution worked painstakingly to develop and deploy Internet technologies that break through the regime’s censorship, and achieved astounding success. Consider this: In 2005, websites unblocked by Falun Gong’s software received on average over 30 million hits per day from Chinese users. Websites such as Voice of America and Radio Free Asia have become available to Chinese through these technologies, as have the uncensored versions of search engines such as Google. No other group of Internet activists has managed to come remotely close to this degree of success. And again, this despite almost everything being self-funded and done on a voluntary basis.
Indeed, “a small body of determined spirits” can, if “fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission” alter the very course of history. Gandhi knew firsthand.
Internet support is just one of several helping hands from abroad, however. Falun Gong practitioners in the West have matched the sacrifices of their mainland China counterparts in their own ways, you might say. For example, while some in China were calling jails and labor camps to talk with abusive guards, those outside of China were making such calls as well. By 2005, an estimated 30–40 million had been made. Phone lines were given a workout by means of the fax as well, with overseas adherents sending an average of 300,000 faxes to China every month. So too has the larger body mailed informational VCDs and assorted publications into China.
Other efforts from the overseas community have included heavy use of Internet chatrooms as well as the broadcasting of both radio and satellite television programming into China. All, again, done without any financial compensation and on a voluntary, spare-time basis. Such is the power of conviction.
Leaving the Party
After nearly a decade of brutality, humiliation, and privation on account of their spiritual beliefs, China’s Falun Gong have come to see the workings of the persecution apparatus in vivid relief. A sharpened assessment has come about with time, one far less optimistic, you might say.
Whereas originally certain key figures behind the awful mess could be identified (e.g., Jiang Zemin, Luo Gan, and Li Lanqing), and clearly many officials disagreed with the hamhanded measures (e.g., Zhu Rongji), with time that distinction became ever less clear; strong-arm tactics and repeated purges gradually weeded out dissent from the Party’s ranks, solidifying the apparatus. To disagree was to risk one’s career. Those most vigorous in carrying out the suppression rose quickly through the ranks, with incentives being tied to obedience at every level of the system.
The very Communist Party system itself, it became clear, was the problem. “It was rotten beyond repair,” says Erping Zhang, a spokesperson for the Falun Gong based in New York. “To change or try to fix any one part, for instance the courts, is meaningless, when everything from the media to the educational system to the labor camps is controlled by the Party and made to serve the Party. The problem is systemic beyond belief.”
Zhao Ming, who was tortured in Beijing’s Tuanhe Labor Camp, echoes Zhang’s interpretation. “They have been doing this all through the history of the People’s Republic of China. During the ‘Cultural Revolution’ they destroyed and wiped out all Chinese traditional beliefs, including Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. No Westerner can understand this. I would say you can’t fathom their actions with a normal mind.”
For many, the intensity of the cruelty and hatred they saw foisted upon them by the Party fomented, as for Zhang and Zhao, a reexamination. Was it just Falun Gong? Or had the Party done this before, and in other forms?
The answer was spelled out in a nine-part critique of the Communist Party, titled “Nine Commentaries on the Chinese Communist Party” or “Jiu-ping” (“Nine Commentaries”) for short after the Chinese name. The series was published by a Chinese newspaper named Dajiyuan (The Epoch Times), to which a number of Falun Gong persons contribute time. Within just one month of its release (November 2004), veritable shockwaves had been sent throughout the halls of China’s rulers and throughout the land. By that time Meng Weizai, the former director of China’s Bureau of Art and Literature, along with Huang Xiaoming, an Olympic medalist, had declared they were quitting the Party. A flood of resignations soon began that received the strongest inadvertent verification in the form of official denials from the likes of the state-run Xinhua news agency. Other Party actions, otherwise baffling, soon followed, such as mandatory study sessions and campaigns to increase “Party discipline” and to “preserve the cutting-edge nature” of the Party. Was the leadership nervous? Interest in the Commentaries was only piqued by this.
In a short time what were originally 100–200 daily withdrawals from the Party had swelled to thousands; on the day of this writing a total of 33,613 quit, while for June 2007 the tally was 958,587. (It should be noted that “quitting” refers to the Party itself and its two affiliate organizations—the Youth League and Young Pioneers, which many join in China with “blood oaths” at a young age.)
But why such a dramatic response, and from so many? Stephen Gregory, an editor at The Epoch Times, offers this: “After 55 years of lies and terror, the people of China now have the chance to know their true history. For the first time, they can share with one another the tremendous losses they have suffered under the Chinese Communist Party. For the first time, they can step back from the Communist nightmare and consider the beauty and significance of the ancient civilization that the Communist Party has worked so hard to destroy.”
Gregory’s remarks suggest two important points, then. First, that for many, the Commentaries and the chance to break from the Party is almost cathartic, a cleansing of the soul, and an occasion for healing and reconciliation with self and past. Second, it is also a reclaiming—a reclaiming of Chinese culture and history, both of which have been captive to the whims and caprice of the Party for nearly six decades. Communism, as the Commentaries make poignantly clear, is the product of 19th century European thought, not traditional China.
The Commentaries in this light might be said to represent an act of unpoliticizing, rather than the reverse. That is, they seek to disentangle the specter of Communism from all things Chinese that it has grafted itself onto and politicized in the vilest of ways—picture Confucius being branded a “counter-revolutionary” or kids being made to smash Buddhist statues for their being “feudal superstition.” Similarly, for the Falun Gong, it is the ultimate act of unpoliticizing insofar as the Commentaries are a personal invitation to renewal and recovery of self—a self free of Party politics, free of arbitrary abuse, free of terrible cruelty. It is the ultimate in nonviolent resistance: resistance, or change, at the level of the soul.
If banners aren’t necessarily a good gauge of things, public statements from the people, by contrast, are. A growing chorus of voices from throughout China suggest that all of the Falun Gong’s efforts are having an impact, and an enormous one, at that.
As early as 2000 China’s prominent figures had begun to cite the example of the Falun Gong’s nonviolent efforts. According to a September Reuters report, the Chinese poet Huang Beiling had “called on the country’s intellectuals to follow the example of Falun Gong meditators by fighting government oppression through widespread civil disobedience.” The article quoted Huang saying, “They have been doing this peacefully. When they’re beaten, they don’t hit back. The intellectual community should do the same thing.”
Liu Binyan, often called “China’s conscience” and the country’s most important journalist in the last 50 years, described the Falun Gong as having “unprecedented courage,” explaining that, “these people have insisted on exercising their rights even though they know perfectly well that they will be arrested and some could even face the death penalty. This kind of attitude is unprecedented in the 50-year history of the PRC.”
That attitude, and the efforts by China’s Falun Gong to convey it to others, is fostering an admiration not seen in the early years. This past New Years, for example, hundreds of season’s greetings to Mr. Li Hongzhi, Falun Gong’s teacher, were published online, but this time with a twist. Namely, they came not from Falun Gong adherents, but from supporters and observers who found inspiration in Falun Gong’s conduct. Mr. Hu Ping, a leading Chinese intellectual and author, described Falun Gong’s cable-splicing as a “stunning feat,” and described the main figure, Liu Chengjun, as a “Falun Gong hero” and “a martyr in the fight for freedom of speech.”
The impact of the Commentaries has been particularly visible. Take for instance the call put forth more recently by Gao Zhisheng, a Christian and one of China’s most prominent attorneys. “As for how to bring about nonviolent change, I would say that the Falun Gong have succeeded at finding a means to change that will not lead to the shedding of one drop of blood. That approach is, to persuade people to quit the wicked Party—a party that has done every form of evil imaginable in this world. My suggestion is to quit the Party and be closer to God!” Gao, for the record, has referred to his own quitting of the Party as “the proudest day of my life.”
Recent years have witnessed a number of defectors from China, each with a tale involving Falun Gong and a change of heart. Chen Yonglin for instance, who was Consul for Political Affairs of the Consulate-General of China in Sydney, grew sick of his job there, which consisted largely of spying (unlawfully) on local Falun Gong devotees. One repentant defector (to Canada), Han Guangsheng, was Chief of the Shenyang [City] Justice Bureau, and oversaw camps where Falun Gong were tortured. Another who defected to Australia, Hao Fengjun, had been a police officer in China’s notorious 6-10 operation—charged with eradicating the group.
Each has come forth out of a mix of conviction and regret, knowing full well the risks of going public.
All three of them have stated that it was reading the Commentaries that inspired their break.
While Party authorities have tried to downplay the impact of the Commentaries, the move is born of fear, not confidence. Consider this: A 2005 study by the OpenNet Initiative—a collaborative project between institutes at the University of Toronto, Harvard, and Cambridge—discovered that 90% of tested Chinese websites containing references to the “Nine Commentaries” (Jiu-ping) were blocked in China—one of the three highest ratios found in the study.
Perhaps most dramatic of all turnarounds has been that of the masses of Chinese people who were coerced into mistreating Falun Gong. Chinese citizens—regular, non-Falun Gong citizens—are themselves writing “solemn declaration” statements, like those discussed in this article earlier, for publication on Minghui.org. Piece after piece describes having been intimidated, coerced, and threatened into opposing Falun Gong.
In one moving account, a man surnamed Feng described how state-run propaganda television shows demonizing Falun Gong left him terrified. So scared was he of the Falun Gong book in his house at the time, he decided to burn it. Shortly afterwards he became gravely ill. A chance encounter with a friend landed one of the Minghui.org’s publications in his lap, which Falun Gong adherents in China had printed out after accessing the site through anti-web-jamming technology. It was then that he realized the television shows programmed him to hate, as had state-run newspapers. “Falun Gong shouldn’t be persecuted,” Feng thus declared in his statement, and vowed to change himself for the better; he began silently reciting “Truth, Compassion, Tolerance”—Falun Gong’s guiding virtues—to himself, only to discover, a few days later, that “all my ailments were gone!” Feng ends his letter by asking forgiveness.
To date more than 55,000 public statements like Feng’s have been published online, with several hundred more being submitted each week.
Even those who haven’t mended their ways have given tacit affirmation to this growing momentum. History, they would seem to know, is not on their side. Chen Yonglin has indicated, for example, that many Party officials of high rank have begun anxiously sending family members abroad. Jiang Zemin and Zeng Qinghong, major figures in the genocide’s orchestration, have tried to gain certification of immigration status in Australia, Chen says—for themselves. “We’re going to see the Party’s collapse in the near future,” Chen confidently says.
Another unlikely nod came in 2005 when several sources inside China told of unlikely orders given within the state security apparatus. The plan this time? To begin destroying documents related to the anti-Falun Gong campaign. The move was described as “cover up work” in advance of an anticipated reversal on Falun Gong policy.
Or perhaps a larger reversal: of political rule. According to sources in China, on March 25, 2006, Heilongjiang province’s Party headquarters issued a circular ordering all classified documents issued by the Party’s central or provincial offices destroyed. This time, it was not just a matter of Falun Gong, but of communist operations more broadly.
Has the course of history already changed, then?
Hu Ping’s assessment, again, seems prescient. Writing in 2004, Hu weighed in declaring that, “Falun Gong cannot be defeated. The Communist government of China is one of the most powerful and dictatorial political regimes in the world; for five years it has mobilized the entire nation as one machine to destroy Falun Gong, but it hasn’t succeeded. Falun Gong has sustained its integrity during this unprecedented and horrendous trial.”
“Even the slightly informed have no doubt that the suppression will end in total failure. The vitality of Falun Gong cannot be underestimated, and its prospects for the future are bright.”
But how does that bode for China? Need change be threatening? Hu’s assessment is reassuring: “Falun Gong is going to play a major role in the revival of moral values in China.”
For all of us in the West who use toothpaste, or have pets to feed, that alone is reason to celebrate.
Levi Browde is Deputy Executive Director of the Falun Dafa Information Center. He lives in New York City with his wife and two children.