Violent Suppression of 100 Million People
It’s one of the largest campaigns of religious persecution happening in the world over the past 20 years.
Millions of innocent people in China have been fired from their jobs, expelled from school, jailed, tortured, or killed simply for practicing Falun Gong.
For the tens of millions of people who practice Falun Gong today in China, each day they live at risk of being taken away by Chinese authorities to be jailed, tortured—or worse.
The campaign of persecution [against Falun Gong] has been carried out by government officials and police at all levels, and has permeated every segment of society.
Why is Falun Gong Persecuted?
Throughout the 1990s, Falun Gong garnered support from numerous Chinese government agencies as a meditation practice deemed to improve public health and morality.
But on July 22, 1999, a massive campaign of suppression was launched. What went wrong?
One basic explanation for the seemingly irrational campaign against Falun Gong is the nature of China’s atheist and dictatorial Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which fears all groups outside its control – particularly ones that subscribe to a different ideology. From the mid-1990s, some in the Party felt their power threatened by Falun Gong’s popularity. The full persecution occurred following years of escalating harassment (timeline),
The Party has tried several times to eradicate all expressions of religion from China (a country traditionally referred to as “the land of the divine”). To this day Roman Catholics, many Protestants, and Tibetan Buddhists cannot worship freely in China and are at constant risk of detention and torture.
By 1999, Falun Gong became a natural target as it was the largest – and fastest growing – spiritual group in China with 100 million practitioners nationwide, according to Chinese government reports at the time.
Others have noted that the decision to launch the campaign is linked to former-Party head Jiang Zemin’s “fear” and “jealousy” of Falun Gong, while other leaders at the time found the group innocuous. Sources cited by the Washington Post state that, “Jiang Zemin alone decided that Falun Gong must be eliminated,” and “picked what he thought was an easy target.” (more about the origins of the campaign)
Perhaps the most prominent feature of the campaign has been its prevalent use of extreme torture. Torture of Falun Gong adherents has been documented in each of China’s provinces, in jails, labor camps, brainwashing centers, and schools in China’s big cities, small towns, and villages.
Common torture techniques include shocking with electric batons, burning with irons, tying the body in painful positions for days, force-feeding saline solutions through a plastic tube inserted up the nose, and prying out fingernails with bamboo shoots, to name a few; rape and sexual torture of the Falun Gong in detention are prevalent as well.
To date over 4,000 deaths have been documented, and at least 63,000 accounts of torture. An estimate of the real figure puts the actual death toll in the tens of thousands (more about torture).
Imprisonment and Brainwashing
For hundreds of thousands of people in China, the most basic reality of the campaign against Falun Gong has been long periods of detention in “reform through labor” camps or prisons – China’s Gulag system – after farcical or nonexistent trials. There they are forced to work up to 20 hours per day, producing – without pay – toys, Christmas tree lights, chopsticks, and soccer balls for export. Those who refuse are tortured (more about arbitrary detention and slavery).
Be it in labor camps, jails, or in special reeducation centers, all detained Falun Gong practitioners have been forced to undergo what can only be described as brainwashing. The Communist Party’s goal is to force these people to renounce their spiritual beliefs and come to view Falun Gong as dangerous, as well as to turn in others who are active in exposing the persecution.
The key ingredients of the brainwashing process, or what the Party calls “transformation,” is sleep deprivation, hours on end of staring at videos vilifying Falun Gong, threats, and Cultural Revolution-style “struggle sessions”. Some particularly “stubborn” individuals who refuse to transform are injected with psychotropic drugs in asylums as treatment for the mental disorder of incorrect political thinking (more about psychological persecution).
The Party’s ultimate solution for the vast number of incarcerated Falun Gong adherents, however, is much more terrifying. According to current and former hospital employees, the Falun Gong have been used in reverse organ-matching – they have been killed by the thousands so that their organs can be used for on-demand transplants.
Livers, kidneys, hearts, and cornea are removed from the living, anesthetized Falun Gong adherents with matching blood-types and sold to Party officials and other desperate-yet-wealthy individuals from China and abroad. Undercover investigators’ phone calls to Chinese hospitals have caught doctors boasting about this practice on tape (more about organ harvesting).
Censorship and Propaganda Fuel Violence
But, as in every genocide of the twentieth century, extreme violence first required dehumanization of “the other” through propaganda. Indeed, one key measure in the Party’s suppression has been to limit, and distort, information about Falun Gong—both in China and elsewhere.
From day one of the suppression, the regime banned all books and informational media produced discussing Falun Gong positively. All websites relating to the practice were immediately blocked. Millions of Falun Gong books were forcibly seized and burned publicly. The regime feared people might learn, if they knew not already, that Falun Gong was a healthy, normal, and positive way of life embraced by millions (more about censorship).
These censorship efforts have, of course, extended to cyberspace, thanks in no small part to Western companies who have enthusiastically sold Internet surveillance technology to the Party’s security apparatuses. As a result, Chinese people are now in jail for posting evidence of torture online or simply downloading articles about Falun Gong (more about the persecution and the Internet).
Alongside censorship, the Party has sought to scandalize Falun Gong through an aggressive propaganda blitz. The regime has been determined to paint Falun Gong as dangerous, deviant, and abnormal.
Former Party Chairman Jiang Zemin led the way, attaching onto Falun Gong the label of “cult” three months after his ban as a means to further bend public opinion. Under CCP guidance, various ministries and state media outlets then launched numerous publications, radio and TV shows, and even plays, comic books, and exhibitions meant to demonize Falun Gong (more about this propaganda campaign).
Government officials around the world, meanwhile, report receiving defamatory materials from Party emissaries. These are often accompanied by attempts to pressure the elected officials to stay silent about abuses perpetrated against the Falun Gong, to rescind proclamations in recognition of Falun Gong’s contributions to the community, and to block local Falun Gong activities such as parades or conferences.
Business owners, journalists, and scholars have also been subjected to similar pressure tactics and threats (more about pressure overseas), leading to a sometimes eerie silence in Western press and academia (see “Out of the Media Spotlight”).
Social & Economic Impact
Indeed, those who chose the latter have most commonly faced forms of oppression that do not make headlines – dismissal from work, expulsion from universities, deprivation of health care and pensions, divorce, homelessness, and a range of other forms of discrimination (more about: persecution in the family, persecution at work and school, and destitution).
When the persecution was launched in 1999, tens of millions of Chinese who practiced the meditation discipline were faced with a choice. One option was to again surrender to the Communist Party and abandon a practice that had brought them better health, spiritual guidance, and, invariably, newfound hope. A second option seemed to be to continue practicing quietly at home – but as raids quickly showed, this was impossible even if one were able to turn a blind eye to the persecution of family and friends. A final option was to openly resist the persecution in spite of knowing full well what the painful consequences might be. Whatever the chosen response, Falun Gong adherents have displayed remarkable resilience, with tens of millions still practicing in China today and some new people even joining their ranks.
For those who have chosen to more actively resist, Falun Gong practitioners have been consistent in refusing to adopt violence as an option, focusing instead on using every available peaceful avenue to have their voices heard. Adherents first tried to reason with Communist Party rulers through letters and petitions. When these fell on deaf ears, the Falun Gong turned to Tiananmen Square where – through quietly meditating or displaying banners before being arrested – they sought to call upon the conscience of the Chinese people as well as world leaders. As the persecution continued, the Falun Gong began countering state propaganda by distributing information exposing the persecution through leaflets, VCDs, emails, and phone calls.
Collectively, this resistance movement – composed of bold individual acts in spite of great personal risks – constitutes what is probably today’s largest nonviolent movement in the world (see “Peaceful Resistance”).