April 25, 1999, was a special day in modern Chinese history. About 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners gathered in Beijing to peacefully appeal for the right to practice Falun Gong. There were no conflicts, banners, slogans, or yelling. Police officers were at ease, and the traffic continued as usual.
After then-premier Zhu Rongji met practitioner representatives and resolved the issue of the appeal, everyone left quietly, but not before cleaning the street of all litter.
Both the exceptional conduct by practitioners and the handling of the situation by the Chinese government were praised by the public and overseas news media.
About three months later, Jiang Zemin, former leader of the communist regime, launched a nationwide suppression of Falun Gong. Since then, practitioners worldwide have peacefully worked to counter the persecution.
On the 20th anniversary of this appeal, this article reviews what happened around the appeal in April 1999, the escalated persecution that followed, the ongoing efforts by Falun Gong practitioners, and voices of support from around the world.
Peaceful Appeal and Basic Human Rights
The April 25 appeal in Beijing occurred two days after 45 practitioners were arrested in Tianjin, a centrally-controlled city near Beijing. Many viewed the appeal a reflection of Falun Gong’s peaceful nature and its practitioners’ courage to safeguard its principles of Truthfulness-Compassion-Forbearance.
More specifically, practitioners brought three requests to be heard by the National Appeals Office in Beijing: release the practitioners detained in Tianjin, lift the ban on the publication of Falun Gong books, and allow a lawful environment for people to practice Falun Gong.
These requests were grounded in the Chinese Constitution: Article 35 grants freedom of speech and of the press, while Article 36 grants the freedom of religious belief.
Zhu Rongji, then the premier of China, met practitioner representatives and gave orders to release the detained practitioners in Tianjin. Zhu also referred to an earlier policy against criticising issues related to Falun Gong and other qigong practices.
However, Jiang Zemin, Communist Party leader at that time, wrote letters to members of the Politburo Standing Committee that day demanding to crush Falun Gong. Within three months, he launched a massive, systematic suppression.
An Escalating Genocide
In his own words, Jiang’s policy against Falun Gong practitioners was to “defame their reputations, bankrupt them financially, and destroy them physically.”
Based on information received by Minghui.org, at least 4,296 practitioners have lost their lives as a result of torture in police custody. More than 10,000 were imprisoned, hundreds of thousands were taken to forced labor camps, and hundreds of thousands more were taken to various brainwashing centres.
More than a hundred kinds of torture have been used on Falun Gong practitioners. Thousands of practitioners have also been forcibly taken to psychiatric hospitals and injected with nerve-damaging drugs. The regime has also harvested organs from living practitioners to supply transplants for profit.
Below are some of the turning points in the escalating suppression under Jiang’s persecution policy.
Mass Arrest in July 1999
Under Jiang’s orders, large-scale arrests were carried out across in China on July 20, 1999. Volunteer assistants of group exercise sites were detained, and along with many other practitioners, they were forced to give up Falun Gong and turn in their books. Those who refused were blacklisted and closely monitored. Their daily lives were affected, and they lost their basic human rights.
In addition to violence, news outlets across China were mobilised to defame Falun Gong, including radio stations, television stations, newspapers, and other media channels. Using propaganda tactics learned from previous political campaigns, Jiang’s regime was able to mislead the public and incite hatred toward practitioners.
Demonisation Through Overseas Media
During the prime time evening news on October 25, 1999, China Central Television (CCTV) broadcast Jiang’s interview about his trip to France. When talking with a reporter from Le Figaro, the oldest national daily in France, Jiang called Falun Gong an “evil cult.” All major news outlets in China carried this speech the next day. This resulted in the arrest of nearly 1,000 Falun Gong practitioners who protested at Tiananmen Square and at appeals offices.
On the third day, the People’s Daily published an article by its special commentator titled “Falun Gong is a cult.” About 600 practitioners went to Tiananmen Square to defend Falun Gong.
Seventeen of them held up banners related to Falun Gong on Tiananmen Tower. After they were arrested, 15 of them were sentenced to imprisonment with terms ranging from four months to two years, while the other two were taken back to their hometowns for detention.
In addition to publishing personal opinions and newspaper commentaries, Jiang’s regime also used overseas news outlets to justify and intensify the persecution.
The Hainan Intermediate Court sentenced four Falun Gong practitioners on November 13, 1999 to terms between 2 and 12 years. These sentences became the norm in Beijing and throughout China. Since then, a large number of practitioners have been imprisoned for their belief or efforts to raise awareness of the persecution.
Chen Yuanchao, presiding judge of the trial in Hainan, received numerous rewards from the regime. Two years later, however, the 52-year-old Chen was diagnosed with lung cancer and suffered a painful death on September 2, 2003.
Some attributed his demise to karmic retribution for establishing the precedent for imprisoning practitioners–people who follow the principles of Truthfulness-Compassion-Forbearance.
To escalate the persecution, the regime fabricated a self-immolation incident in which Falun Gong practitioners allegedly set themselves on fire at Tiananmen Square on January 23, 2001.
Within two hours, Xinhua News Agency reported on the event in both English and Chinese. The unusual efficiency triggered many to investigate this incident, resulting in a video analysis, which concluded that the incident was staged.
Philip Pan of the Washington Post reported on February 4, 2001, that Liu Chunling, one of the people involved in the incident, did not behave like a Falun Gong practitioner, and no one ever saw her practice Falun Gong.
The International Education Development (IED) organisation condemned the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners in China and referred to it as “state terrorism.”
“We have obtained a video of that incident that in our view proves that this event was staged by the government. We have copies of that video available for distribution,” said a statement from IED to the United Nations on August 14, 2001.
False Fire: China’s Tragic New Standard in State Deception, a documentary produced by NTD Television that showed how the self-immolation was staged, won a Certificate of Honorable Mention at the 51st Columbus International Film & Video Festival.
Numerous witnesses also testified independently that martial law was enforced on Tiananmen Square that day and that the entire drama was a staged event.
Based on these pieces of evidence, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) also deemed the self-immolation incident a hoax.
The 610 Office: An Extrajudicial Organisation to Drive the Persecution
Jiang ordered the establishment of an extrajudicial organisation to supervise the suppression of Falun Gong.
The 610 Office was named after the dates of its founding, June 10, 1999. Its first director was Vice Premier Li Lanqing. The assistant directors were Luo Gan, then head of the Political and Legal Affairs Committee (PLAC), and Ding Guangen, Minister of Propaganda.
After Beijing was selected as the host for the 2008 Olympic Games, Li said on July 16, 2001, that the selection indicated that the international society had acknowledged China’s social status and its policy to combat cults. On the same day, the 610 Office was promoted from a division-level agency to a bureau-level agency.
Analysts speculated that the international community intended to improve China’s human rights conditions by allowing it to host the Olympics.
On the contrary, Jiang used this opportunity to escalate the persecution. All levels of the 610 Office were elevated to operate together with PLACs at the same level instead of under the police system of that level.
Killing Without Mercy
On the evening of March 5, 2002, practitioners in Changchun, Jilin Province, tapped into television broadcasts and played videos countering the regime’s propaganda against Falun Gong and explaining the self-immolation hoax. It lasted 40 or 50 minutes without interruption. In response, Jiang gave an order to kill practitioners without mercy.
Police later detained 5,000 practitioners in Changchun, and 7 died during the mass arrest. Among those detained, 15 were sentenced to between 4 and 20 years of imprisonment.
Following the arrest in August 2002, Mr. Hou Mingkai died from torture within two days. After being detained for 21 months, Mr. Liu Chengjun died on December 26, 2003.
Similar TV interceptions in other cities were also met with severe retaliation. In Chongqing, four practitioners were sentenced to between 7 and 16 years of imprisonment. One practitioner died in detention. After practitioners broadcast videos in Hebei Province in August 2002, a large number of police officers were dispatched. Armed officers shot at a practitioner’s vehicle, and all 6 practitioners were arrested.
During a meeting in late July 2010 in Wuhan, Hubei Province, officials from the 610 Office throughout China exchanged experiences on suppressing Falun Gong.
Zhou Yongkang, then General Secretary of the PLAC, reiterated Jiang’s order from when the persecution first started in 1999—to eradicate Falun Gong within three months. Zhou also allocated special funds for this purpose throughout China.
After this conference, the order from Zhou was carried out across the provinces, leading to a three-year “battle” against Falun Gong. Practitioners were harassed, arrested, imprisoned, and taken to labor camps. Prison officials also ordered inmates to torture and brainwash practitioners.
Orders from the 610 Office summarised strategies that would force practitioners to renounce their belief, including harassing practitioners at home, threatening employers to cooperate with officials, and mobilising family and neighbors to coerce practitioners to give up their belief.
The Supreme Court and Supreme Procuratorate issued a statutory interpretation on January 25, 2017, explaining Article 300 of the Chinese Criminal Law, “undermining the implementation of law using heretical organisations.”
As with previous interpretations, it did not name Falun Gong. However, most of its contents were related to methods employed by practitioners to raise awareness of the persecution.
For example, if one possessed more than 500 banknotes marked with words related to Falun Gong, 1,000 copies of printed materials, or 50 banners or posters, one would be sentenced to 3 to 7 years of imprisonment and fined. Severe cases would result in imprisonment of longer than 7 years or lifetime detention.
These statutory interpretations have been used to prosecute practitioners over the past 20 years.
In recent years, the persecution has become more secretive, and it is rarely mentioned by the media. Even the forced labor camp system was abolished in 2013. Officials loyal to Jiang, however, still maintain these statutory interpretations to sustain the persecution.
Retaliation for Lawsuits Against Jiang
A large number of practitioners began to file criminal complaints against Jiang for his initiation of the genocidal persecution. Since May 2015, over 200,000 practitioners and their family members have submitted such legal complaints to the Supreme Procuratorate and the Supreme Court.
In addition, more than 2.6 million people from 31 countries have signed a petition calling for Jiang’s prosecution.
Article 41 of the Chinese Constitution states, “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China have the right to criticise and make suggestions regarding any State organ or functionary. The given State organ must, in a responsible manner and by ascertaining the facts, deal with the complaints, charges or exposures made by citizens. No one may suppress such complaints, charges and exposures or retaliate against the citizens making them.”
However, officials have blocked many of these submissions and harassed the plaintiffs. Many practitioners have also been arrested and imprisoned as a result.
Raising Awareness of the Persecution
The spirit of the peaceful appeal on April 25 continues nearly 20 years later. Despite being subjected to horrific abuse, practitioners have responded with kindness and patience, even toward officials who had persecuted them. They continue to tell the public about Falun Gong and the persecution, both in China and around the world.
Within 10 days after the onset of the persecution on July 20, 1999, hundreds of thousands of people went to Beijing to petition the central government. With all major roads blocked or checked by police, many practitioners went to Beijing by walking or riding bicycles.
One woman on a bus was stopped en route by police and had all her money confiscated. She did not return home but instead walked hundreds of miles from Baishan City, Jilin Province, to Beijing, begging for food along the way.
When another practitioner was arrested in Beijing, he took out several worn-out cloth shoes from a bag and showed them to the officer: “I walked a long distance all the way to Beijing. All I want to do is to tell our government that Falun Gong is good and the persecution is wrong.”
Practitioners publicise information about the persecution by giving out fliers, putting up banners, making phone calls, mailing letters, and talking to people face-to-face, including while shopping, riding the bus, and attending gatherings.
Outside China, practitioners participate in community events, set up booths at tourist attractions, talk with government officials, and inform the public through news media.
Falun Gong Practiced Worldwide
The founder of Falun Gong, Mr. Li Hongzhi, first taught the self-cultivation practice to the public in May 1992. Its gentle exercises and principles of Truthfulness-Compassion-Forbearance attracted people of all ages from all walks of life. Tens of millions of practitioners have found improvements in their health and morality.
Despite twenty years of persecution, practitioners have not given up their belief. Rather, many people have learned about Falun Gong and begun to practice it.
In 1999, Falun Gong was practiced in over 30 countries. It is now popular in more than 100 countries across Asia, Europe, Africa, North America, South America, and Australia. The main text, Zhuan Falun, has been translated into over 40 languages.
Persecution Has No Legal Basis
While the Chinese Constitution provides citizens freedom of belief and freedom of speech, officials have justified the persecution using Jiang’s orders, police orders, and other Communist Party policies.
The reality is, neither Article 300 of the Chinese Criminal Law nor statutory interpretations allows the detention and sentencing of Falun Gong practitioners.
In addition, physical torture, psychiatric abuse, brainwashing, and organ harvesting far exceeds the boundaries of law. Courts’ regular practice of obstructing attorneys from representing and defending practitioners, as well as the detention and torture of some of these attorneys, further highlights the illegality of the persecution policy.
Grassroots Support in China
Through practitioners’ perseverance, many people in China have learned about both Falun Gong and the persecution despite the communist regime’s tight censorship.
Since 2008, about 150,000 people have circumvented the internet blockade and submitted solemn declaration letters to Minghui.org, voiding their previous slander of Dafa.
Many citizens have collected petition signatures calling for the release of detained practitioners. Some individual cases garnered hundreds or even thousands of public signatures and fingerprints.
For Mr. Qin Yueming, who was arrested in Heilongjiang Province and later died as a result of persecution, 15,000 signed their names to call for an investigation into his case and for an end to the persecution.