Unprecedented Courage in the Cultural Revolution-Style Persecution
By Liu Binyan
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) established itself and finally won political power by relying on the support of the masses. “The people” is one of the most commonly used phrases in the CCP’s official language. But unfortunately this phrase has been turned into an abstract, almost mystical concept designed to control and direct the lives of the real people. Terrorizing and despising the people has been a characteristic of CCP leaders since Mao Zedong. He constantly mobilized mass movements to achieve his political purposes, while at the same time forbidding people from initiating any kind of political activities of their own, so even non-political organizations were strictly banned. In the past, the focus of the repressive apparatus was mainly concentrated on university students and intellectuals, and only in the 1990s did it shift toward farmers and workers. The CCP had never viewed urban people who had become disengaged from the collective structures of society and did not appear to pose any kind of organizational threat as potentially antagonistic to its interests.
People have been practicing qigong (exercises that move the practitioner’s non-physical energy, or qi) to improve their health for the past 30 plus years of the PRC’s history. Some of the qigong practice groups have even been allowed to become legitimate organizations, demonstrating that the CCP has not seen them as a threat. However, some particular groups have been disbanded when they have become very large and their leaders were very charismatic. But groups like Falun Gong, which have been able to win tens of millions of followers in the space of a few years, have been a rare occurrence.
It is said that one reason for Falun Gong’s astonishing popularity is its highly effective curative powers, which accord with the pragmatic mentality of the Chinese people, especially in the light of the fact that free medical services for employees of state-owned enterprise are being cut, a reality which has greatly increased people’s need for alternative forms of health care. Another reason people speak of is the growing moral vacuum in society and the lack of collective values, a trend which started to be seen in the 1970s. In the 1990s the decline in basic human decency has been even more pronounced, while crime has been rising unchecked, leading to a sense of uncertainty in the community. This made the religious character of Falun Gong, with its promotion of the principles of truthfulness, benevolence and forbearance, even more attractive.
Of course the participation and support of powerful cadres at the top and middle levels of the CCP hierarchy, people with high social status and strong political influence, also increased the legitimacy and appeal of Falun Gong. There is no basis for the claim that these people have any political ambitions. However, it is true that many old and retired officials feel dissatisfied with current CCP policy, official corruption and the state of society, but think they have no power to intervene. For them, strengthening a movement like Falun Gong could be seen as a way of cleansing the spirit of society, and thus appeared to be a way of addressing some of their concerns. From April to June this year, Jiang Zemin suddenly seemed determined to treat Falun Gong as a major political enemy, employing all means to destroy the organization. One reason for this was his fear of any people’s movement not controlled by the CCP. (It had developed such a large membership and the example of the way followers surrounded the leadership compound, Zhongnanhai, on April 25, 1999, demonstrated a phenomenal level of organization.) Second was his fear of the potential for splits within the Party if those CCP cadres who belonged to Falun Gong decided to transform the movement into an opposition force.
Religion has always been a separate issue from science. The way the Chinese government is attacking Falun Gong teachings as unscientific is unreasonable. Of course, this does not mean one cannot pose challenges both to the teachings and to Li Hongzhi himself, but this is not an acceptable reason to negate Falun Gong. The group’s followers have not demonstrated any destructive fanaticism, indeed their behavior has been peaceful, rational and constructive. The CCP’s smear tactics of calling Falungong a cult are just absurd.
The membership of Falun Gong is not limited to those people who have too much leisure time on their hands. One of the most important hotbeds of Falungong is the Jiang’an Locomotive Factory in Wuhan; it was labeled by the anti-Falun Gong campaign as among “the worst-hit disaster areas.” Famous as the center of the “February Seventh” strike campaign launched by the CCP in the 1920s, this plant has particular significance for the regime. The crackdown initiated in July 1999 had little effect there. As soon as Workers who had been detained were released, they continued all of their activities. The authorities ordered the managers of the factory to help reeducate those workers who are Falungong members, but that also did not change anything. Most of the Falun Gong members in the factory are known to be honest, hard-working people who are dissatisfied with the current social environment.
Not long after the Chinese government launched its campaign for the complete suppression of Falun Gong, using all possible means to achieve its aims, the US-based Chinese language newspaper World Journal said in a commentary: “With the force of the entire state machine against them, even if Falun Gong members number in the tens of millions, they will find it virtually impossible to resist. The biggest popular movement since June Fourth, ‘practicing qigong as a means of protest,’ will gradually subside.” Many people, including myself, agreed with this sentiment at that time. I did not believe that Falun Gong would be totally exterminated, but that it would become an underground movement. But the reality proved us all wrong.
Falun Gong members inside China have not ceased their protests opposing the regime’s treatment of their movement during the past four months, and since October, their campaign of disobedience has actually intensified. It is hard to believe that at least two groups of members managed to break though the strict police blockade to enter Tiananmen Square and practice qigong and meditation while the celebrations for the PRC’s 50th anniversary were in progress. And since October 25, the number of people staging similar protests has increased; these people 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. Another historic first was seen when, on November 30, Falun Gong members successfully held a press conference for the international media in Beijing.
From 1949 onward, with the exception of a few exceptional individuals, those singled out as the targets of the many political campaigns launched by the CCP have been forced to bend their heads and admit their “crimes,” following the will of the Party and accepting their punishment, even if they had been the head of state, or the number one in the Party, to if they were just one among the millions of intellectuals and cadres being persecuted. The scale on which the CCP mobilized the propaganda apparatus across the country to attack and slander Falun Gong was comparable to the “great struggle sessions” of the Cultural Revolution. And the threats, detentions and criminal prosecutions directed toward Falun Gong members were also not much different to the persecution in the Cultural Revolution. It is fair to say that the full panoply of psychological and physical weapons is being used against them. But Falun Gong has not surrendered, becoming the first social organization that the Party dictatorship has been unable to crush in 50 years. This has far-reaching significance, and will have a variety of social and political consequences. One of the most important of these is the widespread resentment the CCP’s handling of this issue has caused among the people.
Recently Jiang Zemin said: “I don’t believe we can’t deal with Falun Gong!” But when Chinese people use this construction, “I don’t believe I can’t…”, on the one hand they are indicating their determination to deal with the matter, and on the other they are acknowledging that they face serious obstacles to achieving their aims. Evidently Jiang Zemin has discovered that Falun Gong is not as easy to deal with as he thought when he ordered the crackdown in July.
One fundamental reason why, in the space of seven years, Falun Gong
has become the largest social organization in the PRC’s history and why
its members are so persistent despite the odds, is that China is beset
by a spate of crises created by the CCP, and which the Party has no means
of solving. If Falun Gong does not commit any major errors, the existence
and development of these crossed will mean that it will continue to expand
and gain more people’s sympathy. For this reason, I and a number of friends
have independently come to the conclusion that in his attack on Falungong,
Jiang Zemin has picked up the stone which will crush his own foot; this
campaign may be one of the factors which brings his rule to an end.
Liu Binyan established a tradition of investigative reporting when he worked for People’s Daily in the 1980s. Twice expelled from the CCP, he now lives in the United States, and continues his journalistic work. He is currently working on a book presenting his perspective on Chinese history.