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The practice of Falun Gong was first taught publicly by Li in Northeast China in the spring of 1992, towards the end of China's "qigong boom." Falun Gong initially enjoyed considerable official support during the early years of its development. It was promoted by the state-run Qigong Association and other government agencies. By the mid-1990s, however, Chinese authorities sought to rein in the influence of qigong practices and enacted more stringent requirements on the country's various qigong denominations. In 1995 authorities mandated that all qigong groups establish Communist Party branches. The government also sought to formalize ties with Falun Gong and exercise greater control over the practice. Falun Gong resisted co-optation, and instead filed to withdraw altogether from the state-run qigong association.
Following this severance of ties to the state, the group came under increasing criticism and surveillance from the country's security apparatus and propaganda department. Falun Gong books were banned from further publication in July 1996, and official news outlets began criticizing the group as a form of "feudal superstition," whose "theistic" orientation was at odds with the official ideology and national agenda.
Chinese authorities began filtering and blocking overseas websites as early as the mid-1990s, and in 1998 the Ministry of Public Security developed plans for the "Golden Shield Project" to monitor and control online communications. The campaign against Falun Gong in 1999 provided authorities with added incentive to develop more rigorous censorship and surveillance techniques. The government also moved to criminalize various forms of online speech. China's first integrated regulation on Internet content, passed in 2000, made it illegal to disseminate information that "undermines social stability," harms the "honor and interests of the state," or that "undermines the state's policy for religions" or preaches "feudal" beliefs—a veiled reference to Falun Gong.
On 22 April 1999, several dozen Falun Gong practitioners were beaten and arrested in the city of Tianjin while staging a peaceful sit-in. The practitioners were told that the arrest order came from the Ministry of Public Security, and that those arrested could be released only with the approval of Beijing authorities.
At a meeting of the Politburo on 7 June 1999, Jiang described Falun Gong as a grave threat to Communist Party authority—"something unprecedented in the country since its founding 50 years ago"—and ordered the creation of a high-level committee to "get fully prepared for the work of disintegrating [Falun Gong]." Rumors of an impending crackdown began circulating throughout China, prompting demonstrations and petitions. The government publicly denied the reports, calling them "completely baseless" and offering assurances that it had never banned qigong activities.
Just after midnight on 20 July 1999, public security officers seized hundreds of Falun Gong practitioners from their homes in cities across China. Estimates on the number of arrests vary from several hundred to over 5,600. A Hong Kong newspaper reported that 50,000 individuals were detained in the first week of the crackdown. Four Falun Gong coordinators in Beijing were arrested and quickly tried on charges of "leaking state secrets". The Public Security Bureau ordered churches, temples, mosques, newspapers, media, courts and police to suppress Falun Gong. Three days of massive demonstrations by practitioners in some thirty cities followed. In Beijing and other cities, protesters were detained in sports stadiums. Editorials in state-run newspapers urged people to give up Falun Gong practice, and Communist Party members in particular were reminded that they were atheists and must not allow themselves to "become superstitious by continuing to practice Falun Gong."
Beginning in July 1999 Chinese authorities issued a number of notices and circulars prescribing measures to crack down on the Falun Gong and placing restrictions on the practice and expression of religious belief:
The Ministry of Justice required that lawyers seek permission before taking on Falun Gong cases, and called on them to "interpret the law in such a way as to conform to the spirit of the government's decrees." Additionally, on 5 November 1999 the Supreme People's Court issued a notice to all lower courts stating that it was their "political duty" to "resolutely impose severe punishment" against groups considered heretical, especially Falun Gong. It also required the courts at all levels to handle Falun Gong cases by following the direction of the Communist Party committees, thereby ensuring that Falun Gong cases would be judged based on political considerations, rather than evidence. Brian Edelman and James Richardson wrote that the SPC notice "does not comport well with a defendant's constitutional right to a defense, and it appears to assume guilt before a trial has taken place."
The Communist Party's campaign against Falun Gong was a turning point in the development of China's legal system, representing a "significant backward step" in the development of rule of law, according to Ian Dominson. In the 1990s the legal system was gradually becoming more professionalized, and a series of reforms in 1996–97 affirmed the principle that all punishments must be based on the rule of law. However, the campaign against Falun Gong would not have been possible if carried out within the narrow confines of China's existing criminal law. In order to persecute the group, in 1999 the judicial system reverted to being used as a political instrument, with laws being applied flexibly to advance the Communist Party's policy objectives. Edelman and Richardson write that "the Party and government's response to the Falun Gong movement violates citizens' right to a legal defense, freedom of religion, speech and assembly enshrined in the Constitution...the Party will do whatever is necessary to crush any perceived threat to its supreme control. This represents a move away from the rule of law and toward this historical Mao policy of 'rule by man.'"
State propaganda initially used the appeal of scientific rationalism to argue that Falun Gong's worldview was in "complete opposition to science" and communism. For example, the People's Daily newspaper asserted on 27 July 1999 that the fight against Falun Gong "was a struggle between theism and atheism, superstition and science, idealism and materialism." Other editorials declared that Falun Gong's "idealism and theism" are "absolutely contradictory to the fundamental theories and principles of Marxism," and that the "'truth, kindness and forbearance' principle preached by [Falun Gong] has nothing in common with the socialist ethical and cultural progress we are striving to achieve." Suppressing Falun Gong was presented as a necessary step to maintaining the "vanguard role" of the Communist Party in Chinese society.
Despite Party efforts, initial charges leveled against Falun Gong failed to elicit widespread popular support for the persecution of the group. In October 1999, three months after the persecution began, the Supreme People's Court issued a judicial interpretation classifying Falun Gong as a xiejiao. A broad translation of that term is "heretical teaching" or "heterodox teaching", but during the anti–Falun Gong propaganda campaign it was rendered as "cult" or "evil cult" in English. In the context of imperial China, the term "xiejiao" was used to refer to non-Confucian religions, though in the context of Communist China, it has been used to target religious organizations that do not submit to the authority of the Communist Party. Julia Ching writes that the "evil cult" label was defined by an atheist government "on political premises, not by any religious authority", and was used by the authorities to make previous arrests and imprisonments constitutional.
The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China has complained about their members being "followed, detained, interrogated and threatened" for reporting on the crackdown on Falun Gong. Foreign journalists covering a clandestine Falun Gong news conference in October 1999 were accused by the Chinese authorities of "illegal reporting". Journalists from Reuters, the New York Times, the Associated Press and a number of other organisations were interrogated by police, forced to sign confessions, and had their work and residence papers temporarily confiscated. Correspondents also complained that television satellite transmissions were interfered with while being routed through China Central Television. Amnesty International states that "a number of people have received prison sentences or long terms of administrative detention for speaking out about the repression or giving information over the Internet."
The Kilgour-Matas report called attention to the extremely short wait times for organs in China—one to two weeks for a liver compared with 32.5 months in Canada—indicating that organs were being procured on demand. A significant increase in the number of annual organ transplants in China beginning in 1999, corresponded with the onset of the persecution of Falun Gong. Despite very low levels of voluntary organ donation, China performs the second-highest number of transplants per year. Kilgour and Matas also presented incriminating material from Chinese transplant center web sites advertising the immediate availability of organs from living donors, as well as transcripts of telephone interviews in which hospitals told prospective transplant recipients that they could obtain Falun Gong organs. An updated version of their report was published as a book in 2009. Kilgour followed up on this investigation in a 680-page 2016 report.
From 1999 to 2013, the vast majority of detained Falun Gong practitioners were held in reeducation through labor (RTL) camps—a system of administrative detention where people can be imprisoned without trial for up to four years.
The government's use of "brainwashing sessions" began in 1999, but the network of transformation centers expanded nationwide in January 2001 when the central 610 Office mandated that all government bodies, work units, and corporations use them. The Washington Post reported "neighborhood officials have compelled even the elderly, people with disabilities and the ill to attend the classes. Universities have sent staff to find students who had dropped out or been expelled for practicing Falun Gong, and brought them back for the sessions. Other members have been forced to leave sick relatives" to attend the reeducation sessions. After the closure of the RTL system in 2013, authorities leaned more heavily on the transformation centers to detain Falun Gong practitioners. After the Nanchong RTL center in Sichuan province was closed, for example, at least a dozen of the Falun Gong practitioners detained there were sent directly to a local transformation center. Some former RTL camps have simply been renamed and converted into transformation centers.
Since 1999, several thousand Falun Gong practitioners have been sentenced to prisons through the criminal justice system. Most of the charges against Falun Gong practitioners are for political offenses such as "disturbing social order," "leaking state secrets," "subverting the socialist system," or "using a heretical organization to undermine the implementation of the law"—a vaguely worded provision used to prosecute, for instance, individuals who used the Internet to disseminate information about Falun Gong.
Since July 1999, civil servants and Communist Party members have been forbidden from practicing Falun Gong. Workplaces and schools were enjoined to participate in the struggle against Falun Gong by pressuring recalcitrant Falun Gong believers to renounce their beliefs, sometimes sending them to special reeducation classes to be "transformed". Failure to do so has results in lost wages, pensions, expulsion, or termination from jobs.
Falun Gong's response to the persecution in China began in July 1999 with appeals to local, provincial, and central petitioning offices in Beijing. It soon progressed to larger demonstrations, with hundreds of Falun Gong practitioners traveling daily to Tiananmen Square to perform Falun Gong exercises or raise banners in defense of the practice. These demonstrations were invariably broken up by security forces, and the practitioners involved were arrested—sometimes violently—and detained. By 25 April 2000, a total of more than 30,000 practitioners had been arrested on the square; seven hundred Falun Gong followers were arrested during a demonstration in the square on 1 January 2001. Public protests continued well into 2001. Writing for The Wall Street Journal, Ian Johnson wrote that "Falun Gong faithful have mustered what is arguably the most sustained challenge to authority in 50 years of Communist rule."
Since 2000, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture documented 314 cases of torture in China, representing more than 1,160 individuals. Falun Gong comprised 66% of the reported torture cases. The Special Rapporteur referred to the torture allegations as "harrowing" and asked the Chinese government to "take immediate steps to protect the lives and integrity of its detainees in accordance with the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners".
Among the first torture deaths reported in the Western press was that of Chen Zixiu, a retired factory worker from Shandong Province. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning article on the persecution of Falun Gong, Ian Johnson reported that labor camp guards shocked her with cattle prods in an attempt to force her to renounce Falun Gong. When she refused, "[Officials] ordered Chen to run barefoot in the snow. Two days of torture had left her legs bruised and her short black hair matted with pus and blood...She crawled outside, vomited, and collapsed. She never regained consciousness." Chen died on 21 February 2000.
A turning point in the government's campaign against Falun Gong occurred on 23 January 2001, when five people set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square. Chinese government sources declared immediately they were Falun Gong practitioners driven to suicide by the practice, and filled the nation's media outlets with graphic images and fresh denunciations of the practice. The self-immolation was held up as evidence of the "dangers" of Falun Gong, and was used to legitimize the government's crackdown against the group.
Entire news organizations have not been immune to press restrictions concerning Falun Gong. In March 2001, Time Asia ran a story about Falun Gong in Hong Kong. The magazine was pulled from the shelves in Mainland China, and threatened that it would never again be sold in the country. Partly as a result of the difficult reporting environment, by 2002, Western news coverage of the persecution within China had all but completely ceased, even as the number of Falun Gong deaths in custody was on the rise.
The transformation process usually occurs in prisons, labor camps, reeducation centers and other detention facilities. In 2001 Chinese authorities ordered that no Falun Gong practitioner was to be spared from the coercive measures used to make them renounce their faith. The most active were sent directly to labor camps, "where they are first 'broken' by beatings and other torture." Former prisoners report being told by the guards that "no measures are too excessive" to elicit renunciation statements, and practitioners who refuse to renounce Falun Gong are sometimes killed in custody.
Large-scale arrests are conducted periodically and often coincide with important anniversaries or major events. The first wave of arrests occurred on the evening of 20 July, when several thousand practitioners were taken from their homes into police custody. In November 1999—four months after the onset of the campaign—Vice Premier Li Lanqing announced that 35,000 Falun Gong practitioners had been arrested or detained. The Washington Post wrote that "the number of detained people...in the operation against Falun Gong dwarfs every political campaign in recent years in China." By April 2000 over 30,000 people had been arrested for protesting in defense of Falun Gong in Tiananmen Square. Seven hundred Falun Gong followers were arrested during a demonstration in the Square on 1 January 2001.
Robin Munro, former Director of the Hong Kong Office of Human Rights Watch and now Deputy Director with China Labour Bulletin, drew attention to the abuses of forensic psychiatry in China in general, and of Falun Gong practitioners in particular. In 2001, Munro alleged that forensic psychiatrists in China have been active since the days of Mao Zedong, and have been involved in the systematic misuse of psychiatry for political purposes. He says that large-scale psychiatric abuses are the most distinctive aspect of the government's protracted campaign to "crush the Falun Gong," and he found a very sizable increase in Falun Gong admissions to mental hospitals since the onset of the government's persecution campaign.
By late 2001, demonstrations in Tiananmen Square had become less frequent, and the practice was driven deeper underground. As public protest fell out of favor, practitioners established underground "material sites", which would produce literature and DVDs to counter the portrayal of Falun Gong in the official media. Practitioners then distribute these materials, often door-to-door. The production, possession, or distribution of these materials is frequently grounds for security agents to incarcerate or sentence Falun Gong adherents.
The 2002 Reporters Without Borders' report on China states that photographers and cameramen working with foreign media were prevented from working in and around Tiananmen Square where hundreds of Falun Gong practitioners had been demonstrating in recent years. It estimates that "at least 50 representatives of the international press have been arrested since July 1999, and some of them were beaten by police; several Falun Gong followers have been imprisoned for talking with foreign journalists." Ian Johnson, The Wall Street Journal correspondent in Beijing, wrote a series of articles which won him the 2001 Pulitzer Prize. Johnson left Beijing after writing his articles, stating that "the Chinese police would have made my life in Beijing impossible" after he received the Pulitzer.
In 2002, Falun Gong activists in China tapped into television broadcasts, replacing regular state-run programming with their own content. One of the more notable instances occurred in March 2002, when Falun Gong practitioners in Changchun intercepted eight cable television networks in Jilin Province, and for nearly an hour, televised a program titled Self-Immolation or a Staged Act?. All six of the Falun Gong practitioners involved were captured over the next few months. Two were killed immediately, while the other four were all dead by 2010 as a result of injuries sustained while imprisoned.
In 2004 the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution condemning the attacks on Falun Gong practitioners in the United States by agents of the Communist Party. The resolution reported that party affiliates have "pressured local elected officials in the United States to refuse or withdraw support for the Falun Gong spiritual group," that Falun Gong spokespeople have had their houses broken into, and individuals engaged in peaceful protest actions outside embassies and consulates have been physically assaulted.
Outside China, Falun Gong practitioners established international media organizations to gain wider exposure for their cause and challenge narratives of the Chinese state-run media. These include the Epoch Times newspaper, New Tang Dynasty Television, and Sound of Hope radio station. According to Zhao, through the Epoch Times it can be discerned how Falun Gong is building a "de facto media alliance" with China's democracy movements in exile, as demonstrated by its frequent printing of articles by prominent overseas Chinese critics of the PRC government. In 2004, the Epoch Times published "The Nine Commentaries", a collection of nine editorials which presented a critical history of Communist Party rule. This catalyzed the Tuidang movement, which encourages Chinese citizens to renounce their affiliations to the Communist Party of China, including ex post facto renunciations of the Communist Youth League and Young Pioneers. The Epoch Times claims that tens of millions have renounced the Communist Party as part of the movement, though these numbers have not been independently verified.
In 2005, researchers from Harvard and Cambridge found that terms related to Falun Gong were the most intensively censored on the Chinese Internet. Other studies of Chinese censorship and monitoring practices produced similar conclusions. A 2012 study examining rates of censorship on Chinese social media websites found Falun Gong-related terms were among the most stringently censored. Among the top 20 terms most likely to be deleted on Chinese social media websites, three are variations on the word "Falun Gong" or "Falun Dafa".
On 16 June 2005, 37-year-old Gao Rongrong, an accountant from Liaoning Province, was tortured to death in custody. Two years before her death, Gao had been imprisoned at the Longshan forced labor camp, where she was badly disfigured with electric shock batons. Gao escaped the labor camp by jumping from a second-floor window, and after pictures of her burned visage were made public, she became a target for recapture by authorities. She was taken back into custody on 6 March 2005 and killed just over three months later.
In December 2005 and November 2006, China's Deputy Health Minister acknowledged that the practice of removing organs from executed prisoners for transplants was widespread. However, Chinese officials deny that Falun Gong practitioners' organs are being harvested, and insist that China abides by World Health Organization principles that prohibit the sale of human organs without written consent from donors.
Overseas Chinese propaganda using this label has been censured by Western governments. The Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission in 2006 took issue with anti–Falun Gong broadcasts from Chinese Central Television (CCTV), noting "they are expressions of extreme ill will against Falun Gong and its founder, Li Hongzhi. The derision, hostility and abuse encouraged by such comments could expose the targeted group or individual to hatred or contempt and...could incite violence and threaten the physical security of Falun Gong practitioners."
In 2006, allegations emerged that many Falun Gong practitioners had been killed to supply China's organ transplant industry. These allegations prompted an investigation by former Canadian Secretary of State David Kilgour and human rights lawyer David Matas. In July 2006, the Kilgour-Matas report found that "the source of 41,500 transplants for the six year period 2000 to 2005 is unexplained" and concluded that "the government of China and its agencies in numerous parts of the country, in particular hospitals but also detention centres and 'people's courts', since 1999 have put to death a large but unknown number of Falun Gong prisoners of conscience".
In 2007, Falun Gong practitioners in the United States formed Shen Yun Performing Arts, a dance and music company that tours internationally. Falun Gong software developers in the United States are also responsible for the creation of several popular censorship-circumvention tools employed by internet users in China.
On 26 January 2008, security agents in Beijing stopped popular folk musician Yu Zhou and his wife Xu Na while they were on their way home from a concert. The 42-year-old Yu Zhou was taken into custody, where authorities attempted to force him to renounce Falun Gong. He was tortured to death within 11 days.
In May 2008, two United Nations Special Rapporteurs reiterated their requests for the Chinese authorities to adequately respond to the allegations, and to provide a source for the organs that would account for the sudden increase in organ transplants in China since 2000.
In 2008 Israel passed a law banning the sale and brokerage of organs. The law also ended funding, through the health insurance system, of transplants in China for Israeli nationals.
Falun Gong Practitioners outside China have filed dozens of lawsuits against Jiang Zemin, Luo Gan, Bo Xilai, and other Chinese officials alleging genocide and crimes against humanity. According to International Advocates for Justice, Falun Gong has filed the largest number of human rights lawsuits in the 21st century and the charges are among the most severe international crimes defined by international criminal laws. as of 2006, 54 civil and criminal lawsuits were under way in 33 countries. In many instances, courts have refused to adjudicate the cases on the grounds of sovereign immunity. In late 2009, however, separate courts in Spain and Argentina indicted Jiang Zemin and Luo Gan on charges of "crimes of humanity" and genocide, and asked for their arrest—the ruling is acknowledged to be largely symbolic and unlikely to be carried out. The court in Spain also indicted Bo Xilai, Jia Qinglin and Wu Guanzheng.
The transformation efforts are driven by incentives and directives issued from central Communist Party authorities via the 610 Office. Local governments and officials in charge of detention facilities are given quotas stipulating how many Falun Gong practitioners must be successfully transformed. Fulfillment of these quotas is tied to promotions and financial compensation, with "generous bonuses" going to officials who meet the targets set by the government, and possible demotions for those who do not. The central 610 Office periodically launches new transformation campaigns to revise the quotas and disseminate new methods. In 2010, it initiated a nationwide, three-year campaign to transform large numbers of Falun Gong practitioners. Documents posted on Party and local government websites refer to concrete transformation targets and set limits on acceptable rates of "relapse." A similar three-year campaign was launched in 2013.
Falun Gong practitioners and their supporters also filed a lawsuit in May 2011 against the technology company Cisco Systems, alleging that the company helped design and implement a surveillance system for the Chinese government to suppress Falun Gong. Cisco denied customizing their technology for this purpose.
In 2012 and early 2013, a series of news reports and exposés focused attention on human rights abuses at the Masanjia Forced Labor Camp, where approximately half of the inmates were Falun Gong practitioners. The exposure helped galvanize calls to end the reeducation-through-labor system. In early 2013, CPC General Secretary Xi Jinping announced that RTL would be abolished, resulting in the closure of the camps. However, human rights groups found that many RTL facilities have simply been renamed as prisons or rehabilitation centers, and that the use of extrajudicial imprisonment of dissidents and Falun Gong practitioners has continued.
At a rally on 12 July 2012, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, called on the Obama Administration to confront the Chinese leadership on its human rights record, including its oppression of Falun Gong practitioners. "It is essential that friends and supporters of democracy and human rights continue to show their solidarity and support, by speaking out against these abuses", she said.
In 2012, Professor of Bioethics Arthur Caplan stated,
In 2014, investigative journalist Ethan Gutmann published the results of his own investigation. Gutmann conducted extensive interviews with former detainees in Chinese labor camps and prisons, as well as former security officers and medical professionals with knowledge of China's transplant practices. He reported that organ harvesting from political prisoners likely began in Xinjiang province in the 1990s, and then spread nationwide. Gutmann estimates that some 64,000 Falun Gong prisoners may have been killed for their organs between the years 2000 and 2008.
Writing in 2015, Noakes and Ford noted that "Post-secondary institutions across the country – from agricultural universities to law schools to fine arts programmes – require students to prove that they have adopted the "correct attitude" on Falun Gong as a condition of admission." For example, students at many universities are required to obtain a certificate from the public security ministry certifying that they have no affiliation with Falun Gong. The same is true in employment, with job postings frequently specifying that prospective candidates must have no record of participation in Falun Gong. In some cases, even changing one's address requires proving the correct political attitude toward Falun Gong.
In 2016, the researchers published a joint update to their findings showing that the number of organ transplants conducted in China is much higher than previously believed, and that the death from illicit organ harvesting could be as high as 1,500,000. The 789-page report is based on an analysis of records from hundreds of Chinese transplant hospitals.
In June 2019, an independent tribunal sitting in London named the China Tribunal, established to inquire into forced organ harvesting from and among prisoners of conscience in China, stated that the members of the Falun Gong spiritual group continued to be murdered by China for their organs. The tribunal said it had clear evidence that forced organ harvesting has been taking place in China from over at least 20 years. China has repeatedly denied the accusations, claiming to have stopped using organs from executed prisoners in 2015. However, the lawyers and experts at the China Tribunal are convinced that the practice was still taking place with the imprisoned Falun Gong members "probably the principal source" of organs for forced harvesting.