The Communist Party of China represses every belief system it does not control. At one time, one could say that the Party would repress every belief system other than its own. But with the switch from socialism to capitalism highlighted by then president Deng Xiaoping's statement 1984 "to get rich is glorious", Communism in China was gutted of its ideological content. All that was left was the hollow shell of power to which the rulers have held on to for dear life. Despite ceasing to stand for anything except enriching and empowering its cadres, the Communist Party will not accept any other belief.
The Communist Party banned the practice of Falun Gong in 1999, a set of exercises with a spiritual foundation. At the time, the repression of the Falun Gong just seemed Communist Party business as usual. When the Communists are repressing every other community of belief they do not control, it is hardly surprising that they also banned the practice of Falun Gong.
What is striking about Chinese Communist repression of the Falun Gong is not so much the fact of repression as the extent of repression. Practitioners of Falun Gong are persecuted far more, far worse than adherents of any other belief.
Falun Gong has the ignominious honour of leading by far the parade of human rights victims in China. They represent two thirds of the torture victims. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture's 2006 report on his 2005 mission to China1 indicated that 66% of the victims of alleged torture and ill-treatment in China were Falun Gong practitioners, with the remaining victims comprising Uighurs (11%), sex workers (8%), Tibetans (6%), human rights defenders (5%), political dissidents (2%), and others (persons infected with HIV/AIDS and members of religious groups 2%)2.
Falun Gong represents half the people in detention in re-education through labour camps. The United States Department of State Country Reports for 2008 state:
Falun Gong practitioners and prisoners sentenced to death are the sole victims of organ harvesting, the killing of innocents for their organs for transplant surgery. Former Canadian Minister of State David Kilgour and I wrote a report on organ sourcing in China released first June 2006 and, in a second version, January 2007 under the title "Bloody Harvest: Organ Harvesting of Falun Gong practitioners in China". In that report we concluded that between 2001 and 2006 China killed Falun Gong practitioners in the tens of thousands so that their organs could be sold to foreign transplant tourists.
The extremes of language the Chinese regime uses against the Falun Gong are unparalleled, unmatched by the comparatively mild criticisms China has of the victims the West is used to defending. The documented yearly arbitrary killings and disappearances of Falun Gong exceed by far the totals for any other victim group.
The question which arises from all this is not so much why the Falun Gong is being persecuted. To believe in anything the Party does not control, if you live in China, means you run the risk of persecution. The question is rather, why is the Communist Party persecuting Falun Gong practitioners so much worse, so much more than adherents of other beliefs? Why is Falun Gong alone of all the beliefs which the Communist Party represses the victim of organ harvesting?
There are two obvious answers for organ harvesting, the large numbers and the grotesque incitement. Only the Falun Gong are a large enough number in the Chinese detention system to constitute, on their own, a captive organ donor bank throughout China. Only the Falun Gong are dehumanized so viciously that their jailers and the hospitals who pay them off do not even think of them as human.
But that does not get us very far. Why are the Falun Gong jailed in such large numbers? Why are they so dehumanized? I have a dozen suggested explanations.
1 One is simply the numbers. Falun Gong before it was banned had, according to a 1999 Government estimate, 70 million adherents. That year, the Communist Party of China membership was an estimated 60 million. In Beijing alone, before the banning, there were more than 2000 Falun Gong practice stations. Practitioners were found everywhere, at all levels of society and government, within the inner reaches of the Communist Party.
A group of that size no matter what its belief attracts the attention of a repressive government. The Falun Gong, before their banning, were not anti-Communist. But they weren't Communist either. And that was, for the Communists, a matter of concern. These were people who no particular fealty to the Communist Party of China.
2 When it comes to victimization of the innocent at home, the Chinese Communist government is much like other tyrannies. The chosen enemies vary from country to country, but, whatever the country, the story is much the same - innocents suffer so that despots can stay in power.
At one level, the Chinese Communist repression of Falun Gong is sheer totalitarian nuttiness, the manufacturing of an enemy out of thin air, a form of paranoia to which the followers of Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse Tung are prone. The Communist Party needs enemies in order to justify their continuing hold on power and the Falun Gong had the bad luck to be around in sufficient numbers and available to fill the enemy slot.
For a communist regime, far worse than having bitter enemies is having no enemies at all. Without anyone to demonize, communists are left speechless when justifying their hold on power.
3 Another facet of the Falun Gong which led to their singling out is their principles. In short, the Falun Gong stand for three basic beliefs - compassion, tolerance and truth. Anyone who believes in any one of these principles spells trouble for the Communist Party government - a cruel, repressive, dishonest regime. Tens of millions of Chinese believing in all three principles had to give the Party chills.
The worst nightmare of a gangster is an honest person. The nemesis of the corrupt are those who will not take a bribe. The venal speak a common language with the unscrupulous. With the principled, dialogue is impossible. All that is left is force.
4 The collapse of the Soviet Union and Communism through Central and Eastern Europe haunts the Chinese Communist Party. The practice of Falun Gong went from a standing start in 1992 to numbers greater than the membership of the Chinese Communist Party within the space of seven years, spreading rapidly throughout China immediately after the Tiananmen Square massacre, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of Communist Party control in Central Asia and Eastern and Central Europe. The Communist Party of China feared a similar collapse, a similar loss of control.
When the Party saw their own Chinese nationals, in the tens of millions, engaging publicly in a form of exercise which had an underlying belief system completely divorced from Communism, Communists fantasized the Falun Gong as the engine of their destruction. They turned a group of innocents into an enemy and launched a persecution to combat this imaginary enemy.
5 Fifth, there is the lack of structure. Falun Gong is neither a movement nor an organization; it is rather a set of exercises with a spiritual foundation. Literally, the word "Gong" means "practice" or "exercise" and Falun means "the wheel of law". The phrase "wheel of the law" is a short hand description of Falun Gong beliefs. So Falun Gong is a form or type of practice or exercise.
The exercises can be done by anyone, anywhere, at any time, though commonly they are done once daily in groups. Those who are interested can begin the exercises whenever they want and stop whenever they want. A person need not register with anyone or join anything to practice the exercises. All information about how to do the exercises is publicly available.
Those who practise Falun Gong have no leadership. Li Hong Zhi has written books and given public lectures widely available in print and on the internet which have inspired individual Falun Gong practitioners. But that is all he has done.
There are some Falun Gong practitioners who have formed and joined support organizations, Falun Dafa associations. Falun Dafa associations are local or national. There is no one international Falun Dafa Association.
These associations encompass only a portion of Falun Gong practitioners. They may facilitate some Falun Gong activities. But they do not represent or lead or organize all Falun Gong practitioners.
The amorphous nature of Falun Gong meant that it was impossible for the Communist Party to control. Because other beliefs are organized, the Government of China has responded in part by attempting to take over the organizations.
There is a Chinese government appointed Buddhist Panchen Lama, Chinese government selected Roman Catholic bishops, Chinese government chosen Muslim imams. These designations mitigate the attacks the Government of China launches against these beliefs, since it does not want to undermine its own appointees.
If Falun Gong had a leadership, the Party, as it had done with the major religions, just would have appointed some of its cronies and said that they were the leadership of the Falun Gong. But Falun Gong does not lend itself to this sort of usurpation.
For Falun Gong, since there is no organization and no leadership, there is no one China can appoint to head the Falun Gong. Not being inhibited from undermining its own appointees, the Government of China attacks on the Falun Gong know no bounds.
6 Mirror imaging worked against the Falun Gong community. Though the Falun Gong is not an organization with a leadership, the Communist Party of China surely is. When you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The Communist Party of China saw the Falun Gong community as a mirror of itself, organizationally similar, but ideologically different.
The absence of organization and leadership of Falun Gong has not stopped the Government of China from believing there is one. Chinese officials just think it is hidden underground. The very lack of visibility of leadership and organization has led the Government of China to greater suspicion, greater fears.
This belief in a hidden organization has generated exaggerated spying efforts on Falun Gong practitioners. Defectors from Chinese embassies and consulates around the world tell us that the primary effort, expense and person power of the Government of China around the world is dedicated not to trade, not to international relations with foreign governments, but to spying on the Falun Gong.
Calling an uncoordinated mass of individuals engaged in parallel activities an organization with a leadership may, on its own, just be an innocent mistake. But once one starts attributing anti-state activity to this imagined organization, the mistake ceases to be innocent. The error becomes paranoic, a conspiracy fantasy.
7 The mobilization capacity of Falun Gong practitioners alarmed and frightened the Communist Party. The Party, in April 1999, published an article in the magazine Science and Technology for Youth, which singled out Falun Gong as a superstition and a health risk because practitioners might refuse conventional medical treatments for serious illnesses. A large number of Falun Gong adherents demonstrated against the contents of the piece outside the Tianjin editor's office. Arrests and police beatings resulted.
To petition the Government Petition Office in Beijing about these arrests, on April 25th, 1999, 10,000-15,000 Falun Gong practitioners gathered from dawn until late at night outside the Communist Party headquarters at Zhongnanhai next to Beijing's Forbidden City. The gathering was silent, without posters4.
This was the largest gathering of protesters in Beijing since the Tiananmen square massacre. The Party had no advance warning of this gathering and was startled.
8 The Falun Gong community was the first to take advantage of modern technology to protest. The growth of the practice of Falun Gong and mobilization of its practitioners is directly attributable to the advent of the internet and cell phones. Through cell phones and the internet it is possible for large numbers of people to do the same thing at the same time, be at the same place at the same time, without organization or leadership. For Falun Gong practitioners, one can say - make publicly available the exercises and beliefs, spread the technology of cell phones and the internet and they will come, without organization or leadership.
This phenomenon was unknown in China before it was manifested through the Falun Gong. When the Communist Party saw a group of people doing the same thing at the same time, they were intellectually incapable of attributing this activity to cell phones and the internet. They simply had no idea of its mobilization capacity. What they saw instead is what they knew - an organization, an hierarchy, a leadership, a plan, rather than what was in fact staring them in the face. The Party projected on to others, a disparate group of Falun Gong practitioners, its own manner of operation. The persecution of the Falun Gong began and continues with a simple mischaracterization.
9 A large measure of the persecution against Falun Gong can be attributed to petty personal jealousy of then President Jiang Zemin. Initially, it was Jiang alone of the central leadership of the Party who wanted Falun Gong banned. Others eventually fell into line because he was insistent and because he was the guy in charge.
One can see this jealously in the language he used. He wrote in April 1999:
He was concerned that he personally would be seen as a thumping joke.
Jiang attempted in 2002 to provide a cover for the continuation in power of the Communist Part of China after the end of Communism with an ideology labelled "the three represents". Wikipedia, which makes every effort to be neutral, labels this ideology as "incomprehensible". Jiang was envious of Li Hong Zhi, that something an outsider proposed could become so popular while his own "Three Represents" writings languished in confusion and obscurity.
10 Falun Gong detainees are more vulnerable than other detainees. Falun Gong detentions present an unusual feature.
Falun Gong practitioners who came from all over the country to Tiananmen Square in Beijing to appeal or protest the banning were systematically arrested. Those who revealed their identities to their captors would be shipped back to their home localities.
Their families would be implicated in their Falun Gong activities and pressured to join in the effort to get the practitioners to renounce Falun Gong. Their workplace leaders, their co-workers, their local government leaders would be held responsible and penalized for the fact that these individuals had gone to Beijing to appeal or protest.
To protect their families and avoid the hostility of the people in their locality, many detained Falun Gong declined to identify themselves. The result was a large Falun Gong prison population whose identities the authorities did not know. As well, no one who knew them knew where they were.
Though this refusal to identify themselves was done for protection purposes, it had the opposite effect. It is easier to victimize a person whose whereabouts is unknown to family members than a person whose location the family knows. This population is a remarkably undefended group of people, even by Chinese standards.
Those who refused to self identify were treated especially badly. As well, they were moved around within the Chinese prison system for reasons not explained to the prisoners. Members of this population could just disappear without anyone outside of the prison system being the wiser.
11 Repressed democracy activists, journalists, human rights defenders, Tibetan and Christian activists generate more sympathy than the Falun Gong because they are more familiar to the West, more in tune with Western sensibilities. The Falun Gong are recent, started in 1992, foreign, without an obvious link to globally entrenched traditions.
To outsiders, there is the immediate albeit superficial strangeness of the name Falun Gong. The words "Falun" and "Gong" in Western languages mean nothing.
For the Communists, victimizing the Falun Gong is a crime which is easier to get away with than victimizing other, better known groups. Falun Gong victims are often people without Western connections or Western languages. It is a lot easier for outsiders to relate to victims who have universal labels - journalists, human rights defenders, democracy activists, than a group with a name which means nothing to most ears.
It is also a lot harder to misrepresent the known than the unknown. When the Communists slur Tibetan Buddhists or the Christian underground churches, we know that they are talking nonsense. When the Communists slur the Falun Gong, many people are not sure whether there is any basis in the charges or not. Some people hearing slurs against the unknown may think that, where there is smoke, there must be fire, that the repression may, in fact, be justified. Outsiders do not have either the acquired knowledge or the time and energy to do the research to contradict Chinese Communist propaganda.
12 The Communist Party fright from the rise of the Falun Gong came from content as well as form. Falun Gong is authentically Chinese, rooted in ancient Chinese traditions. It is a blend of ancient Chinese spiritual and exercise traditions.
As exercise, it is a form of qi gong, a set of Chinese exercise practices. The form most familiar to Westerners is Tai Chi. But there are many such Chinese exercise practices.
Nor does Falun Gong have just any spiritual foundation. Its spiritual formulation has direct links with Taoist and Buddhist disciplines, ancient Chinese beliefs. Though his writings, Li Hongzhi managed to articulate a set of beliefs which reverberates with the Chinese people, the Chinese soul.
The global TV network run, in the main, by Falun Gong practitioners is called NTD TV. NTD stands for New Tang Dynasty. The old Tang Dynasty, which ran from 618 to 907 A.D., was a particularly glorious period of Chinese history, a period to which the Chinese look back with pride.
The Falun Gong, then, are an outgrowth from ancient Chinese traditions; they are its modern form. Put in Hegelian/Marxist terms, they are the present stage of the Chinese historical dialectic. They are the face of the real China, the grass roots China, the China of the people, in Marxist terms the China of the proletariat.
It is no coincidence that the Falun Gong emerged in 1992 at the time of the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the ending of any rational belief world wide in Communism. What was to fill the ideological gap left by the global collapse of Communism? For China, it seemed, the answer was Falun Gong.
If China were free from the chains which the Chinese Communist Party has clamped on them, there would flower the variety of beliefs and practices we see in any tolerant society. But the predominance would be Falun Gong.
The threat the Communist Party of China saw from the Falun Gong in 1999, when repression was decreed, was not political; but it was and is ideological. To the Chinese Communist Party, the Falun Gong were a regression, a huge leap backward, back to where China was before the Communist Party took over. For Falun Gong to prevail would mean a China that would continue as if the Chinese Communist Party never existed, aside from the scars the Party left behind.
The problem for the Communists was not just that Falun Gong is so authentically Chinese; it is also that Communism is so patently foreign. Communism is a Western ideological import into China. Communists saw a widespread, popular Chinese based ideology as cutting out from under them the very ground on which they stood.
Tolerating the Falun Gong would not have meant, at least in the short run, the collapse of the current regime. But it would have meant the disappearance of whatever ideological presence the Communist Party still had in the hearts and minds of the Chinese people. Once there was no one left to believe in Communism, even within the Communist Party, the loosening of the grip of the Communist Party on power could not be far behind.
So what we have with the Falun Gong is a vicious Chinese Communist Party repression, a repression without bounds, a repression far worse than suffered by any other victim group. The crimes against the Falun Gong are crimes against humanity. It should not matter that we are not Falun Gong, that the words "Falun" and "Gong" mean nothing to us. We share their humanity. Crimes against them are crimes against us. That should be enough to engage our efforts.
David Matas is an international human rights lawyer based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.