New security chief declines to comment on legality of spiritual group persecuted in mainland China, but says investigation underway
Falun Gong, the spiritual practice banned and persecuted in mainland China since 1999, is coming under pressure in Hong Kong, where pro-Communist Party figures have been clamoring for legal action against the qigong discipline.
During a session of the city’s Legislative Council (LegCo) on July 7, pro-Beijing lawmakers demanded Hong Kong authorities take greater action against Falun Gong, pointing to the National Security Law (NSL) imposed last year, as well as Article 23 of the Basic Law.
Elizabeth Quat, Junius Ho, Paul Tse, and other pro-Beijing legislators called for the local Falun Dafa association to have its funding investigated, while questioning why the spiritual practice has not yet been banned in the city. Falun Dafa is another name for the group.
Using rhetoric similar to that found in mainland China’s state publications, Quat and the others called Falun Gong an “organization” that “aims to subvert state power,” and said that foreign forces were “making use of ‘religious groups’ and ‘media organizations’ and so on as a disguise for extending anti-China forces in the city.”
Founded in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, Falun Gong consists of meditative exercises and traditional moral teachings. Despite the Chinese authorities’ initially warm attitude towards the practice, it was banned on July 20, 1999 on orders of then-Communist Party head Jiang Zemin, who argued that Falun Gong’s popularity made it a threat to the Party’s rule.
Adherents of Falun Gong in mainland China are subject to widespread and extreme human rights abuses, from jail and social ostracization to forced labor, torture, and death by organ harvesting.
Falun Gong practitioners, including those residing in Hong Kong, have been vocal in their efforts to raise awareness about the Chinese Communist Party’s 22-year-long persecution of their faith. The Epoch Times, an overseas outlet founded by Falun Gong adherents, runs frequent criticism of the CCP and communism.
But The Epoch Times has yet to incur legal repercussions, an evident contrast with the fate of independent pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily, which was forced to shutter in late June after its assets were frozen and multiple staff tried.
And while Falun Gong practitioners handing out materials on the streets of Hong Kong have met with harassment from both police and suspected thugs, they have been able to mostly continue their activities.
No comment on plans for Falun Gong
Junius Ho, a controversial pro-establishment lawmaker who shook hands with a triad member involved in the July 2019 attacks on pro-democracy demonstrators, asked how the Hong Kong government was planning to deal with Falun Gong and other “subversive” groups.
Paul Tse, another pro-Beijing legislator, questioned why the government was going “weak” on Falun Gong, arguing that the NSL could have been “enforced” long ago in “handling” the group. He pointed to Falun Gong’s information stalls as evidence that the government has been “negligent” regarding the spiritual discipline for years.
Chris Tang Ping-keung, the secretary for security recently promoted from Hong Kong police chief, said an investigation on Falun Gong was in progress, but did not state the government’s stance on the group.
He noted that while “there have been numerous accusations concerning whether Falun Gong has violated the national security law” that were being looked into, he said there would be “further action” if the evidence existed to support it.
Tang stressed that opposition to the Party and the socialist system was a breach of the NSL, but also cited the NSL’s Article 4 as saying that “human rights shall be respected and protected in safeguarding national security” in Hong Kong, including freedoms of expression, press, and assembly.
Reading from his notes, Tang said that “nobody is above the law” and that the Hong Kong authorities would act in accordance with the law. In response to Tse’s inquiry, he stated that the NSL had made law enforcement “more effective” and that the government has always been removing “unauthorized” publications, including those of Falun Gong, from government premises.
Tang also said that an investigation into the July 1 stabbing incident in which a disgruntled 50-year-old man stabbed a police officer before killing himself had not yielded any links with other individuals or groups.
“Current evidence shows that there is no more than one perpetrator,” he stated in response to Quat’s inquiry about a possible link between the incident and Falun Gong.
Sarah Liang, president of Hong Kong’s Falun Dafa Association, said that Quat’s insinuation was “completely unfair.” She noted that the Association had avoided all protests and gatherings to comply with pandemic restrictions, and was a lawfully registered organization.
“We are lawful citizens and believers, and we do not hope to see the suppression of our group spread from the mainland to the city,” she said.
Shadow over Hong Kong
Groups affiliated with or serving as fronts for the CCP have harassed or attacked Falun Gong practitioners in Hong Kong over the last decade.
Liang was previously stalked by an unidentified man this May, who eventually assaulted her with a baseball bat near her home. Her legs were heavily bruised in the encounter.
And earlier this year, thugs vandalized Falun Gong roadside stands, causing thousands in damages. Unattended posters defaming Falun Gong have also appeared on the streets. According to The Epoch Times, the posters are written in simplified Chinese (the script used in mainland China) and in the style of Chinese state-run media’s attacks on Falun Gong.
Liang, who has headed the Hong Kong Falun Dafa Association since 2019, said that there were several hundred Falun Gong practitioners in Hong Kong, though this number could be higher because the Association does not take membership or fees. Many of them had fled from the mainland, and now fear for their future in the city.
Feng Chongyi, an associate professor in China Studies at the University of Technology in Sydney, told The Epoch Times that the pro-Beijing lawmakers’ inquiries were the opening moves of a pressure campaign by the CCP to target Falun Gong in Hong Kong.
“Everything might appear to be done in accordance with the law,” Feng said. “But beneath it was a step-by-step plan to make Falun Gong disappear in Hong Kong. This is obvious.”
Politics behind the scenes
SinoInsider, a New York-based think tank, agreed that the Party was setting up the scene to extend the repression of Falun Gong to the former British colony.
“If the CCP is preparing to move in on Falun Gong in Hong Kong, then the July 7 LegCo exchange between pro-establishment lawmakers and Secretary for Security Chris Tang is merely an act to provide a veneer of legitimacy to future proceedings,” SinoInsider wrote in a July 8 newsletter.
At the same time, the think tank believes that struggle between rival factions in the CCP may explain the lack of action regarding Falun Gong in Hong Kong, characterizing it as a “dilemma” for Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
According to SinoInsider, the persecution of Falun Gong belongs to the negative political legacy of Jiang Zemin, who started the campaign. Many officials who actively took part in the nationwide repression were promoted by Jiang and his lieutenants; the Jiang faction remains influential even today.
Xi, meanwhile, has stood in opposition to the Jiang network, launching a massive anti-corruption campaign targeting his entrenched political rivals. But the human rights issue could be more worrying for the 94-year-old Jiang and his still-powerful allies.
“Based on our research, Xi and some members of his inner circle neither expressed a clear stance … nor actively engaged in the persecution of Falun Gong before coming to power in 2012,” SinoInsider wrote. “This contrasts with many members of the Jiang faction, including top lieutenants like Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang who rose swiftly up the official ranks owing to their diligent efforts.”
Lack of a clear stance leaves open the possibility that should Xi — a leader whom SinoInsider and other China watchers see as far weaker than his strongman image lets on — feel sufficient danger to his power and person, he could reverse the anti-Falun Gong campaign, cornering his rivals by pinning blame for the human rights disaster on the Jiang faction.
As the rule of the CCP itself hinges on perceptions of its legitimacy, reversing the persecution of Falun Gong would directly endanger the regime. But the analysts at SinoInsider see the regime in such a crisis — economic, social, environmental, and diplomatic — that the warring factions may care more about preserving themselves, rather than the Party.
“We have identified repeated attempts by the Jiang faction or its affiliates to force Xi’s hand on the Falun Gong issue, either by having him clarify his stance or getting current leaders to actively take charge of the persecution—which carries the baggage of slave labor, torture and psychological abuse, and forced organ harvesting. Having the Xi leadership “take the reins” from Jiang’s factional network under the cover of routine CCP operations and ideology would offer them a measure of protection, as accomplices in a crime are less likely to betray one another.”
For the time being, it seems as though Beijing has decided to leave the Falun Gong issue for another day.
“Tang’s careful, non-definitive response, as well as his senior position in the Hong Kong government and supra-authority national security apparatus, suggest that he is following explicit Party Central guidance in handling the Falun Gong issue in Hong Kong,” SinoInsider observed.