Communist China’s persecution of the Falun Gong spiritual practice has continued nonstop for more than two decades, having begun 23 years ago on July 20, 1999.
Falun Gong was immensely popular in China during the 1990s, being credited by tens of millions of people for bringing them better health and moral elevation. However, though warmly received by the general public and even high-ranking officials, Falun Gong’s roots in traditional Chinese faiths put it on a collision course with the atheist ideology of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The communist leadership, then under Party boss Jiang Zemin, had envisioned a quick three-month campaign to eradicate the traditional qigong discipline, which was labeled as a “superstitious” threat to Marxism.
Yet instead of giving up their faith, millions of Falun Gong practitioners have resisted the brutal and often deadly abuses visited upon them by the regime.
Today, Falun Gong adherents in China and abroad persevere in speaking out about the persecution, promote the practice, and expose the misrule of the CCP.
Many first-hand accounts from China describe how, far from being effectively suppressed, Falun Gong practitioners are often able to win the support of their compatriots after clarifying the facts about the repression they face.
Sarah Cook, a China researcher with the human rights organization Freedom House, has described the anti-Falun Gong campaign as “a striking failure of the CCP’s security apparatus” despite the extraordinarily brutal methods used to suppress it.
Her 2017 study “concluded that 7 to 20 million people in China continue to practice Falun Gong, including many who took up the discipline after the repression began. Moreover, Falun Gong believers in China have responded to CCP persecution with tenacity, nonviolence, and creativity,” a 2019 article describing Cook’s work reads.
Falun Gong had spread throughout China since its public instruction by Master Li Hongzhi, who hailed from the Northeast, in 1992. Also known as Falun Dafa, the discipline’s calming meditation and its corpus of bold yet simple moral truths — centered on the tenets of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance — became a powerful, if subtle force.
The physical and moral improvement that many had experienced when Falun Gong could still be practiced publicly spread rapidly through word of mouth. By 1999, Chinese government estimates placed the number of Falun Gong practitioners at 70 million or more.
According to Cook’s Freedom House study, the survival of Falun Gong in China can be largely attributed to the efforts of practitioners to counteract the persecution using nonviolent tactics, especially “sharing information with police and the general public about the practice itself.”
Cook noted that “a growing number of non–Falun Gong practitioners in China—including human rights lawyers, family members, and neighbors—have joined these efforts.”
Clarifying the facts
At the center of Falun Gong practitioners’ activity in China is jiang zhen xiang (講真相), or “clarifying the facts.”
U.S.-based Falun Gong website Minghui.org, which collects first-hand information about the persecution in China, hosts a massive number of personal accounts detailing such interactions.
One female practitioner from northern China’s Hebei Province described how she and nine other Falun Gong practitioners were detained with death-row inmates and other convicts in a women’s prison in 2000.
“They fought, cursed, and cried every day. After we came, they were surprised to see our selflessness, our perseverance in the face of suffering, and that we did not fight back in a conflict. Those inmates began to calm down, and we practitioners told them about Dafa,” the woman wrote.
The practitioners’ attitudes also worked transformations in some of the guards. A female guard stopped treating Falun Gong prisoners roughly, and started to reprimand prison staff who did. Eventually, other guards allowed Falun Gong materials to be brought into the prison.
In another account, a Falun Gong practitioner in the eastern Shandong Province discussed how his employers protected him despite efforts by the police to apprehend him at work.
Others describe how they would chat with police ordered to harass or arrest them, only for the officers to apologize or express approval of Falun Gong. One practitioner in Guangdong recalled how she spoke with policemen sent to extract a guarantee statement from her promising she would give up Falun Gong. After a discussion, however, the visitors left, telling her all she needed to do was look at it. “Ma’am, we won’t hold anything against you,” they added.
Outlasting the Party
In her 2019 article, Cook summarized three key aspects of Falun Gong’s long-term survival in China.
First, Falun Gong practitioners reach out to potential persecutors, before and after they have taken action against the community. “Falun Gong practitioners inside and outside China, along with their lawyers and family members, have made a concerted effort to directly communicate with security agents and judges by phone and in person. … Gradually, these efforts appear to be bearing fruit,” she wrote.
Second, “highly educated technologists who practice Falun Gong in the United States have developed tools enabling users in China and elsewhere to access blocked websites. But the tools themselves—and regular software updates—are also shared throughout China via various channels with a large and diverse population of Falun Gong believers and other Chinese,” which allows Falun Gong adherents inside China to spread information and also avoid surveillance.
Third, “Falun Gong activists have managed to engage a broader segment of the Chinese population who might otherwise feel like the group’s suffering has nothing to do with their own lives” by drawing parallels with the persecution they face to the other aspects of CCP tyranny in China.
The tuidang (quit the Party) movement, started by Falun Gong practitioners in 2004, has seen nearly 400 million Chinese renounce their vows made when entering either the CCP or its affiliated youth organizations, which cover most of the Chinese population. “Focused as it is on the realms of spirit and culture, the ‘tuidang movement’ does not aim to overthrow the Communist Party, but rather encourages Chinese to imagine a future without it and to renounce support for its violent tendencies,” Cook writes.
She concludes: “It is hard to imagine President Xi Jinping reversing the verdict on Falun Gong. But it is just as hard to imagine the CCP succeeding in its long-running project to eradicate the discipline. Rather, as Falun Gong practitioners continue to win small victories day in and day out throughout China, a time may come when the CCP is no longer ruling China and Falun Gong is again a popular, permitted public activity.”