An atrocity haunts China. Precisely how and when this atrocity will be widely exposed, and the effect it will have on the polity when that happens, is not yet clear. But as in other historical cases in Chinese communist history, it will probably be an inflection point—and it will certainly be the last great atrocity of the Chinese Communist Party.
It is the crime of organ harvesting, of course. Since 2000, the state security apparatus and military hospitals have been killing prisoners of conscience for their organs—or rather, harvesting the organs from these people, who die as a result. The prisoners are predominantly practitioners of Falun Gong, a spiritual practice that originated in China.
To understand the significance of this crime, it is necessary to examine Falun Gong, what happened to it in China, and what its relation is to the political struggle that is currently taking place inside the CCP. Then we can consider the possible outcomes of the organ harvesting revelations and how they will help destroy any final shreds of legitimacy the Party may have.
Falun Gong is a type of cultivation practice, or a mind-body discipline that is part of traditional Chinese culture. The concept of cultivation practice is well summarized on a Falun Gong website as “the idea … that a human being can, through disciplined spiritual practice, transcend this ordinary existence.”
It’s an old idea in Chinese culture that has been called “biospiritual cultivation” by some Western scholars. Falun Gong is thus a combination of physical exercises and moral discipline. The moral virtues fostered by Falun Gong are truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. There are five meditative, physical exercises as well.
The practice became extremely popular after it was introduced to the public in China in 1992. There were 70 million people practicing it, according to a figure from China’s Sports Administration in 1998. Falun Gong estimates put the number at 100 million.
The practice was a refreshing change from the cynicism and corruption that characterized China, where people only sought wealth and, broadly speaking, had cast aside any cohesive moral philosophy.
There were no fees, no leadership, no hierarchy, and no organizational structure, just a set of free teachings and the moral principles. Many practitioners called it a “pure land.”
From 1996 to 1999, a struggle was underway inside the Party between hardliners and supporters of the practice. In July 1999, the guillotine was dropped, and a campaign to eradicate Falun Gong began.
It was the largest security mobilization since the Maoist era, directly affecting up to 100 million people who practiced Falun Gong plus their friends and family. Moreover, Falun Gong’s traditionalist philosophy was ideologically opposite to the dialectical materialism of communist ideology. So the hardliners in the Party vowed to crush the practice. These were mainstream people: cadres, scientists, scholars, farmers, students—a cross-strata of society.
At least 60,000 Falun Gong practitioners were killed for their organs between 2000 and 2008.
In assessing the significance of the campaign, it is necessary to realize a few things. Firstly, Falun Gong has put up unprecedented resistance in terms of intensity, scope, geographical distribution, and international reach.
Secondly, the CCP has put an enormous priority on pursuing the campaign, in ways that to outsiders can often seem ridiculous or bizarre. Thirdly, the campaign was ultimately led by one man: Jiang Zemin.
And this is the first link with the current leadership crisis.
Jiang Zemin pushed through a number of important personnel, institutional, and political changes meant to ensure that his campaign would continue after he was out of office.
First of all, it was necessary to build a faction.
In 2002, for example, he expanded the Politburo Standing Committee from seven to nine people, and installed two of his cronies in it—Luo Gan and Li Changchun. They were in charge of security and propaganda respectively: the two most important organs for the campaign to suppress a popular belief system.
Most of the other members of the Standing Committee were also his supporters. Jiang used his influence to ensure that the strongman model of leadership, as practiced by Mao, Deng, and Jiang, was softened to more of a “consensus” oriented approach.
Hu Jintao became head of the Party in 2002 but had far less personal power than Jiang had wielded. Broader factors contributed to this shift, of course, but the weakening of the Party head’s authority was a vital part of Jiang’s scheme.
Jiang’s faction included Bo Xilai, the disgraced official, and Zhou Yongkang, Bo’s patron and the current security chief. This was known but burst into the open when Wang Lijun, Bo Xilai’s right-hand man, fled to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu in February.
National security reporter Bill Gertz soon reported that, according to U.S. sources, Zhou and Bo were plotting to thwart Xi Jinping’s rise to power and install Bo as head of the Party. Wang Lijun was the henchman carrying out wiretapping for this plan.
Bo Xilai owed his career to Jiang, who rewarded him for his enthusiasm in carrying out the persecution of Falun Gong. Bo went from mayor of Dalian to minister of Commerce in four short years.
But Wen Jiabao put a roadblock on Bo’s ascent. After Wen objected that Bo could not represent the Party on the international stage due to his having been sued in 13 countries by Falun Gong practitioners, Bo was relegated to Chongqing.