In China, the phrases “Falun Gong is good” or “Truthfulness, Compassion, Tolerance” have been deemed among the most politically sensitive that can be uttered. Yet it is precisely these words that keep appearing, on banners hung from trees, and posters stuck to walls, night after night in China’s streets.
The messages are placed by practitioners of Falun Gong, a popular spiritual discipline that has been persecuted in China since July 20, 1999, after the Communist Party and its then-general secretary, Jiang Zemin, launched an onslaught of propaganda and political violence.
With other avenues of communication closed off, practitioners have sought creative methods to get the word out about Falun Gong. Many hang up banners in their communities, usually at night. Though by and large swiftly removed, the banners underscore practitioners’ determination to persevere in their beliefs.
The persecution, during which in the last 16 years Chinese authorities have detained hundreds of thousands if not millions of meditators and killed tens of thousands for their organs or through otherwise brutal torture, was intended to win an easy political victory for the Communist Party and boost Jiang’s prestige.
Before the persecution, Chinese government agencies estimated that between 70 million and 100 million people had taken up Falun Gong. Another “statistic,” touted as part of the round-the-clock hate campaign against the practice run by state media in the early years of persecution, claimed that only 2 million practitioners remained.
Instead, Falun Gong appears to be still widely practiced, according to statistics and estimates, and as indicated by the wide variety of banners hung up in public spaces.
A 2009 inquiry conducted by Minghui.org, a website that hosts information about Falun Gong and the repression it suffers, estimated that 40 million people continued to practice Falun Gong despite the persecution. Due to the closed nature of the Chinese authorities, such figures can only be arrived at through triangulation of existing data.
The figure was partly based on the existence of some 200,000 known “truth-clarification” (a term practitioners use to refer to the act of spreading information about Falun Gong or the persecution) sites in China.
“There are many, many practitioners in China,” said a Minghui editor in an online interview with Chinascope. “The challenge is that under the Communist Party’s persecution, it is hard to conduct a large scale survey to get the actual number.”
Also telling is the number of statements, posted to Minghui, penned by Chinese practitioners who wish to annul documents they signed in prison under police torture.
Throughout the persecution of Falun Gong, regime authorities have made it their goal to “transform” practitioners. The key step in this Orwellian process lies in coercing the jailed practitioner to sign a so-called renunciation document, whereby one pledges to give up Falun Gong.
On Jan. 18, Minghui reported that it had, to date, received 525,764 statements of annulment from mainland Chinese practitioners who had previously signed “renunciation documents,” up from 406,000 in 2009. These figures reflect the large but unknown number of people imprisoned by the communist regime in the course of persecution. The number indicates that at least that many people have been imprisoned, tortured in custody, and forced to sign a statement of ideological conversion—though there are an unknown number of others who were subject to the same treatment but refused to sign a statement. There are also others who signed, but did not retract, indicating that the total number of Falun Gong practitioners arbitrarily detained and tortured may cumulatively reach into the millions.
People who post Falun Gong materials risk arrest and abuse in police custody. Minghui reported that Wang Xingmei, a 60-year-old female practitioner from Shandong Province in eastern China, had been arrested 14 times in as many years. In one case, local police caught her placing banners on a street at night. She was held at the police station for 15 days, where officers beat her.