On April 25, 1999, the most “serious political incident” since 1989 occurred in China. Over 10,000 practitioners of Falun Gong, a spiritual practice, had quietly gathered on the streets of Beijing and silently stood and sat from morning to night, seeking to be allowed to practice their faith free from harassment.
The incident is often seen as the catalyst to what happened next: a nationwide Cultural Revolution-style persecution featuring incessant propaganda, cruel violence, labor camps, and thought reeducation campaigns that continues to this day. But a look at the three years that preceded that incident shows that rather than being the catalyst to the persecution, it was practitioners’ last-ditch effort to head off what hardliners inside the Communist Party had been hatching since 1996.
Falun Gong is a Chinese spiritual practice with five meditative exercises; it teaches behaving according to the three principles of truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance. From its introduction in China in 1992 until its suppression in 1999 it had gained between 70 million and 100 million followers.
The campaign against Falun Gong began in 1996. For the next three years, until the persecution as a mass movement became official, there were attempts to begin stamping out Falun Gong’s influence in China, by spreading negative propaganda, infiltrating practice groups, issuing politically charged labels, and laying the groundwork for further suppression.
During that period, Falun Gong practitioners inside and outside the Party and state were attempting to head it off, until in 1999 when Falun Gong’s delaying tactics ran out, and the Communist Party set out to “eradicate” the practice of Falun Gong.
In July 1996, the authorities began to move against Falun Gong in an article harshly attacking the practice’s book of teachings, Zhuan Falun, which was a nationwide bestseller at the time.
The article appeared in one of the CCP’s standard-bearer publications, the Guangming Daily, and was written by Pan Guoyan, who was then deputy head of the General Administration of Press and Publication, the agency charged with propaganda and censorship in book publishing.
Ye Hao was the head of the Falun Gong Research Society—the institutional face of Falun Gong in China—and also a director in the Public Security Bureau. Now in his 70s and at that time already an “old comrade” who first approached qigong through the lens of dialectical materialism, Ye knew the internal conversation going on in the Party about qigong and Falun Gong. He said it was Xu Guangchun, then vice minister of the Central Propaganda Department, who organized newspapers to attack Falun Gong.
A rash of propaganda in over 20 major newspapers followed the Guangming Daily piece, and the Central Propaganda Department then dropped the guillotine on the publishing license for Zhuan Falun.
The book banning was the first of many measures the authorities would take over the next few years to attempt to curb the growth of Falun Gong and undo its influence on Chinese society. The book was still printed, however, even in official presses, because people in the system thought Falun Gong was good.
Another attempt, according to Ye, was made by the United Front Work Department when it called a large meeting in 1996 specifically to tell the “eight minor parties,” Communist Party political fronts, that Falun Gong was a “heretical religion” and would be outlawed. But that also did not lead to a nationwide suppression.
Slanderous press kept coming, however.
Mr. Qing Yang, a Falun Gong contact person in China at the time, who now lives in the United States, said that when launching political movements, “The first thing the Party does is propaganda. The second thing is to make up an investigation and fabricate evidence.”
Ms. Wang, 65, a practitioner in China at the time, felt it was strange when a young man turned up to learn the exercises one day, and then began asking lots of questions. “What’s your name? Where do you live? What’s your work unit?” he would ask.
“Normally people who practice Falun Gong would just read the book and practice, they wouldn’t ask detailed questions like that,” she said.
Two national investigations had been ordered by the Ministry of Public Security, in January and July 1997, to collect evidence that Falun Gong was engaged in “illegal religious activities.” The outcome reported from infiltrators was, “no problems yet found.”
Police easily infiltrated practice groups owing to Falun Gong’s principle of being open to everyone.
A year later, on July 21, 1998, the ministry launched another investigation, this time directly declaring Falun Gong a “heretical religion” (xiejiao) in an internal memo. Police stations were ordered to collect intelligence on practitioners for proof of wrongdoing.
This label would later be revived, translated into English as “evil cult,” and made the mainstay of anti-Falun Gong propaganda for four months after the persecution officially began in July of 1999.
Western scholars in their research, and Ye Hao in the interview, indicated that the successive investigations by the Public Security Bureau, followed by the final order to simply label Falun Gong a heretical religion, indicated an internal struggle in the department between ideological opponents and supporters.
Wang Bin, a Falun Gong volunteer coordinator in Haidian District, Beijing, at the time, said that things heated up after the “heretical religion” label. “They beat people, issued fines, [and] searched houses.” He said that more extreme incidents took place in more remote areas.
Wang Bin highlighted the complexity of the events. People within the Party apparatus were seeking to make moves against Falun Gong, while protectors and practitioners tried to head them off. “There were a lot of people practicing Falun Gong at high levels in the government at that time,” he said in a telephone interview, before rattling off a list of names. “A lot of people thought Falun Gong shouldn’t be monitored.”
Read More: Counter-Investigations