Chen Gang knows what it means to be brainwashed.
Now living in the United States, Mr. Chen, 38, is the former logistics manager for the Carlsberg Brewery in Beijing. From a family of musicians—his father was conductor of Beijing’s Central Philharmonic Orchestra and his mother was a flutist with that orchestra—he plays the bassoon. He is also a Falun Gong practitioner.
Because Mr. Chen practices Falun Gong, he was arrested in 2000 and sent to the Tuanhe Labor Camp in the suburbs of Beijing. He would endure 18 months imprisonment and torture there until his spirit was broken and he agreed to be “transformed.”
He said the police “kept up the torture until they destroyed every bit of my dignity, my innocence, and my belief. They forced me to become someone I despise, they sullied my character and soul, and they trampled on my hopes for grace and wisdom. They forced me into a state of regret, shame, and self-disappointment.”
What the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) did to Mr. Chen, it now intends to do to 75 percent of all of the known Falun Gong practitioners in China, according to documents available on local Communist Party websites and an internal Party document obtained by the Falun Dafa Information Center.
This new three-year campaign will cost billions and, depending on how efficiently practitioners are tracked down, will target millions or tens of millions of victims.
The idea of "thought reform" has a long history under communist rule in China. In the 1940s the CCP used techniques of "brainwashing" (otherwise called reeducation, transformation, forced conversion, thought reform) on its own cadres in the mountain redoubt of Yan’an, while the Anti-Japan war was being waged.
After the Party seized power the same methods were applied to swaths of the populace, notably intellectuals, “capitalist roaders,” and stubborn “bourgeois elements” of all stripes. As each new campaign would begin, new groups would be targeted for thought reform.
Beginning in July 1999 as part of a systematic effort ordered by then-paramount leader Jiang Zemin to eradicate Falun Gong, the CCP turned its attention to “transforming” the thoughts of Falun Gong adherents.
Also known as Falun Dafa, Falun Gong is a traditional Chinese spiritual discipline that consists of the practice of five meditative exercises and the study of moral teachings based on the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance. According to Chinese officials speaking in early 1999, there were at that time between 70 and 100 million practitioners in China.
Study sessions were soon organized, and Party members were forced to renounce Falun Gong and pledge allegiance to the Party. These sessions took a similar format to the Revolutionary Colleges that were set up across China in the 1950s, meant for indoctrinating intellectuals.
The more urbane settings for indoctrination initially used for the Party members who practiced Falun Gong are the exception to the rule, however. More commonly, Falun Gong practitioners have been reeducated in prisons, labor camps, or custom-built facilities—and the focus is often on violent coercion, rather than mere political study or discussion, according to a review of accounts by practitioners published online.
Psychology of Destroying Identity
Jingduan Yang is medical director of the Tao Institute of Mind & Body Medicine in Philadelphia, and has conducted interviews with Falun Gong practitioners who became victims of the state’s campaign to reeducate them. He says the basic process of brainwashing relies on controlling the information and freedom of the target individual, and making their wellbeing and survival depend on their acceptance of that information.
“There are three main components to the brainwashing process,” Dr. Yang said in an interview. “First, total control of a person’s physical, financial, and social existence. Second, repetitive exposure to information or ideas they have to accept in order to survive. Third, violence or torture in the cases of people refusing the information.
“While experiencing physical torture and repetitive exposure to the same information, the instinct to survive often means prisoners begin accepting the ideas and information they are given,” he said. “Sometimes they even begin deeply believing in it.”
In bygone days the ideas and information referred to Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, and a correct understanding of the “contradictions among the people,” among other communist watchwords.
Today, the brainwashing of Falun Gong practitioners aims to convince them that their beliefs are evil, harmful, and selfish.
The old methods are being used, supplemented by lessons learned from experience and research. Since 1999 numerous grants have been awarded to Chinese social scientists and psychologists to learn how to make the process of transformation more efficient, according to Dr. Sun Yanjun, who until 2009 was a professor of psychology at Capital Normal University in Beijing.
The pressure to give in comes not only when practitioners are in captivity, but from society at large. Friends, family, and workplaces may all suffer financial and other consequences if the practitioner refuses to recant his or her faith.
In the past, class enemies were labeled as such based simply on their parents’ backgrounds, and were effectively “doomed,” Yang said.
Today, Falun Gong practitioners who renounce their faith are spared violence. But then, as a sign the transformation is real, the practitioners are expected to join forces with their brainwashers.
“Here, if you are willing to be transformed, they’ll further use you to transform others. They promise you a lot of benefits to be transformed, so you can have your job back, have your family visit, and even get decent food, this kind of thing,” Yang said.
“The scale of organizing this brainwashing process is huge,” Yang said.
Torture and Transformation
For those who don’t consent to transformation, the treatment given is brutal. The Falun Dafa Information Center has recently reported several deaths suffered by practitioners soon after being abducted and sent for brainwashing—perhaps a sign that the new campaign is intensifying the efforts directed at Falun Gong.
Mr. Chen was subjected to sleep deprivation, usually only being allowed to sleep for 2 to 4 hours. If he started to fall asleep, guards would kick or punch him. At one point, he was kept awake for 15 days straight.
He was subjected to several sessions of being shocked by multiple high-voltage electric batons. The batons burned his skin, his entire body would convulse, and the electricity affected his nervous system. Mr. Chen described being shocked by the batons as feeling like he was burning in a fire or being bitten by poisonous snakes.
The most dangerous torture he endured is called “pressing the bedboard.”
The guards enlisted 10 inmates to beat him, who did so until face was no longer recognizable. Mr. Chen’s legs and feet were then tied tightly and his arms were tied behind his back. His neck was then tied tightly to his legs so that he felt he was suffocating. He was then shoved under a wooden bedboard, and inmates stood on top of the bedboard.
Mr. Chen said he felt his bones were ready to break. After suffering this torture, he couldn’t walk for two weeks. Around the same time Chen suffered this, a practitioner named Lu Changjun was paralyzed by this torture.
“I will never be able to forget the agony,” Mr. Chen wrote. “I was covered with wounds, my back was injured, and I lay in a bed like a dead fish, unable to move. The only thing I heard was the agonizing screams from other Falun Gong practitioners who were being tortured. Tears streamed down my face. I thought even hell could not be worse.”
He eventually relented and wrote a transformation statement, with the police filming it, then forcing him to read it out.
“To this day I still regret that I did that,” Mr. Chen said in a recent interview. “I just wanted to keep that little area in my heart that’s mine, that’s me: this is what I think … I wanted to keep that as a pure land in my heart, but to get their bonus they use any kind of method to take that little pure land from your heart. That is what they call reeducation, and what we call brainwashing.”