It was ten years ago that Sun Changzhen went to Beijing to appeal for the meditation practice that restored her health and brought her inner peace in her troubled life.
Ms. Sun now lives in Toronto, but she clearly remembers that day when, on April 25, 1999, about 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners gathered at the State Appeals Office in Beijing to peacefully appeal for their constitutional right to practise their belief.
After three years of increasing restrictions by the communist authorities, reports of harassment were increasing. That was when Falun Gong practitioners decided they needed to make an appeal to the authorities to explain that Falun Gong was beneficial for Chinese society.
Ms. Sun had arrived in Beijing just a month earlier to visit her daughter. “The first thing I did was to ask my daughter to help me find the practice site at the nearby park,” she said.
At that time, almost all the parks in China had practice sites where tens to hundreds of practitioners did the Falun Gong exercises together every morning. They also did daily study of the teachings of Falun Gong, also called Falun Dafa, which centre on the principles of “Truth, Compassion, Forbearance.”
According to government estimates, in the seven years following its introduction to the public in 1992, 70 to 100 million people were practising Falun Gong in China, drawn by its benefits of physical and mental health.
This popularity was not overlooked by the one-party communist state, even as government bodies initially supported and bestowed awards on the practice and its founder, Li Hongzhi.
In 1996 the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) began using its state-run media to vilify the practice. It also banned Falun Gong books from further publication.
The following year, police began investigating Falun Gong practice sites, ordered by Luo Gan, the high-level party official who would later lead the persecution that was officially launched in July 1999.
Soon, police started harassing practitioners, raiding their practice sites and homes. However, a relatively free environment to practise Falun Gong still existed across the country.
At the time numerous CCP officials and party members at every level were practising Falun Gong, and even the wives of all seven members of the CCP’s most powerful ruling body—the standing committee of the Politburo—had learned the practice.
Premier Zhu Rongji had even commented positively on the spiritual discipline and reprimanded Mr. Luo for his unwarranted investigations—investigations that could find no harm but only evidence of Falun Gong’s benefits to society.
As late as February 1999, an article in U.S. News and World Reports stated that according to China’s Sports Commission, each Falun Gong practitioner saved the country 1,000 yuan annually in healthcare costs, amounting to a total of billions of yuan.
‘I cannot just stand by’
On April 24, 1999, Ms. Sun heard that police in nearby Tianjin had arrested some practitioners.
After a magazine published an article written by Mr. Luo’s brother-in-law that attacked Falun Gong, practitioners went to the magazine’s office to appeal for a retraction. The Tianjin police beat and arrested over 40 practitioners and directed all appeals to Beijing.
“I thought to myself that I cannot just stand by … I was unfamiliar with Beijing, and did not know how to ride a bicycle or take the bus, but even if I had to walk I decided I had to go to Fuyou Street to appeal,” said Ms. Sun.
Fuyou Street is the location of the State Appeals Office where Chinese citizens, under the Chinese constitution, are legally entitled to go if they believe the officials have treated them wrongly. The office is next to Zhongnanhai, a secure compound that houses the homes and offices of China’s highest-level officials.
The next morning when Ms. Sun arrived on Fuyou Street, many practitioners were already there, quietly standing along the sidewalk in an orderly manner.
“At first we were standing across the street from the appeals office, but later the police came and directed us to stand all around the wall surrounding Zhongnanhai,” Ms. Sun said.
The Chinese regime would later characterize this encircling of Zhongnanhai—although ordered by the police—as a “siege on the central government” and use it as one of the main reasons to justify its crackdown on Falun Gong.
In reality it was a totally silent, well-ordered appeal that did not even include any banners or slogans. Footage and reports from that day showed a general sense of trust and goodwill from the practitioners that the authorities would listen and respond to their requests.
“Our requests were very simple,” said Ms. Sun. The practitioners asked for release of the arrested practitioners, a legal and stable environment to practise their belief, and permission to print Falun Gong books.
Premier Zhu met with several practitioner representatives, and by 10 p.m. Ms. Sun heard that the arrested practitioners had been released. Everyone went home, but not before picking up any litter that was on the ground, she said.
The extraordinary event that captured headlines worldwide seemingly came to a peaceful resolution that day. International media reported positively on both the official’s and the petitioners’ side.
The event was the largest spontaneous appeal to the CCP since the Tiananmen Square massacre of students ten years earlier on June 4, 1989. The stark contrast to the Tiananmen incident made it all the more remarkable.
Prelude to Persecution
Still, on the way home Ms. Sun “felt a bit uneasy. Throughout my life I had suffered too much under the CCP. With this kind of result, the CCP may retaliate.”
She was right. The event of that day indeed was the prelude to a ruthless persecution launched three months later by Jiang Zemin, then-leader of China.
Mr. Jiang wrote to the highest-ranking CCP members that night: “How could it be possible that the Marxist theory we endorse and the materialism and atheism we believe in can’t defeat what Falun Gong propagates?”
Even with the other six members of the CCP’s standing committee of the Politburo disagreeing with a crackdown on Falun Gong at first, it was not enough to stop Jiang, who observers say mobilized the persecution out of sheer jealousy of Falun Gong’s popularity.
It was also not enough to prevent other high-level officials from lending their support to Jiang and using their power to stir up the situation for their own political gain.
A Washington Post article in November 1999 noted, “Communist Party sources said that the standing committee of the Politburo did not unanimously endorse the crackdown and that President Jiang Zemin alone decided that Falun Gong must be eliminated…‘This obviously is very personal for Jiang,’ said one party official. ‘He wants this organization crushed.’”
Mr. Jiang formed the “6-10 Office,” named after the date it was established on June 10, 1999, for the sole purpose of “eradicating” Falun Gong. The persecution of Falun Gong officially began on July 20 as police raided homes early that morning and arrested practitioner coordinators across the country.
According to the New York-based Falun Dafa Information Center, to date the persecution has led to more than 3,200 killed for their belief, more than 87,000 tortured, and hundreds of thousands unlawfully jailed in forced labour camps and prisons across China.
At the same time, the persecution has met an enduring resistance whose peaceful nature has stayed unchanged since the 1999 April 25 appeal.
Hope for Righteousness, Justice to Prevail
“Jiang really made an enemy out of nowhere. These are ordinary citizens from all walks of life. It was a very good force in society. The premier handled it well on that day, but it’s still a country not ruled by law,” said Lucy Zhou, Falun Dafa Association of Canada spokesperson.
Ottawa practitioner Anthony Lu was only 12 at the time living in Beijing. He recalled that after April 25 monitoring increased at the practice site near his home. Practitioners were no longer allowed to hang up their banner and police began searching people’s bags.
“Gradually we could all feel the tension,” Mr. Lu said. “Eventually [the police] just did not allow us to practise anymore … We also heard from veteran practitioners that the government was going to take some actions and they might ban us from practising.”
The persecution has continued for ten long years, but Falun Gong practitioners have never resorted to violence in the face of brutality and have only used peaceful means to tell the world’s people the facts about their practice and the persecution, said Ms. Zhou.
“The CCP is using money and violence to destroy virtue and persecute good people. We are confident because we have the truth and our principles. We are hopeful that in the end righteousness and justice will prevail and evil will be defeated.”