A district court in central China’s Henan Province recently dropped charges against practitioners of Falun Gong, a traditional spiritual discipline that was marked for persecution in 1999, on account of “changes in judicial interpretations.” The case is the latest highly unusual instance in which Chinese authorities have declined to carry out the regime’s extralegal policies against the group that have been routinely enforced for nearly two decades.
The defendants Zhang Zhe, Li Xiaojun, and Sun Yanping were released on July 28 by Shanyang District Procuratorate, according to Minghui.org, a clearinghouse that documents the persecution of Falun Gong. They were arrested after filing lawsuits against Jiang Zemin, the former Communist Party leader who initiated the campaign against Falun Gong.
After over a year of detention and torture, the practitioners emerged from custody visibly emaciated, according to Minghui. Zhang Zhe’s black hair had turned grey in her 14 months of detention, and her back made hunched.
Falun Gong, a practice of self-cultivation focused on meditation and spiritual improvement, attracted between 70 and 100 million practitioners in the 1990s according to Communist Party and Falun Gong estimates respectively. Its popularity aroused the ire of the leader at the time, Jiang Zemin, who saw Falun Gong’s independence as a challenge to the regime’s social and political control.
In the 18 years following, millions of people who refused to renounce their faith were cast out of their work units, imprisoned, or turned into slave laborers in work camps, toiling to make toys for the overseas market. They were also susceptible to state-sanctioned forced organ harvesting, researchers say.
Before they could leave, the three were asked to sign a form stating that they were only kept in custody for 15 days, an apparent effort by police to avoid repercussions for the prolonged period of detention, which itself violated regular judicial protocols. They refused.
Although the specific judicial changes referred to by the procuratorate were not clarified, it’s possible that the court was referring to a number of legal reforms under the Xi Jinping administration in 2015, which required China’s courts to register all criminal complaints.
Xi’s order was taken as an opportunity by Falun Gong practitioners to attempt to bring Jiang Zemin to justice. Since then, over two million criminal complaints have been filed by Falun Gong practitioners and supportive Chinese citizens calling for Jiang to be prosecuted, according to incomplete data collected by Minghui.
The persecution is not over, though. Henan alone has seen at least 43 arrests from March to August, according to Minghui. But although there have been no formal changes in official policy, local officials seemed to have softened their stance. In multiple occasions, human rights lawyers have defended practitioners without suffering major repercussions. Dozens of practitioners managed to walk out of court without charges earlier this year. A regional procuratorate withdrew a case against four other Falun Gong practitioners this past July, citing “insufficient evidence.”
Current Chinese leader Xi Jinping closed down labor camps since coming to power after the 18th National Congress in 2013. The anti-corruption campaign that he oversaw has disciplined 1.2 million officials, many of whom had been involved in, and profited from, Jiang’s persecution campaign.
Zhang Zanning, a law professor at Southeast University in Nanjing who has taken on Falun Gong cases, told The Epoch Times that arresting Falun Gong practitioners was against the law. “Not only have lawsuits not been registered, but the petitioners were arrested — this is definitely not legal,” he said. “It proved that our country is not ruled by law. The power of leaders loomed over the law.”