For months, Li Guiqin, a 58-year-old retired scientist now living in the United States, would crowd into the back of an eight-seat van and cruise the streets of Harbin as she and others made phone calls to China’s public security officials, telling them to stop persecuting her faith community.
The constant motion was a must for this dangerous work. Staying stationary would have made it easy for the Chinese Communist Party’s omnipresent surveillance apparatus to triangulate her position and swarm in with the equivalent of a SWAT team.
So she and a few others—usually three or four, often retired, men and women who practiced the Chinese spiritual tradition of Falun Gong—plied the streets of the gritty northern industrial city near Siberia, making phone call after phone call from the van.
Some of the officials they reached responded with malice, some with indifference. But others responded with a hard-won acceptance of the truth that years of violence failed to conceal.
The Party began its nationwide persecution of the Falun Gong practice on July 20, 1999. Millions are believed to have been sent to labor camps, prisons, and illegal brainwashing centers, where practitioners are tortured in an attempt to force them to recant their beliefs. A large but unknown number are believed to have been killed for their organs.
And against all this has stood a stubborn group of meditators like Li Guiqin and her friends. They and numerous other Falun Gong practitioners in China have over the years adopted a range of creative methods for directly reaching the officials who have been ordered to persecute them, refuting the official narrative about Falun Gong and offering these public security agents a different course of action: to simply ignore the official orders.
‘I Have to Tell the Truth’
Li Guiqin, formerly a scientist at the Agricultural Science Institute of Heilongjiang Province, started to perform the slow-moving exercises of Falun Gong in the spring of 1995. She says she was cured of chronic gastritis and enteritis, which gave her frequent diarrhea.
By 1999, an official survey estimated that upwards of 70 million people were practicing Falun Gong—a number greater than the Chinese Communist Party’s membership at the time. Falun Gong sources say that in 1999, more than 100 million people were practicing.
Finding Falun Gong’s popularity unacceptable, the leader of the Party at the time, Jiang Zemin, demanded that the practice be wiped out.
Besides brutalizing practitioners, the regime launched a nationwide campaign of propaganda, marginalization, and incitement to hatred. Officials organized study sessions in work units and schools, forcing all employees and students to denounce the practice. State-run media manufactured stories of violence, insanity, and suicide, including the staged self-immolation incident of 2001.
Li Guiqin was detained three times, and in October 2002, she was was sentenced to three years in a forced labor camp for reeducation. In one incident, she had three of her front teeth knocked out as she was beaten unconscious by a frenzied guard.
Li’s response to all this is straightforward. “They make us tell lies and say what they want rather than how things actually are. But I have to tell the truth,” she said.
Falun Gong Calling
Across the country, dedicated volunteers like Li have been using both low- and high-tech methods to undercut the political campaign against Falun Gong. Grassroots initiatives like putting up posters and depositing fliers in bicycle baskets are at one end of the spectrum, while creating software that will automatically dial hundreds of phone numbers in sequence, or send one text message after another, is at the other.
Shao Changyong, now living in exile in New York City, uses high-tech methods. Practitioners like Shao—who was an engineering student at a military university when he began the practice, and later became a software lecturer—often create the tools and techniques that older volunteers like Li Guiqin use.
Shao came into contact with Falun Gong in the summer of 1994. He said he was stunned by its moral tenets: truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. “It was like finding a spiritual home,” he said. “My entire outlook on life dramatically changed.”
After a two-year labor camp sentence ended in 2005, he jumped feet first into “telling the truth”—the effort to show Chinese people and officials that Falun Gong was not the nefarious, mysterious organization that the Party claimed, but merely a collection of individuals who found meaning in a profound spiritual practice.
In 2013, he learned of the phone-calling initiative, which had germinated a decade before when Falun Gong practitioners began contacting individual Chinese citizens to share the truth about Falun Gong and the brutal persecution. In 2004, practitioners had broadened their message by encouraging citizens to reconsider their membership in the Party, via a movement to “tuidang”—Chinese for “quit the party.”
Since the communist takeover in 1949, “there has been decade after decade of tragedy, revolutionary movement after revolutionary movement,” Shao said. “They have resulted in the unnatural deaths of 80 million Chinese.”
The tuidang movement calls on Chinese people to take a moral stance against the regime by renouncing (often with an alias) the Chinese Communist Party, the Communist Youth League, and the Young Pioneers, a communist organization that nearly all Chinese children are made to join in primary school.
To ramp up efforts, Falun Gong practitioners developed software to dial phones automatically with recorded messages. The software then allows listeners to leave a response and indicate, by pressing a few buttons, if they agreed to renounce their affiliation with the Party, using an alias.
For the summer of 2014, Shao fine-tuned this initiative to maximize its safety and effectiveness in Beijing, right under the nose of the communist leadership. He learned how to change the IMEI number identifying each phone, and determined which SIM cards were safest to purchase and how to buy them in bulk, as they had to be frequently discarded for safety.
He then shared the project with other practitioners in Beijing, including many elderly Chinese practitioners, who circled the city on public buses making calls that reached thousands of Chinese citizens every day.
Every night, Shao left home with 14 phones and turned them on when he was a distance away. He then biked around the city with the phones automatically dialing people with tidbits of censored news or entreaties to quit the Party. After three hours, Shao turned off all of his phones, removed the batteries, and returned home.
Seven hundred miles away, Li Guiqin, the retired scientist, started making phone calls in December 2013 after younger, tech-savvy practitioners in her region had worked out the particulars just as Shao Chaoyong had in Beijing. Besides having two phones automatically making calls, she also made direct calls while riding in a van around Harbin City.
After a few months, in August 2014, the practitioners decided to try calling Chinese public security officials to urge them to stop bolstering the Chinese communist regime in persecuting innocents.
Many Chinese officials hurled threats and abuse at Li, but she showed compassion, knowing the officials had also been deceived by the pervasive propaganda.
Haunted by the time they’d spent in labor camps and brainwashing centers, the practitioners soon stopped their direct calls.
But after several months, they attempted again, calling on officials to quit the Party or to release arrested practitioners.
“We treated them like family,” Li said. Over time, even many Chinese authorities secretly agreed to quit the Party with aliases.
Turning the Tide
In China, the persecution continues. Between January and May of this year, at least 392 practitioners were sentenced to prison, according to Minghui, a clearinghouse for information on the persecution.
Despite the continued risk of imprisonment, torture, and even death, between 7 million and 10 million Chinese citizens continue to practice Falun Gong in mainland China, according to Freedom House, a U.S.-based human rights organization. Falun Gong sources suggest the figure is between 20 million and 40 million.
Through consistent, unwavering grassroots efforts to expose the communist regime, Falun Gong practitioners are turning the tide.
Over 278 million Chinese people have chosen to renounce their affiliation with the Chinese Communist Party and its related organizations.
More and more local procuratorates have rejected Falun Gong cases because of “insufficient evidence.” Between January and May, at least 53 practitioners were released without charge by authorities, according to Minghui.
Many officials who oversaw the persecution have been purged by Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, including Zhou Yongkang, the former security czar, and Li Dongsheng, the former head of the 610 Office, a Gestapo-like organization that coordinates the persecution.
And since May 2015, nearly 210,000 criminal complaints have been filed against Jiang Zemin at the Chinese regime’s highest court and procuratorate by Falun Gong practitioners and others who oppose the genocide Jiang oversaw.
Shao Changyong and Li Guiqin eventually left China to escape the persecution, and both now reside in New York City.
Li stands outside major tourist sites like Rockefeller Center talking to Chinese tourists, showing them how Falun Gong is freely practiced in every country aside from their homeland.
Shao works full-time for the Global Service Center for Quitting the Chinese Communist Party, a nongovernmental organization that focuses on exactly what he had long been doing in China—exposing a brutal persecution campaign, one phone call at a time.