Looking Back at a Rare Meeting With China’s Premier: Hopeful Yet Foreboding
It’s not often that a top leader of China’s Communist Party actually meets with the Chinese people and attempts to respond directly to their concerns. There may, in fact, be only two cases in the whole of recent history: the first was the time that Zhao Ziyang, the Party chief who was subsequently ousted, met with students on Tiananmen Square on May 19, 1989. (A few weeks after that, the tanks rolled in.)
The second encounter was almost exactly a decade later: April 25, 1999. On that day, Zhu Rongji, the premier, called into Zhongnanhai, the Party’s leadership compound, three representatives of the over-10,000 meditators that had gathered outside the leadership compound. The circumstances were much more genial, and the hopes of participants ostensibly much less political.
Zhu came out of Zhongnanhai at about 8:30 a.m., three hours after practitioners of Falun Gong, a traditional spiritual practice, had begun gathering. According to one account of the initial exchange, Zhu called out: “Who are your leaders?” A number of people responded: “We’re all leaders.” In the end, three representatives were chosen, and spent several hours with Zhu.
The discussion went smoothly by all accounts, and concluded with three points of agreement: that Falun Gong practitioners who had been wrongly arrested in Tianjin, a city near to Beijing, would be released; that practitioners would be assured a lawful environment in which to pursue their practice; and that Falun Gong books would no longer be blocked from publication.
Both the appeal itself and the meeting with Zhu were unprecedented in China.
Of all the people that could have wound up in the meeting with Zhu Rongji, one of them happened to be a doctoral candidate in physics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a state-run research institution, named Shi Caidong. Shi now works in marketing, based in New York.
As they entered the compound, Shi remembers Zhu Rongji asking, “‘I wrote comments on your appeal letter, didn’t I?’ The three of us were all puzzled. We never saw any ‘comments.’” Zhu had originally written a response to concerns from practitioners that hard-line forces in the Party were seeking to harass and restrict their practice, including banning the book from publication and spreading negative propaganda in the media. It seemed that Zhu’s instructions on the matter had been intercepted by forces in the regime who had other ideas.
“You have freedom of belief, don’t you!” Zhu said, as Shi Caidong recalled it. Zhu gave the impression of being receptive to the concerns and affable to those he spoke with.
During the discussion, one of the two other Falun Gong practitioners that had come with Shi mentioned a defamatory article, by a communist theoretician and scientist named He Zuoxiu that attacked Falun Gong. Practitioners had responded to the article by going to the Tianjin College of Education, where it had been published, and protesting. But they were met with violent police force, 45 were arrested. This incident was the proximate cause of the appeal near Zhongnanhai just days later.
When He Zuoxiu’s name was mentioned, one of Zhu Rongji’s staff muttered, “He Zuoxiu again.” The chair of the Appeals Office, where the practitioners had originally directed their energies, chimed in, “There’s only one He Zuoxiu, right?” according to Shi Caidong’s recollection of the exchange.
A Brutal Campaign in the Offing
Much discussion by analysts of China in the years since the “Zhongnanhai incident,” as it has come to be called, has focused on whether it was a “strategic error” by Falun Gong practitioners that precipitated the brutal persecution that was to follow, or whether it was the best chance they had to forestall a campaign that was already getting underway.
The vignette that Shi Caidong recounts suggests the latter: He Zuoxiu was the brother-in-law of then security czar Luo Gan, a hard-boiled communist cadre who for years had seen the spread of Falun Gong in China as somehow an ideological challenge to the regime’s Marxist-Leninist ideology. It was Luo that organized secret investigations of Falun Gong, beginning in 1996, infiltrating practice sites with plainclothes police that collected the identities and addresses of practitioners around the country.
Recent research by the writer Ethan Gutmann even suggests that Luo Gan may have been behind a conspiracy to entrap practitioners around Zhongnanhai on April 25. “Zhongnanhai was a setup,” he said in a recent interview. His forthcoming book, “The Slaughter,” describes how Falun Gong adherents collectively planned to go to “appeal” to the central government, and how police, waiting for the visitors that morning, guided them to line up all alongside Zhongnanhai, the secretive base of the Party’s leadership.
Later in the day, Jiang Zemin, Party chief at the time, drove out in a black limousine and observed the quiet group that had gathered. It mattered little to Jiang that, when they left that evening, the practitioners picked up garbage and the cigarette butts flicked onto the ground by police. In a letter penned that evening, he called the gathering “the most serious incident since the political turbulence in 1989,” and raged that “can’t we, the communists with our belief in Marxism, materialism, and atheism, win over that suit of stuff aired by Falun Gong? If we cannot, we would become the laughingstock of the world. Our leading cadres at all levels, especially high-level officials, should become sober now!”
Jiang’s answer to Falun Gong came within a few months. It involved secret police, forced confessions, marathon propaganda sessions on prime-time television, forced ideological study, pledges of allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party and, for those who would not repent their beliefs, lengthy prison sentences, torture chambers, and labor camps. Jiang’s legacy is that the campaign continues to this day.