Analysis: Behind the Chinese Regime’s Latest Treatment of Falun Gong

January 27, 2017 Updated: September 30, 2017

Over the past four years, the administration of Chinese leader Xi Jinping has not appeared very interested in playing up the persecution of Falun Gong, one of the more brutal legacies of former Communist Party chief Jiang Zemin.

The Xi administration, in fact, has made a number of gestures that suggested that the regime does not attach much high-level political weight to the persecution of this spiritual practice at all: The labor camp system was formally shut; criminal complaints against Jiang Zemin for crimes against humanity were accepted by the regime’s top judiciary, when previously, those who dared file such complaints were arrested, tortured, and even killed; leaders of the persecution campaign in the extralegal 610 Office have been purged, and the agency has been without a stable chief for years; and the Chinese military and paramilitary were ordered to exit their business ventures, including hospitals, which are believed by researchers to be heavily involved in harvesting organs from Falun Gong practitioners.

But a number of quiet rumbles this January indicate that the campaign is still somewhere on the Party’s agenda.

Pro-regime protesters gathered outside Lincoln Center to protest Shen Yun Performing Arts, a New York-based classical Chinese dance company that was founded by Falun Gong practitioners, for the duration of its shows in New York City recently. Last week, the Global Times, a state-run newspaper that traffics in nationalism, ran a hit piece on Shen Yun. Days before the Global Times op-ed, the state-run China Daily issued a similar propaganda piece in its paid supplement that is being carried by Western newspapers.

And on Jan. 25, the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate issued an update to its anti-Falun Gong judicial interpretation, the first of its sort since 2002. The new legal action seemed to serve as a prominent and very public reminder that the Chinese regime still oversees a brutal and deadly persecution that had disenfranchised 70 to 100 million Chinese citizens, according to regime and Falun Gong estimates.

Going by the mainstream understanding, the sudden official scrutiny of Falun Gong can be written off as the byproduct of what appears to be Xi Jinping administration’s tightening its controls over Chinese society through the regime’s political and law apparatus and the state media outlets.

Last year, Xi publicly toured the headquarters of Party media, and instructed them to stick to the Party line. Starting in July 2015, hundreds of human rights lawyers and their families have been interrogated and detained. Zhou Qiang, the head of the Supreme People’s Court, recently said in an address to legal officials that they should “draw the sword” and resist “Western influences” like “judicial independence,” “separation of powers,” and “constitutional democracy.”

But it is unclear whether these new moves against Falun Gong are at the direct behest of Xi Jinping.

After launching the persecution of Falun Gong, Jiang Zemin planted many of his loyalists from outside the apparatus into top security and judicial positions to preserve his political campaign. Thus men like Li Dongsheng, formerly a top executive in the state broadcaster, and Zhou Yongkang, formerly a state oil magnate, came to head the Gestapo-like agency that carries out the persecution of Falun Gong and the security apparatus respectively.

Li and Zhou were eventually purged in Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, but other Jiang allies continue to occupy key posts. Xin Ziling, a retired defense official with channels to moderate voices in the top leadership, told Epoch Times in a recent interview that although Chief Justice Zhou Qiang appeared to rally around Xi Jinping after Xi took office, Zhou’s latest political utterings suggest that he still belongs in “the political line of Jiang Zemin.”

Meanwhile, the propaganda apparatus is still in the hands of Jiang ally and Politburo Standing Committee member Liu Yunshan. Liu’s propaganda machine was indirectly called out last year by a Party “princeling” for trying to “slander the top leader” through a cultural show with heavy Maoist themes.

Jiang Zemin and the members of his faction who built their careers, wealth, and dynasties through the persecution of Falun Gong—at the time one of the largest security mobilizations since the Mao era, and an ongoing high-level political priority accorded a large budget and senior personnel able to mobilize vast bureaucratic resources—are still highly invested in the campaign. The torturing, killing, and organ harvesting of Falun Gong practitioners, if aired and redressed, has the potential to implicate all officials involved.

The black box of Chinese politics is always difficult to peer into, but the most sensible explanation for the Party’s apparent schizophrenia on this issue is that there is not a single voice or set of interests at play. We may be witnessing both a new guard that sees other, more pressing priorities for the Party to focus on, versus the diehards who are committed to pursuing their violent project to the end, and have a lot at stake if the campaign loses its political legitimacy.

With reporting by Rona Rui.