When practitioners of one of China’s largest spiritual communities first learned that they were being targeted for persecution on July 20, 1999, they presumed that there must be a mistake. Why would the Chinese regime bother with peaceful meditators who try to live according to the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance?
Hoping to explain Falun Gong to the authorities and reach a peaceful resolution, many Falun Gong practitioners headed to their local petitions office, or to the headquarters of the petitions office in Beijing. The concept of petitioning is old in China, and refers to the right—at least on paper—for citizens to appeal to the government about their grievances.
On April 25, 1999, when over 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners found themselves outside Zhongnanhai, the compound of the Party leadership, then-Chinese premier Zhu Rongji met with representatives and promised to resolve their concerns. Just three months later, the campaign to wipe out Falun Gong began, and adherents were arrested and brutally abused in jails, brainwashing centers, and labor camps, all on the orders of former Communist Party chief Jiang Zemin.
Now, on the eve of the 18th anniversary of that persecution—still the largest in China—Chinese leader Xi Jinping has urged Chinese officials to do their utmost to help “petitioners.”
According to a July 19 article by state mouthpiece Xinhua, Xi called on petition work officials to “make ‘every possible effort’ to solve public grievances.” He also instructed officials to handle “people’s legitimate appeals lawfully.”
Given the coded operations of the Chinese regime and its tendency to tightly control public messaging near politically sensitive dates, it is difficult to imagine that Xi made his remarks without the expectation that they would be understood as obvious references to Falun Gong.
As the largest group of prisoners of conscience in China, Falun Gong practitioners have been arrested for lawful petitions for over 18 years; Chinese human rights lawyers determined to show that the anti-Falun Gong campaign is illegal have also been targeted.
Nor are the remarks one-off occurrence. Xi’s call to improve petition work is part of a string of such gestures made by his leadership near Falun Gong persecution anniversary dates. There are no current indications that the policy against Falun Gong will change in the near future, but these instances—as well as a series of institutional changes related to the persecution—are suggestive of an eventual shift in the political wind.
On April 21, 2016, Xi and Chinese premier Li Keqiang announced that it is in the regime’s interests to “amicably settle reasonable and lawful appeals by the masses” who submit petitions, as well as safeguard their legal rights.
That July 20, the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission (PLAC), which controls the Chinese regime’s security apparatus, announced at a national level meeting on judicial reform that it was looking to “establish a robust system to prevent unjust, false, and wrong charges,” while also addressing historical miscarriages of justice. The PLAC meeting was held in Changchun, the northeastern Chinese city where Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi first introduced the practice to the public in 1992.
Xi has also enacted policies during this tenure which suggest that he is planning on shifting the Chinese regime away from the persecutory policy of his predecessor Jiang Zemin.
Shortly after Xi took office in 2012, he proposed to abolish the Chinese regime’s labor camp system. Falun Gong practitioners formed the majority of prisoners in labor camps and other places of detention for many years. The labor camp system, a key Falun Gong persecution site, was formally shut in December 2013.
In May 2015, Xi pushed through a legal reform that required Chinese courts and procuratorates to acknowledge all criminal complaints that were submitted. This led to Falun Gong practitioners and other Chinese citizens filing over 200,000 complaints against Jiang Zemin for crimes against humanity—a development that would have led to brutal death and torture during the era of Jiang’s dominance.
And in October 2016, the “610 Office,” an extralegal Party organ that organizes and oversees the persecution of Falun Gong, was criticized by the Party’s internal police as part of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. Earlier, 610 Office heads had been either purged or quickly rotated out. Such treatment of Jiang’s favored 610 Office would have also been virtually inconceivable under previous political leadership.