Hugo Peng did his best to talk sense into the young men, all wearing the same red vests, who were obediently draping their large red People’s Republic of China flags across his banner on the evening of March 30. Along with three colleagues, he was hoping to catch the eye of Xi Jinping, the visiting Chinese head of state, as he cruised past in his motorcade and into the Washington Marriott Wardman Park hotel that evening.
Xi, who just came from Prague, is in Washington for the Nuclear Security Summit and a one-on-one meeting with President Obama. Chinese leaders have for over a decade often been beset by two crowds when they travel abroad: those, clad in bright red, organizing a welcoming party; and those offering a protest.
But for the last few years, one of the largest groups engaged in protests, has delivered a slightly more nuanced message: rather than protesting directly against Xi Jinping, they’re calling on him to bring to justice his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, who in 1999 launched the bloody suppression of the Falun Gong spiritual practice.
Falun Gong, a traditional Chinese mind and body discipline that includes five meditative exercises and the moral precepts of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance, was feared to have become more popular than the Chinese Communist Party by the late 1990s, which experts think partly precipitated the massive persecution.
But the decision to launch a mass campaign against such a large group of people was highly controversial in the Party leadership at the time. In recent years, many of those involved in the campaign have been investigated and imprisoned.
It was this dynamic that Hugo Peng, a practitioner of Falun Gong, was attempting to articulate to the young men behind him.
“We’re just demanding that Xi Jinping bring Jiang Zemin to justice,” Peng recalled. “Actually, many high-level officials in China have been punished, and although it wasn’t in the name of persecuting Falun Gong, these officials like Zhou Yongkang and Xu Caihou have their hands covered in the blood of Falun Gong.”
Zhou Yongkang was the former security czar, and Xu was one of the most powerful generals in the Chinese military. Both have been cast out and disgraced since Xi’s rise to power. They are close allies of Jiang Zemin, the Chinese leader who took power after the Tiananmen massacre, and held it in one way or another for more than the two following decades. For years Zhou and Xu held key positions that secured Jiang’s proximity to vast powers; this is also why they needed to be purged if Xi Jinping ever wanted a chance of exercising his own authority.
Peng, when he was in China, worked as a lawyer, and in later years began taking on cases brought to him by practitioners of Falun Gong. He himself came to adopt the practice, and now lives in the United States after fleeing the same persecution he once defended others from.
“The trial of Jiang will happen, so please don’t block the banner. You’re welcoming Xi Jinping, and we welcome what he’s doing by throwing these big tigers in jail who have persecuted Falun Gong,” Peng continued, recounting his brief lecture to the young men behind him. One of them, Peng said, was shifting uncomfortably at this point.
“They didn’t say a word. But their facial expressions became unnatural.”
David Tompkins, an observer of the interaction who documented the banner tussle extensively with his Fuji point-and-shoot, said that there appeared to be about 1,000 pro-Party protesters, dressed in red outfits and waving large red flags, up and down Connecticut Avenue.
A number of middle-aged women directed the young men, likely university students, to block the Falun Gong banner for about an hour when it seemed most likely that Xi’s entourage would drive past. There were a total of about 60 Falun Gong protesters, Tompkins estimated.
“Get your flags and cover it up,” one of the women said, Peng recalls. He noted that two of the flag holders, who gave an appearance of unease after his remonstrations, failed to fully cover up the corner of his banner that they had been assigned.
Tompkins, the director of public relations for the Tuidang Center, a nonprofit organization that solicits renunciations of Communist Party membership from Chinese people, was accosted at one point by one of the women, who said, “There’s not much happening here, why don’t you go over there?”
On other occasions, his shots were blocked by red protesters who thrust their own cameras or cellphones in front of his lens, or dangled their flags in front. After a few perfunctory cautions were ignored, the police mostly just watched.
Zhang Huidong, another Falun Gong practitioner present on March 30, said that in a number of conversations with pro-regime demonstrators, he was told that some of them had been bused in from Philadelphia: 25 buses, 50 people a bus. It was unclear if they were paid for attending, though this is the common assumption among overseas Chinese, and in previous instances of organized protests, surreptitious photographs have been taken of organizers handing out green bills to the foot soldiers who hold the flags.
There was a particular irony that caught the eye of David Tompkins. In a number of instances “they were using American flags to block the Falun Gong banners, perhaps as a way of appealing to Americans,” he said. “There’s just such an incredible irony that they’re using the American flag to try to stop people expressing their views, and appealing to Xi Jinping to bring Jiang Zemin to justice.”