Former Head of China’s Secret Police, Li Dongsheng, Sentenced to 15 Years’ Imprisonment

January 12, 2016 Updated: January 18, 2016

Li Dongsheng, a powerful Communist Party official who once ran China’s Gestapo-like secret police force, as well as serving as vice minister of public security, was sentenced to jail for 15 years on Jan. 12. The news was publicized by China Central Television, the official broadcast mouthpiece of the Chinese regime, and other official media channels.

The official explanation for Li’s sentence was a history of vast corruption he engaged in for nearly two decades, from 1996 to 2013, across a range of posts he held. At the end of 2013, he was removed from his post and officially put under investigation by the Party’s disciplinary authorities, becoming the first top-level official still serving in the security apparatus to be purged in the scorching anti-corruption campaign.

A court in the northeastern coastal city of Tianjin pronounced sentence. 

The court’s decision said that the crimes Li engaged in included extortion, illegal bribes, the trading of state positions for cash, and a range of other corrupt activities. He received a total of nearly 22 million yuan ($3.35 million) in bribes, the court said.

These charges, however, conceal the political nature of the sentence passed on Li, given that he was for years a confidant of the ousted security czar Zhou Yongkang and a stalwart in the political faction of which Zhou was a part. As head of the 610 Office, the extralegal Party task force set up to persecute the Falun Gong spiritual practice, Li was a core member of the political network of Jiang Zemin, the former leader of the Chinese Communist Party. Jiang initiated the persecution of Falun Gong as a means of increasing his power in the Party in 1999. 

Apparently seeing the opportunity for political advancement, Li Dongsheng leveraged his role at China Central Television. He headed up a faux investigative reporting program, which he used to vilify Falun Gong and incite a culture of hatred against it, facilitating its violent repression by his colleagues in the security apparatus.

Beginning in 1978, Li spent over 20 years at CCTV, working his way up from cameraman to eventually becoming deputy head of the station. Through this period, he served in key positions in current affairs programs, including the influential “Focus Talk,” a key conduit for anti-Falun Gong propaganda in the early years of the campaign against the practice.

According to the World Organization to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong, an overseas organization that combs primary sources in China, “Focus Talk” produced 39 anti-Falun Gong programs in the five months after the persecution began in July 1999. Li Dongsheng had already, at that time, assumed the deputy directorship of the 610 Office, a secret task force, where he was put in charge of propaganda. This title was never formally announced, but it appeared in media reports at the time. 

One of Li’s most successful propaganda initiatives was in early 2001, after five people identified by CCTV as Falun Gong practitioners immolated themselves on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Within hours, CCTV had professionally polished, detailed news reports purporting to show how the individuals set themselves on fire because of their Falun Gong beliefs (though the practice forbids self-harm and suicide.)

The Party’s ham-fisted anti-Falun Gong propaganda had until then not been very convincing to the public at large—but the immolation was a turning point. Despite a dearth of evidence that the individuals actually practiced Falun Gong, and countervailing evidence that the incident was a hoax, CCTV went into overdrive with propaganda meant to incite hatred against the practice.

“News about the immolations appeared several times a day,” said Jim Li, who was a university student in China at the time. Li, speaking in a previous interview with the Epoch Times, now lives in the United States and practices Falun Gong. “It was overwhelming. People saw graphic images and harsh language. They were bombarded with this.”

Jennifer Zeng, a Communist Party member and researcher for the State Council, was being held in a labor camp for her beliefs when the immolations took place.

“After I was released from the labor camp, a few months after the immolations, I found there had been a profound change in people’s attitudes toward Falun Gong,” Zeng said in a previous interview with the Epoch Times. “At that time, I think a majority of the people were deceived by the reports.”

These attitudes have changed dramatically in recent years, with petitions across China showing support for Falun Gong practitioners, and security officials in some localities refusing to enforce the persecution. The immolation, too, has in retrospect been seen by Western media and observers as an obvious propaganda stunt.

Later, throughout the 2000s, Li served in a variety of propaganda functions. In 2009, he was made deputy director of Public Security and head of the 610 Office—significant promotions, particularly for one with no direct background in security services.

Since Xi Jinping rose to power in late 2012, the group of officials loyal to Jiang Zemin has been purged in an unprecedented political campaign to rectify the Party and eliminate corruption.