Former Head of Communist Party Secret Police Force Put on Trial in China

October 14, 2015 Updated: October 18, 2015

The former head of a secret communist police force has been put on trial in China, one of a series of high-profile punishments of top former officials with strong factional affiliations, before an important Communist Party meeting.

The trial of Li Dongsheng began in the coastal city of Tianjin on Oct. 14, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency. Li headed the 610 Office, a Communist Party task force created in 1999 to direct the campaign to “eradicate” the Falun Gong spiritual practice.

Li is being tried for abusing his power across a range of posts he held from 1996 to 2013 in exchange for the receipt of bribes. The official positions he abused, official reports said, include his role as deputy director of the Party mouthpiece China Central Television, as member of the Ministry of Public Security Communist Party Group, and as deputy Party secretary of public security, among other posts.

Abuse of Power

Li was also a member of the Political and Legal Affairs Commission, which directs the operation of China’s security forces.

In total, he is said to have amassed nearly 22 million yuan ($3.4 million) over the years, though observers of China’s opaque politics usually regard such numbers as gross understatements. In exchange for cash, Li was said to have handed out promotions and done a range of other favors using his official positions.

Communist Party reports took the opportunity of the announcement of Li’s trial to portray him as a debauched drunken driver. Impugning the moral integrity of corrupt officials is often part of the regime’s anti-corruption campaign, as the fallen cadres are portrayed as aberrations from the Communist Party’s high standards of personal discipline.

“Whenever Li Dongsheng opened his mouth, obscenities would spill out,” an unnamed CCTV colleague was quoted saying to Phoenix, a semi-official media outlet. “He often drank a lot, and very often drove while drunk,” the colleague continued. He was characterized as having a “fierceness” about his work at the broadcaster.

Li had few skills, but he had a knack for “building up a political camp” and knowing which way the political winds were blowing, another colleague said.

Incitement of Hatred

This was most evident in Li’s extensive and meticulous propaganda work in the anti-Falun Gong campaign, in which China Central Television played a key part. Li is believed to be the mastermind of the hoax Tiananmen Square self-immolation incident, which took place in January 2001. Li’s propaganda work attacking Falun Gong is believed to have cemented his ties to the faction of Jiang Zemin, the then-head of the Chinese Communist Party.

Jiang’s campaign against the Falun Gong spiritual practice, a traditional discipline of meditation that had attracted 70 to 100 million adherents in China before it was persecuted, according to official and Falun Gong estimates, had stalled and was encountering resistance among the public and some parts of officialdom.

The immolation incident, in which Communist Party propaganda agencies appeared to demonstrate that a number of practitioners of Falun Gong set themselves aflame on Tiananmen Square, gave the Party a chance to reinvigorate the campaign.

Freedom House reports that “months of relentless propaganda succeeded in turning public opinion against the group. Over the next year, the scale of imprisonment, torture, and even deaths of Falun Gong practitioners from abuse in custody increased dramatically.”

The numerous inconsistencies and tight control over the event, added to the suspicious identity of the participants, led many observers to conclude that the entire episode was concocted for its propaganda effect. Philip Pan, a reporter with The Washington Post, reported that one of the participants “worked in a nightclub,” “took money to keep men company” (behavior forbidden by Falun Gong’s teachings), and that none of her neighbors “ever saw her practice Falun Gong.”

Due to extensive controls over television, the CCTV program that crafted the original story, “Focus Report,” had some of the highest viewership ratings in China. Li Dongsheng had created the program in 1994, and in 2001 was a key player in anti-Falun Gong propaganda, with a seat in the propaganda department and a role in the censorship agency that oversaw CCTV.

One Among Many

The Communist Party is set to hold its 5th Plenary Session, an important political meeting held every year, within the next couple of weeks. The lead up to such events is typically filled with political speculation and horse trading.

And just before this year’s Plenary Session, Party leader Xi Jinping appears to have decided to unveil the harsh punishments of a number of officials who were in the political network of his rival, former Party boss Jiang Zemin. Jiang was Party leader from 1989 to 2002, though he retained extensive control over elite politics through the following decade via the appointment of his own cronies at the top of the regime. It is this entrenched political network that has been the primary focus of Xi Jinping’s campaign of Party purges, branded as an anti-corruption campaign.

The other officials targeted before the meeting include Jiang Jiemin, Su Shulin, and Wang Yongchun, all former top officials in the lucrative petroleum sector, and close loyalists to felled security czar Zhou Yongkang, and Li Chuncheng, a former security cadre and deputy Party secretary of Sichuan, where Zhou served as Party secretary in the early 2000s. These officials were given hefty prison sentences ranging from 13 to 20 years.

Guo Yongxiang, Zhou’s political secretary in Sichuan, and the former head of a Communist Party-run nongovernmental literary organization, was also sentenced to 20 years in prison for amassing vast sums in bribes.