Protracted Vengeance: A review of ‘Revenge of the Forbidden City,’ by James Tong

March 19, 2012 Updated: August 7, 2019
James Tong's Revenge of the Forbidden City, on the Persecution of Falun Gong
James Tong’s “Revenge of the Forbidden City.” (Oxford University Press)

Tong W., James. “Revenge of the Forbidden City: The Suppression of the Falungong in China, 1999-2005,” Oxford University Press (October 2009). 288 pages. $43.55. ISBN: 978-0195377286

James Tong’s study of the persecution of Falun Gong, “Revenge of the Forbidden City,” is not for the fainthearted. That goes almost as much for the anguishing, and eventually numbing, accounts of political terror as for the staggering level of detail and research that went into documenting them.

Falun Gong is a Chinese spiritual practice that grew too popular for the comfort of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It consists of five meditative exercises and the study of moral teachings based on the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. In July 1999, then-paramount leader of the CCP, Jiang Zemin, declared that it must be eradicated. Tong’s book is a thorough chronicle of this attempted eradication.

The study falls into seven chapters: preparations for the persecution; police actions; the propaganda campaign; the “conversion” campaign (more on that later); the bureaucratic machinations by which it was carried out; Party announcements; an evaluation.

The backbone of the study is in its three central chapters, which document, it would seem, the whole gamut of repression in painstaking detail: the propaganda saturation, the vilification, the lies, the rancor; the mass arrests, the show trials, the forced confessions; the use of informants, the residential surveillance, the raids and interceptions; the detentions, the labor camps, the torture, the brainwashing.

Interspersed throughout, and occupying perhaps a total of half of the book, are tedious descriptions of the administrative mechanics of how all those dark deeds were organized and coordinated, and which bureaucratic agency passed which buck to whom.

“Revenge of the Forbidden City” is not comprehensive. The frame it adopts is mostly one of documenting, based on official sources, what Party officials and organs did and said at particular times. Tong did not conduct interviews with persecution victims, nor really document how the persecution played out at different levels in society. He does not tell us what impact the campaign had on individual lives and on families. That may lead to the complaint that the book is somewhat sterile. It is just that kind of book. The reliance on official sources also causes Tong in the end to fail to understand how practitioners have responded to the persecution and how the CCP has altered its tactics in continuing it.

It is unclear why Tong ignored every human rights report ever published on the persecution, of which there are dozens. This includes reports from United Nations’ Special Rapporteurs, the Congressional Executive Committee on China (CECC), the U.S. State Department, the Falun Dafa Information Center, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International. Tong attempts to explain by saying “Disinterested analysts are constrained by the necessity to rely on the government and the Falungong, the only main data sources for much of the subject matter of the present study.” (p. 31) But that is not true.

As has now become common in accounts by both journalists and academics, Tong’s narrative begins on April 25, 1999, when Falun Gong practitioners gathered outside Zhongnanhai, the CCP’s leadership compound. This is a questionable starting point because Falun Gong and the Party had significant contact before then. Tong elides the complex background of harassment, book banning, discrimination, and arrests, which culminated in that demonstration. But he is mainly interested in the persecution itself, so the omission is forgivable.

Another of Tong’s omissions, however, is less forgivable: a complete failure to understand what Falun Gong actually is.

Tong relies on immediate post-persecution state propaganda for contentious claims about the nature of Falun Gong practitioners’ organization. He makes the sophomoric error of characterizing Falun Gong as a “system of breathing exercises” (Falun Gong includes no breathing exercises). His presentation of the belief system of Falun Gong is presumably not one that any practitioner would accept, and at least differs in emphasis and context to that provided by scholars of Chinese religion who have researched Falun Gong, such as David Ownby. And Tong also uncritically adopts, throughout the text, the CCP’s almost zoological classification system of practitioners—such as “core leaders,” “rank-and-file-members,” etc., neither of which actually exist, according to ethnographic research (cf. Ownby 2008, Porter 2003, Susan Palmer 2000).

Another error Tong commits due to overreliance on the CCP’s official statements is to adopt the Party’s tidy narrative that Falun Gong has been crushed in China. This enormous oversight may be partly explained by the fact that Tong’s research on the matter stopped in 2005, and that he did not supplement his readings of official sources with fieldwork among Falun Gong adherents who had been persecuted, or with defectors who had participated in the persecution. Tong was presented with a copy of this review, but said he does not comment on evaluations of his work.

If he had done more complete research, and continued beyond 2005, he may have found the opposite. The year 2005 was, in many ways, a turning point in the persecution and the resistance to it. Falun Gong adherents began the “tuidang” (renounce the Party) movement, which leveraged the publication of the editorial series “Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party” by this newspaper; rights defense lawyers, including Gao Zhisheng, began taking on Falun Gong cases; a stream of defectors emerged from China; and the CCP began to downplay the persecution while launching a series of new campaigns.

Hu Jintao’s public approach to crushing Falun Gong was different from Jiang Zemin’s. Hu replaced “Falun Gong” in public discourse with ambiguous watchwords that meant the same thing. At big Party convocations the war against Falun Gong was renamed the struggle against “evil cults.” The name of the 610 Office (called “The Leading Small Group for Handling the Falun Gong Issue”) was changed to “The Leading Small Group for Preventing and Handling the Problem of Heretical Organizations.” The racks of anti-Falun Gong hate literature disappeared from embassies, and if Hu was asked about the question in the context of human rights, he would speak in generalities, whereas Jiang would have gone on a tirade against the practice.

Pursuing the same campaign so many years after the fact reflected poorly on the Party. The population had wearied of the persecution, and some in the security forces became exasperated with the waste of it, according to leaked diplomatic cables. But the fact that Falun Gong was pulled from official rhetoric does not mean the persecution was successful, as Tong claims—merely that the public-facing strategy had changed. The campaigns continued.

The crackdown on rights lawyers got underway after Gao Zhisheng and others began taking up Falun Gong cases. The 2006 campaign to promote the socialist concept of the rule of law and the September 2007 Three Supremes propaganda were both a backlash against the rights defense movement, and specifically a backlash against lawyers defending Falun Gong. In 2009 Xi Jinping led the 6521 campaign aimed at silencing dissidents, and in the same year Zhou Yongkang led a top-level Party campaign in which Falun Gong figured prominently. In 2010 the CCP launched a multi-billion dollar effort, planned over three years, to forcibly “convert” 75 percent of all known believers. There have always been crackdowns against Falun Gong around sensitive anniversaries and sporting events, and crackdowns on underground printing, illegal publications, and home satellites invariably have also targeted Falun Gong-related publications.

The fact that Tong had failed to keep up his research and his lack of understanding of key parts of how the persecution was conducted was on full display at an unusual testimony he gave to the Congressional-Executive Committee on China in June of 2011—unusual because it failed to note all of the above, and the continued, steady resistance by practitioners inside China.

The CCP does not plot for a war that it has already won. But because Tong did not talk with victims, did not talk with people involved in the persecution, relied only upon published CCP documents, and did not extend his research beyond 2005, he was left with no insight into why Falun Gong dropped off the official radar in 2005, while the persecution continued as it always had.

At that hearing he suggested that millions of practitioners could not have been incarcerated because the legal system does not have the capacity to process them. This fails to consider the role of administrative sentencing in the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners, which circumvents the judicial system and can be enforced by police signing a piece of paper. The incarceration of Falun Gong practitioners was mostly conducted through this mechanism, not the judicial system. This is an extraordinary mistake for a scholar.

Though these faults will dismay the reader, they stand alongside what contribution his volume does make to our understanding of the persecution of Falun Gong and the “freaking fortune” that the Chinese Party-state has spent pursuing it (in the words of Professor Scott Lowe, in an email), at least between 1999 and 2005.

While part of Tong’s expertise is wanting, his parsing of Chinese governmental materials is often formidable. What sources the author consulted, he consulted thoroughly, and he appears to have read every single piece of Chinese state propaganda on the practice. This meticulous presentation, based on Party documents, makes “Revenge” the most detailed and thorough dissection of the campaign against Falun Gong yet to issue from the academia. One could only wish he had unfettered access to files on the persecution—rather than having to rely solely on the subset meant for public consumption.

Gladly for an academic work, “Revenge” is thoroughly empirical: There are only about a dozen pages of theory shoehorned into the introduction and conclusion. Apart from this the book is almost pure information—sometimes even data.

Tong is in his scholarly element when analyzing specific operational units of the state, how they coordinate among themselves, and how they engaged together in the persecution of practitioners. A whole chapter (six) is spent on just this topic. One of the tables is called “Assignment of Merit Points for Different Tasks in the Anticult Campaign in Lingtai County, Gansu Province, 2005.” ( Tong’s penchant for microscopic detail and eccentric charting may have come from Lowell Dittmer, an older-generation colleague in China studies at University of California, who did something similar in his book on Liu Shaoqi; Dittmer also wrote a slice of advance praise for “Revenge.”)

It is not only the detail that Tong is impressive in grasping, but also the higher-level power dynamics: the way Jiang took Falun Gong personally, elevating a silent and peaceful protest to “the most serious political incident since June 4” (p. 6), and how it was that Luo Gan called together the various coordinating agencies to plan and direct the campaign. He notes the establishment of the Party’s Central Leading Group on Dealing with the Falun Gong, and its executive arm, the “610 Office,” and how the regime gathered intelligence across administrative levels. He notes how all members of the politburo kept up public appearances to mask the imminent onslaught. He observes how at every level the Party arrogated to itself the means of persecuting practitioners, not using official government channels, but ad hoc and extra-legal methods. The 610 Office, which masterminds the persecution, is a prime example.

Tong even catches a telling detail that has been otherwise forgotten in this history: the mendacious denial by Xinhua, on June 14, 1999, that there was any campaign at all planned against Falun Gong. That was just four days after the 610 Office was established. Preparations for the onslaught were already underway.

Tong does not wade into the debate about whether the regime’s decision to persecute Falun Gong was primarily due to the Party’s fear of the practitioners’ ability to organize themselves, the Party’s bad habit of ideological struggle, or simply its bloodlust.

But one thing that emerges in reading “Revenge” is that the persecution of Falun Gong has been conducted precisely along the lines of all the past Maoist mobilization campaigns. It is poured from the same mold and adopts the same, or worse, tactics. Despite the enormous changes that China’s modernization has brought—most notably here, the impracticality for the Party to launch actual large-scale Mao-style campaigns—the Party’s totalitarian impulse must still be satisfied, and atrocities still need to be committed. The post-Mao atrocities are carried out in an entirely different fashion from before: rather than sweeping up the country, directed everywhere, they are silent and concentrated onto the head of a needle. Though Tong is too chary to write it directly, one realizes in the course of reading that Falun Gong became the outlet for the Party’s need to crush, dominate, and destroy.

The more of Tong’s book one reads—and even early on it becomes clear that the Party’s explanations for crushing Falun Gong are bogus—the clearer it becomes that the frankly bizarre campaign represents a kind of existential fulfillment for the Communist Party, which over the years has thrived on just this type of thing.

How else could chapter five, on the “conversion program,” be explained? Conversion means to force the individual to violate his or her own conscience, submit to the will of the Party, and sign a statement renouncing Falun Gong. Transformed individuals are then made to participate in the brainwashing of other practitioners. Victims describe it as a hellish destruction of their beliefs, identity, and all personal integrity.

The CCP uses two methods to effect conversion of Falun Gong practitioners: indoctrination and violence. When the first fails, the second is used. In some cases, police and guards do not even try the soft-sell approach, but go straight to physical or psychological torture. These include, as Tong notes, severe beatings, whipping with belts or sharp instruments while the victim is bound or handcuffed, twisting the arm to 180 degrees above the head, being forced to participate in intense, heavy labor, being made to squat or crouch without moving for hours or days, the use of electric batons and stun guns to damage muscles, burn skin tissues, disfigure the face or attack the genitals, “devastative” force feeding, including with excrement, urine, and pepper liquid (most deaths happen during force feeding, as the hard plastic tube is rammed down the throat and into the stomach), being stabbed with screw drivers, having bamboo strips rammed into fingernails, rape and gang rape, suffocation, etc. People who refuse to give in often end up crippled or dead. In other cases the practitioners may be stuffed into mental hospitals, where they may be folded over and tied up for days at a time, or given injections with drugs that make them permanently numb, paralyzed, or insane. (Documented instances of this practice declined after 2006, following the work of researcher Robin Munro, which led the World Psychiatric Association to put pressure on the regime.)

The CCP specializes in the domination of minds. This is what the Falun Gong persecution teaches. While the rest of China chases wealth, the Party is spending billions of dollars to round up spiritual believers and coercively brainwash them out of their peaceful beliefs.

All this happens in dark places well sheltered from the glitzy streets of Shanghai and Beijing. It’s the sinister side of the new New China, which many would really rather ignore.

Lu Xun’s observation, as rendered by Simon Leys, springs to mind: “The most horrible thing is not a government that stages public executions, but a government that secretly disposes of its victims.”