Formally arrested on Nov. 5, the charges facing Chinese former vice-minister of public security Sun Lijun go beyond the usual accusations of embezzlement, collecting bribes, and other “violations of discipline” that officials in the communist regime have typically found themselves paying the price for in leader Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign.
Sun, who lost his post and his Chinese Communist Party membership as announced in a scathing Sept. 30 notice issued by the CCP’s central disciplinary agency, was said to have “never stayed true to the Party’s ideals and faith” and deceived Beijing while harboring dangerous “political ambitions.” His abuse of power as a police official “seriously undermined Party unity, and endangered political security.”
On Oct. 2, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) announced an investigation into Fu Zhenghua for “serious violations of Party discipline.” Fu, who had served as vice minister of public security prior to Sun, was in 2018 promoted to head of China’s Ministry of Justice, a post he held until last April.
Weeks before that, on Aug. 26, the CCDI ordered the arrest of former cybersecurity vice-chief Peng Bo; an investigation initiated this March found that his “ideals and beliefs collapsed,” and that in addition to deviating “from the Party Central Committee’s decisions,” he visited private clubs and engaged in “illegal transactions of power and money.”
Beijing’s anti-corruption campaign, which started more than eight years ago, has been a nearly constant feature of the Xi Jinping era. It has impacted millions in the Party and state organizations, and often spilled over into the ranks of retired officials as well as the business community.
High-ranking officers manning the CCP’s vast security state—Sun, Fu, and Peng being the more recent prominent examples—have stood out as frequent targets in Xi’s purges ever since the campaign began.
As early as 2013, China’s deputy public security chief Li Dongsheng was placed under investigation; he was followed in 2014 by an even bigger “tiger,” Zhou Yongkang, a retired member of the Party’s top decision-making body, the 7-member Politburo Standing Committee, and chairman of the Party’s Political and Legal Affairs Commission (PLAC), a powerful organ overseeing the country’s security and legal apparatus.
In the years since, scores of other serving and retired leaders in the political and legal affairs apparatus, police, and legal system have been likewise probed and sentenced.
A common link between many of these men is their involvement with a now-defunct Communist Party organ, the Central Leading Group on Preventing and Dealing with Heretical Religions, informally known as the “610 Office” for the date of its founding on June 10, 1999.
The 610 Office itself—a top-level Party organization whose leaders once enjoyed the authority to mobilize police and propaganda units on a national scale—was inextricably linked with its founder, former CCP General Secretary Jiang Zemin, and its primary mission: the persecution of Falun Gong.
Empowered for Persecution
In the 1990s, tens of millions of Chinese had taken up Falun Gong, by far the most popular of the many traditional meditative practices gaining prominence at the time. But while initially supported by the government, the community came under pressure.
At a series of meetings in 1999, Jiang—the regime’s leader at the time—cited Falun Gong’s large number of adherents and spiritual beliefs as a challenge to the CCP and its atheist Marxist ideology. According to insiders cited in the 2012 book “The Real Jiang Zemin,” Jiang saw Falun Gong as a threat that had to be eliminated to ensure the Party’s survival.
On June 7 that year, Jiang ordered the creation of the central leading group charged with coordinating the coming anti-Falun Gong campaign. According to UCLA professor James Tong, to carry out its mission, the 610 Office was authorized “to deal with central and local, party and state agencies, which were called upon to act in close coordination” with the Leading Group.
The persecution of Falun Gong began on July 20, with tens of thousands of adherents detained within months. Over the coming decades, millions would find themselves behind bars, in brainwashing centers, labor camps, or dead from beatings, torture, or the removal of their organs for sale.
Jiang, now 95, stayed on as CCP leader and China’s head of state until the early 2000s, when he stepped down in favor of Hu Jintao. However, many of those associated with Jiang via their participation in the anti-Falun Gong campaign—and posts in agencies like the 610 Office—came to occupy powerful positions in the Chinese regime.
According to Xin Ziling, retired president of the state-backed publishing house Chinese Military Academy Press, Jiang was compelled to establish the 610 Office due to the ambivalence of fellow CCP Politburo members regarding the leader’s demand for a campaign against Falun Gong. The creation of this extralegal organization, Xin said, allowed Jiang and his allies to bypass the Politburo as well as China’s civil government in order to carry out the persecution.
During and after Jiang’s official leadership term, officials associated with the 610 Office wielded immense power. Luo Gan, the Office’s head from 2003 to 2007, was a close confidant of Jiang who advocated early on that Falun Gong should be banned.
Zhou Yongkang, the former PLAC boss now serving a life sentence in prison, helmed the 610 Office between 2007 and 2012, concurrent with his post in the Communist Party’s highest leadership body, the Politburo Standing Committee. Also on the Politburo Standing Committee at the time were Luo and propaganda chief Li Changchun, who had worked closely with the 610 Office while serving as CCP secretary of southern China’s Guangdong Province.
As head of the political and legal affairs system, Zhou oversaw not only public security and China’s courts, but also the People’s Armed Police, a paramilitary organization that boasted more than 1 million personnel, and enjoyed funding on a scale that rivaled the budget of the Party’s military, the People’s Liberation Army.
Many China watchers and commentators have identified a correlation between targets of Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign and those whose careers link them to Jiang Zemin.
Prior to Xi’s ascension to power in November 2012, the Chinese regime was shaken by the attempted defection of police official Wang Lijun to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, southwestern China. Wang, who served as chief of public security in the megacity of Chongqing, had a falling out with his superior, Chongqing CCP chief Bo Xilai.
Working with figures like Zhou and leading members of the Chinese military, Bo and Wang played a role in the expansion of China’s organ harvesting trade, which researchers say primarily targeted Falun Gong practitioners and other prisoners of conscience.
When he and Bo were posted in northeastern China, Wang had publicly praised the technique of harvesting organs from executed prisoners. Meanwhile, behind closed doors, he called upon his subordinates to “kill and eradicate” Falun Gong adherents, according to a military policeman working under Wang in the city of Jinzhou. The policeman also recounted witnessing the murder of a “good looking” female Falun Gong practitioner, who was raped and sexually humiliated before having her organs harvested.
Wang and Bo were tried and sentenced in 2013, kicking off the anti-corruption campaign under Xi. To date, most of the senior officials disciplined in the campaign have had similar ties to Jiang, often via organizations like the 610 Office, or the persecution of Falun Gong.
The 610 Office’s unique place in Chinese politics has attracted attention from Beijing. Prior to the 2013 downfall of Li Dongsheng, the vice-chief of police and propaganda who served as the Office’s head after Zhou, Party authorities had not officially acknowledged the existence of the central leading group. To this day, the CCP has yet to clarify the legal basis for the 610 Office’s creation, and neither has any clear explanation for its mission been given.
However, as early as 2016 the Office began to come under fire. That October, the CCDI criticized the 610 Office for lacking “political sensitivity” and failing to adhere to “the spirit of the rule of law.”
In March 2018, central Party authorities announced a sweeping reform of the CCP and state institutions. The 610 Office was one of the security departments impacted by the restructuring, being disbanded, and having its functions taken over by the PLAC and the Ministry of Public Security.
Despite the change, Beijing continues to target former 610 Office personnel. This March, when the CCDI announced its investigation into Peng Bo, it revealed that he had been deputy head of the 610 Office since leaving his post with the cybersecurity administration in 2015, the first time information about that point of his career had been publicized.
Fu Zhenghua and Sun Lijun, the purged former deputy heads of the Ministry of Public Security, also served as the head and deputy head of the 610 Office prior to the organization’s restructuring.
Heng He, a commentator of Chinese current affairs, told the Chinese-language edition of The Epoch Times that the dissolution of the 610 Office likely has little to do with its human rights abuses or the corruption it enabled among allies of Jiang Zemin.
The 610 Office, he said, was disbanded “not because [its officials] are corrupt, but because after having this power, they do not listen to Xi,” he said.
Human rights researchers have noted that the disbandment of the central 610 Office organization did not offer much respite for persecuted faiths—anti-”heretical religions” units at local levels continue to harass and abuse adherents of Falun Gong, house church Christians, and other faith groups.
Moreover, while Xi took some steps such as abolishing the system of forced labor camps in 2013, he has presided over an intensification of the Communist Party’s authoritarian repression. This is perhaps most visible in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, where more than 1 million ethnic Muslim minorities are thought to be held in concentration camps and re-education centers.
Sarah Cook, a China researcher with the U.S. human rights organization Freedom House, has observed in late 2019 that the CCP has followed the “anti-Falun Gong playbook” in persecuting Uyghurs and other ethnic groups in Xinjiang.
In a Nov. 2 commentary, China analyst Chen Simin observed that Xi’s decision to target the 610 Office and officials known for their persecution of Falun Gong may suggest that the Chinese leader wishes to distance himself from the political legacy of Jiang Zemin.
This is especially critical, she wrote, as Xi prepares to take a norm-breaking third term as CCP general secretary, yet still faces considerable pushback from rivals in the regime. “As Xi seeks re-election next year, he wants to make sure that his political rivals don’t get in his way in the lead up to the 20th National Congress.”
Along with Jiang himself, many retired officials, colloquially known as “old leaders” in Chinese, who served with or under the former leader remain at large. Among these are former vice president Zeng Qinghong, former 610 Office head Luo Gan, and several former members of the Politburo Standing Committee whom China watchers regard as close to Jiang.