The Chinese Communist Party has a lengthy list of “sensitive” days, or the dates of events that the regime deems politically threatening. On those sensitive days and in the lead-up, the Party’s security apparatus becomes unusually vigilant and often conducts roundups and crackdowns on those associated with the events.
Two sensitive anniversaries are June 4 and April 25. The first is the date of the massacre in Beijing, when tanks crushed pro-democracy student activists in 1989. The second, in 1999, was when practitioners of Falun Gong made a peaceful appeal to the Party leadership. But this year, Xi Jinping, the leader of the Communist Party, has deviated from the script.
Through a number of unusual political gestures, Xi Jinping appears to have hinted at a departure from the policy of his predecessor toward the persecution of the Falun Gong spiritual discipline, a large group that was targeted for elimination in 1999 shortly after they mounted their appeal to the central administration.
Xi Jinping’s recent actions include moderate remarks on how to treat petitioners, the purge of some particularly rough security officials, demands that the security forces conduct themselves with probity, and what borders on conciliatory remarks about religion in China. In part due to the sequence and timing around such a sensitive anniversary, these actions, while subtle, indicate a potential shift in stance and emphasis regarding the Party’s status quo policies.
On April 23, 1999, 45 Falun Gong practitioners were assaulted and arrested by police in Tianjin, a city about 90 miles from Beijing, as they engaged in a peaceful protest at Tianjin Normal University. The practitioners were demanding that the academician He Zuoxiu retract an article defaming Falun Gong, a practice of self-improvement that involves slow exercises and teachings based on the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance.
He Zuoxiu, by then a committed enemy of Falun Gong, is the brother-in-law of Luo Gan, the then-head of public security, who had for years sought to target Falun Gong. The practice had spread freely in China throughout the 1990s, most of the time with the tacit or explicit support of various state entities. Large numbers of Communist Party members counted themselves among practitioners and were excited at the revival of ancient traditions in modern China.
All this was seen by some hardliners, Luo Gan prominent among them, as a threat to the ideological and political security of the regime.
After news of the April 23 arrests spread, large numbers of practitioners decided to petition the central authorities in Beijing, which is done at the Office of Letters and Calls, adjacent to the Party leadership compound of Zhongnanhai. On April 25, Beijing police blocked the road to the Office, and marshalled the arriving practitioners—over 10,000—to surround Zhongnanhai, the official residential and office compound of the Party’s top leadership and a sensitive location in Beijing.
In the early afternoon, premier Zhu Rongji emerged and agreed to speak to representatives. The matter seemed to be resolved after nightfall.
The Party chief, Jiang Zemin, however, was furious and soon declared the appeal “the most serious political incident since June 4.”
In a letter issued to the Politburo that night, Jiang Zemin declared: “Can it be that we Communist Party members, armed with Marxism and a belief in materialism and atheism, cannot defeat the Falun Gong stuff? If that is so, wouldn’t it be the greatest joke on earth?”
That summer, on July 20, Jiang ordered the regime’s security and legal apparatus to suppress Falun Gong. “Ruin their reputations, bankrupt them financially, and destroy them physically,” were the orders given to police, according to numerous reports by Falun Gong practitioners who say the police told them of these instructions.
According to Minghui.org, a clearinghouse for information about the persecution, more than 3,900 practitioners are known to have died from torture and abuse, and hundreds of thousands others have languished in detention since July 20, 1999, the formal start of the anti-Falun Gong campaign. In addition, researchers estimate that hundreds of thousands of practitioners have been killed for their organs as part of a grisly state-run organ-transplantation industry.
Ever since 1999, the anniversaries of April 25 and July 20 have often seen police across China break into the homes of practitioners and make arrests.
Petitioning and the Security System
It is this background that undergirds the significance of Xi Jinping’s recent gestures, subtle though they may be.
Petitioning—that is, delivering complaints to higher levels of government—quickly became the primary means with which Falun Gong practitioners appealed to the regime. Once it became clear this method would be met with violent reprisal, the appeals largely ceased. Petitioners now are a large body of disenfranchised Chinese who are often treated lawlessly by the Party’s security forces.
On April 21, Xi Jinping said that it is in the Chinese regime’s interests to “amicably settle reasonable and lawful appeals by the masses” who submit petitions, according to a statement carried by state mouthpiece Xinhua News Agency. Chinese premier Li Keqiang added that the regime should “strive to dispel conflicts and protect the legal rights” of petitioners.
Closer to the April 25 anniversary, Xi Jinping took aim at the regime’s security apparatus.
Under former security czar Luo Gan, the Political and Legal Affairs Commission (PLAC)—a small but powerful Party organ that controlled the police, the prisons, and the courts—had played a crucial part in staging the so-called “siege of Zhongnanhai” and the persecution of Falun Gong.
The Beijing police had deliberately directed Falun Gong practitioners to the streets around Zhongnanhai, and the 610 Office, an extralegal organization set up specifically to oversee the persecution, came under the purview of the PLAC.
On the eve of this April 25, four top security officials, including Hebei provincial PLAC Party Secretary Zhang Yue, were purged. Zhang is considered responsible for the torture of Falun Gong practitioner Liu Yongwang, who was tied to a board, whipped with leather belts, and shocked with electric batons.
The following day, the PLAC chief Meng Jianzhu told the public security head, the chief justice, the procurator-general, and other security apparatchiks gathered at a national-level meeting, that Xi Jinping was once again demanding that the security apparatus remain a professional and disciplined outfit—an implicit contrast to the corrupt, personal fief of Xi’s political rivals.
What is perhaps Xi’s most conspicuous gesture is his chairing of a conference on religion on April 22 and 23, the first high-level meeting on the topic to be held in 15 years—and on the anniversary of the first large-scale arrests of Falun Gong practitioners.
Party leaders typically helm work meetings to set or change policy direction. Key messages are often buried between ponderous lines of stiff, mandatory Party parlance, but they can be teased out through a close parsing of the language and tone used.
Chairing the religion conference in 2001, Jiang Zemin made it clear that the regime should completely dominate religious groups, which pose an existential threat to the “stability” of communist rule. Jiang added that “deviant religions” should be suppressed—the logical conclusion to his efforts earlier that year to unite the five recognized religions in China against Falun Gong, and the staging of a self-immolation in Tiananmen Square to vilify the spiritual discipline.
In the recent meeting on religious affairs, Xi Jinping said that religious teachings can “enrich” and should be “harmonized” with Chinese culture. He added that the Party should proactively “guide” religious groups and that the governing of religious work should be carried out in accordance with the law. Absent from Xi’s speech is any mention of “evil religions,” and the overall tone he adopted appeared far more conciliatory than Jiang’s combative stance.
Some of Xi’s remarks at the conference have been seen as nothing new. The line about “resolutely guarding against overseas infiltrations via religious means,” for instance, was highlighted as another example of his hardline stance. Lines like this, however, are standard boilerplate in Party rhetoric. Even within the atheist strictures of official Party ideology, degrees of tolerance are possible.
The article on Xi’s religious work meeting took up three-quarters of the state-run People’s Daily front-page real estate, as opposed to only one-third page on Jiang’s 2001 session, an indication that Xi expects his remarks to be taken seriously.
The People’s Daily and Xinhua headlines said, “Comprehensively improve religious work standards under new conditions.”
A Hint of Change?
Since coming to office in 2012, a range of actions Xi Jinping has taken have had the effect, whether intentional or not, of easing the burden of persecution suffered by Falun Gong practitioners.
As the largest group of prisoners of conscience in China, and the only group that is targeted by a top-level secret agency specifically tasked with its elimination, Falun Gong practitioners have for years constituted the majority of occupants in labor camps and other places of detention. They have also constituted the majority of reported cases of torture, according to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture.
But in December 2013, the labor camp system that had oppressed Falun Gong for so long was formally abolished. Stepping into its place, of course, were even less regulated “legal education centers” (colloquially known as brainwashing centers). Nevertheless, one of the major instruments of repressing Falun Gong had been set aside.
Xi has also overseen the promotion of legal reforms that have made Chinese courts more accountable to the handling of Falun Gong and other cases, and around China, practitioners have been able to file criminal complaints against Jiang Zemin without encountering direct, systematic violence. While many plaintiffs have been detained and abused, others have been left alone entirely. Either situation forms a vast contrast to the brutal deaths by torture that befell those who attempted to prosecute Jiang over a decade ago.
Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign has also seen the disgrace and imprisonment of numerous high-level Party officials who built their careers on the persecution of Falun Gong. Even elite cadres once considered untouchable—security czar Zhou Yongkang, 610 Office head Li Dongsheng, and the ambitious Chongqing chief Bo Xilai, all of whom are implicated in the persecution of Falun Gong—have been purged.
The persecution of Falun Gong has been extremely costly for the image of the Communist Party—both the resources spent to execute it and the existence of perhaps tens of millions of disenfranchised Chinese citizens who refuse to abandon their faith and insist that it be vindicated. These citizens have formed a social constituency determined to influence the decisions of officials and policymakers.
There is also a large group of educated Chinese diaspora who practice Falun Gong and work consistently to shed light on the persecution. Through letters, faxes, emails, and telephone calls, they directly affect Party officials who carry out the campaign in China.
While Xi Jinping has never made any public remarks about Falun Gong, the Falun Gong factor in many of the political moves he has made since coming to power is impossible to ignore. The most recent gestures, all taking place around April 25, leave the most space so far for an interpretation that Xi is somehow signaling. What precisely he may be signaling, however, and where it will lead are as yet unclear.