25 Years On, Falun Gong Still Firmly in Beijing’s Repressive Sights

In July 1999, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) launched one of the most wide-ranging political campaigns since the end of the Cultural Revolution – a comprehensive effort to eliminate Falun Gong, a meditation and spiritual discipline practiced by tens of millions of Chinese citizens. The crusade had all the usual trappings: public book burnings, 24/7 demonizing propaganda, mass arrests, and soon, an insidious obsession with forcing practitioners to renounce their faith, including by means of torture.

At the time, few would have imagined that Falun Gong would survive, and that this violent persecution would be ongoing 25 years later. Yet, that is the reality today. 

Moreover, in recent years the regime has redoubled its efforts to monitor, detain, imprison, and “transform” Falun Gong practitioners in China and to surveil, harass, silence, and malign believers around the world. This has continued even after the November 2022 death of Jiang Zemin, the former CCP chief who launched the initial ruthless campaign.

The regime’s propaganda against Falun Gong typically tries to belittle its importance, presenting it as a marginal section of society, rather than a focus of the security apparatus’s work. This view is often echoed by scholars or journalists, claiming that Falun Gong was “crushed” years ago, that it is an old story no longer worthy of global attention, one irrelevant to understanding today’s China. 

Chinese government and party sources tell a very different story. They indicate that internally the campaign to eradicate Falun Gong is viewed as a central component to the CCP’s efforts to control the population, maintain political power, and retain ideological supremacy, both within China and among the Chinese diaspora.

Dozens of leaked internal speeches, publicly available local government websites, and other Chinese language sources identified by the Falun Dafa Information Center indicate that Falun Gong remains a top priority for the security apparatus as it implements the regime’s vision for maintaining “national political security,” a euphemism for the CCP’s hold on power. Between 2019 and 2023, directives, work reports, and development plans issued by local governments in at least 12 provinces and cities across China linked crackdowns on residents who practice Falun Gong with safeguarding “national security,” “political security,” “national political security,” and/or “state security.”

For example, in August 2020, then Minister of Public Security Zhao Kezhi delivered a speech to the leaders of China’s rubber-stamp parliament, highlighting work conducted from 2016 to 2019.  Zhao noted that during that time the public security apparatus had striven to:

… make full use of legal weapons and methods to … severely crack down on the activities of “Falun Gong” […] and resolutely defend the country’s political security.

Notably, Zhao highlighted measures to suppress banned religious groups like Falun Gong before mentioning other actual security concerns, like anti-corruption and counterterrorism. This explicit mention of Falun Gong and its prioritization among perceived threats to the regime – including targeting of other ethnic or religious communities – has appeared elsewhere, including three press conferences held by the Ministry of Public Security since 2021.

Nationwide Anti-Falun Gong Signature Campaign, Offers of Monetary Rewards

In another tell-tale sign of the importance placed by the CCP on persecuting Falun Gong, the regime periodically launches new initiatives to shore up the long-standing crusade.

Thus, in early 2023, the regime commenced a new nationwide campaign to spread disinformation that demonizes the practice and encourages – even forces – Chinese citizens to join in denouncing those who practice Falun Gong. At the center of the effort is an interactive petition with animated characters housed on the ubiquitous WeChat app owned by Chinese tech giant Tencent. The anti-Falun Gong petition features cartoon characters and WeChat badges aimed to appeal to users of all ages. It is activated through a QR code, which directs users to the profile page of the China Anti-Cult Association, a CCP organization that has long been at the forefront of the regime’s efforts to demonize and persecute Falun Gong.

Institutions throughout Chinese society – including CCP neighborhood committees, local police, and educational institutions – have been mobilized to spread the petition. Our research identified references to the campaign on Chinese government or other official websites in 30 provinces, municipalities, and autonomous regions, including claims of tens of millions of signatures having been collected. 

The signature drive is just one example of the regime investing massive resources to persecute Falun Gong practitioners. Another initiative evident from official websites is offering monetary rewards to citizens who report Falun Gong practitioners or their dissemination of information about rights abuses to security agents. One set of 2022 regulations from the autonomous region of Ningxia offers incentives ranging from 200 yuan ($27) up to 50,000 yuan ($6,900). References to similar reward programs have appeared elsewhere in China, with one in Jilin province dated as recently as April 25 of this year.

Through these new initiatives, the CCP is implicitly admitting to an embarrassing reality, that its effort to wipe out Falun Gong has categorically failed. On the contrary, the repressive campaign has galvanized tens of millions of ordinary Chinese people into becoming grassroots human rights and freedom of information activists.

Homing in on the “Overseas Struggle” 

The CCP’s intense targeting of Falun Gong is not limited to the borders of the People’s Republic of China. Since the early days of the persecution, it has extended to countries around the world. Still, leaked speeches by top officials indicate a dissatisfaction with the regime’s limited ability to silence Falun Gong globally. 

In December 2015, then-public security chief Meng Jianzhu noted the urgent need to “treat the countries and regions with serious Falun Gong activities such as the United States as the main battlefield.” He specifically cited the “overseas struggle” and “online struggle” as the “weak parts” of the regime’s anti-Falun Gong campaign, calling on officials to “tackle key problems” in these areas. 

Multiple speeches and local or provincial level documents have since echoed these sentiments, while articulating strategies for carrying out the directives from Beijing. Two key areas of activity emerge from these. 

First, Chinese security agencies target individual Falun Gong practitioners living overseas, especially those active in exposing the persecution or countering the CCP’s propaganda. Leaked documents from Henan, Shaanxi, Hubei, Jiangxi, and Hunan provinces, dated from 2015 to 2018, cite efforts to conduct “in-depth investigations” of overseas practitioners from these provinces and to collect “intelligence” about them. This includes gathering extensive personal and biographical details, as well as information about relatives remaining in China, and orders to establish databases with these details. This information can then be used for physical attacks or psychological pressure, precisely the types of harassment, which have been highlighted in recent years in the growing body of work by human rights groups on “transnational repression.”

Second, many documents reference taking advantage of growing political ties and economic leverage vis-à-vis powerful institutions in the West in order to harness their influence towards restricting Falun Gong activities and spreading CCP propaganda. In Meng’s 2015 speech, he states that: 

We must seize the opportunity of Western countries’ rising demand for us [i.e., closer economic and political ties with China] and push the concerned countries to ban or restrict the activities of “Falun Gong.”

Provincial and local party-state websites build upon this idea. A set of 2017 directives from Henan province urge the use of sister city relationships to “effectively reduce Falun Gong activities outside China.” They also call for “cultivating non-governmental forces” such as scholars, journalists, and overseas Chinese community leaders to “speak for us [i.e., the CCP]” and to “make more foreign media publish more reports favorable to us.” Indeed, since 2015, misinformation and falsehoods depicting Falun Gong negatively have appeared with greater frequency in Western news outlets and global social media platforms than previously.

Implementation of the CCP’s foreign-facing anti-Falun Gong campaign has also been evident from arrests made in the United States over the past two years: multiple agents of the Chinese regime face charges for organizing counter-protests to Falun Gong peaceful appeals, monitoring American practitioners, or even attempting to bribe a person they believed to be an officer of the Internal Revenue Service to strip a “Falun Gong organization” of its non-profit status.

Regime Adaptation and Real-world Impact

The regime’s internal commentary on Falun Gong demonstrates a high degree of strategizing by officials in Beijing and at provincial and local levels. They articulate perceived cracks in effectiveness and propose areas for renewed focus. Such language implies a high-priority and evolving campaign of suppression, reinforcing that this is precisely what the CCP’s anti-Falun Gong crusade remains. 

Moreover, the effects of such directives are reflected daily in real-world activity and repressive CCP action targeting Chinese people who persist in practicing Falun Gong or speaking out against the abuses facing believers. On a daily basis, new reports emerge of retirees taken away by police, young people suffering debilitating injuries from torture, and families separated for years, all because of the CCP’s endless campaign to stop Chinese people from practicing – or even talking about – Falun Gong. 

As was the case 25 years ago, those who wish to truly comprehend today’s China, must also understand the lived reality of Falun Gong and its millions of believers in China and around the world. 

You needn’t take our word for it. Just look at what CCP officials say to each other away from the international spotlight. 

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Catherine Putz