Falun Gong protests in April 1999 symbolized much that came before and much that came since – so did the repression that followed.
Last week, as Chinese cities erupted into anti-lockdown protests, commentators look back at the student led protests of 1989, which ended with the Massacre on the Tiananmen Square. Less remembered were the events ten years later, in 1999, when 10,000 silent protestors surrounded the Zhongnanhai, the residence of Chinese Communist Party’s governing elite in Beijing.
The protestors belonged to the Falun Gong, a spiritual movement, which began as a mixture of religious and athletic practices that the Chinese have performed for centuries. It began in 1992, when a former trumpet player and grain clerk named Li Hongzhi began preaching an amalgam of Buddhism, Taoism, and traditional Qigong exercises, publishing books, selling VHS tapes and giving lectures across China to gain a followership of 60 million.
The group’s bible was Li’s rambling dissertation, Zhuan Falun, where he claimed that he could fly and heal diseases and that his followers could stop speeding cars via the their belief. Among his writings were that the Falun Gong emblem existed within the body of the practitioners, that his followers could see through the celestial eyes in their foreheads, that demons and extraterrestrials were everywhere, and that Africa contained a two-billion-year-old nuclear reactor. (China was always susceptible to this sort of cultist ramblings. In addition to Mao’s Little Red Book, back in the 1850s, another village teacher who fell asleep and dreamt himself to be Jesus’s younger brother caused a religious civil war that killed 30 million people).
The protests — the largest since 1989 – stunned the politburo on several levels. Firstly, the Falun Gong was able to amass 10,000 people on a few days’ notice. Secondly, the group’s membership was believed to include many party members, retired party grandees, and top military brass. And taking place as it did just before the People’s Republic was to celebrate its 50th Anniversary in October 1999 (where floats would carry giant portraits of Mao, Deng, and Jiang past Tiananmen Square) was a signal embarrassment for the Party.
President Jiang remarked that he wanted to see Falun Gong “defeated”; in a brief echo of the rifts between reformists and reactionaries during the 1989 Protests, Jiang would also criticize his Premier Zhu, a reformist technocrat, for being “too soft” in his handling of the Falun Gong. Jiang’s own response was swift and unrelenting, in a campaign that resembled the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Within three months, the practice of Falun Gong had been banned, and the government denounced it as a cult trying to undermine the state, on behalf of the Western Powers (Li had moved to the United States a few years prior).
In a template that would be later followed in Xinjiang, more than 10,000 Falun Gong followers were sent to labor and re-education camps. Many died. A nationwide “responsibility system” (a precursor to the current “social credit” system) was introduced. This system deemed that each protestor symbolized a failure to take action as all levels – local leaders, police, neighborhood cadres, employers, and family members – and all would be collectively punished. This enabled the Party to use ordinary people to rat out Falun Gong practitioners and discipline them. Both local and foreign companies and factories drew up lists of Falun Gong practitioners and fired them.
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