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How China Beat Down Falun Gong

8 minute read
Matthew Forney/Beijing

Chinese police call people like Liu Shujuan die-hard elements. After the government banned Falun Gong, her spiritual practice, Liu traveled three times to protest in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The last time, in November, she took her four-year-old daughter and unfurled a yellow banner reading THE FALUN LAW IS THE UNIVERSAL LAW! Police jailed Liu and threatened to dispatch her to China’s labor-camp gulag. Her parents, terrified, begged her to disavow her beliefs; her husband smacked her face; her boss threatened her job. Liu waved them away. Then someone brought her weeping daughter to jail, and Liu’s will broke. In writing, she promised never to protest again.

In March the Communist Party confined Liu to a hotel room for five days with others who had given up Falun Gong. They picked apart supposed flaws in the spiritual movement’s doctrine and blamed Liu, 31, an elementary school art teacher, for ruining her family. By the time the sessions had ended, Liu “realized I was thinking only of myself.” She signed a promise to “split from the evil cult Falun Gong and its heresies.” These days, at the party’s behest, she leads similar sessions. Speaking in a carefully monitored meeting that includes government officials and her school principal, she says her spirituality has died: “I believe in nothing.”

One person at a time, the Chinese Communist Party has broken Falun Gong. The organization once stunned the party by claiming tens of millions of followers; on April 25, 1999, 10,000 showed up to demonstrate in central Beijing. As recently as last winter, dozens arrived in Tiananmen Square nearly every day to protest the party’s crackdown on the movement. But on the recent second anniversary of the 1999 demonstration, only about 30 people reached the square; most days no one does. The majority of practitioners, like Liu, seem to have surrendered their faith–or, at least, say they have. Most of the die-hard elements have “cast off the fetters of the evil cult,” crowed the People’s Daily, the party’s mouthpiece, last week.

The crackdown is revealing. Though decades of economic reforms have empowered many in Chinese society, the party retains a firm grasp on the tools of repression. But it deploys them only when it feels directly threatened. In 1992 a grain clerk named Li Hongzhi, who had once played trumpet with a song-and-dance troupe, first mingled the tenets of Buddhism, Taoism and traditional qigong exercises to create Falun Gong, a cocktail of religious beliefs and physical exercises aimed at leading its practitioners to enlightenment. The party took no action, though Li published books, sold videotapes and lectured to large audiences. By some estimates, his organization grew to 60 million followers–almost as many as the party’s–and still China’s leaders had never heard of Falun Gong. Then came that morning, two years ago, when the leaders found all those people meditating on their doorstep in silent protest against a magazine article that followers of Falun Gong considered slanderous. When President Jiang Zemin received his first report on the group that day, he bellowed, “Why did no one tell me about this?” according to the report’s author, physicist He Zuoxiu.

If the protest stunned the leadership, Falun Gong’s list of members terrified it; included were retired Communist Party elders and military officers. So the crackdown, when it finally came three months after the huge demonstration, stretched from the top of the party’s ranks to the remotest rice paddy. A nationwide system of collective guilt held police, factory bosses and family members accountable when people around them practiced Falun Gong’s slow-motion spiritual exercises. Foreign companies fell in line. Police sentenced more than 10,000 followers to labor camps, and Falun Gong’s exiled leaders say they have evidence that more than 225 people died of abuse in custody. “It’s now a war of attrition, and Falun Gong will lose,” predicts Robert Weller, a Boston University anthropologist who follows the movement.

Today Falun Gong exists in China almost entirely by virtue of the Internet. A group of activists maintains ties through encrypted e-mails with Falun Gong’s exiled leadership in New York City, where Li Hongzhi now lives. These leaders direct a dwindling pool of committed practitioners, many of whom live on the lam in safe houses. But even this network is fraying. “It’s harder to stay in touch, and everybody seems to be watched,” says New York-based spokeswoman Gail Rachlin.

True enough. A recent visit to a Falun Gong safe house in Beijing was like something out of a Tom Clancy novel. To get there, two people downloaded encryption programs from the Internet and used them to exchange temporary mobile-phone numbers, the type that don’t require registration. A reporter was told to enter a crowded restaurant as someone outside secretly watched. A taxi ride to a nearby market followed. On the far side of the market, a second cab was ready to drive to the safe house on the city’s dusty outskirts. The two-bedroom apartment looked scarcely lived in. Its temporary dwellers slept on simple cots, sat on hard chairs. They had gathered to tell their stories: a middle-age doctor who had been confined to a mental institution, a peasant woman whose husband had been beaten to death. The youngest was a 12-year-old boy. His family members, he said, were neighborhood leaders of the movement. When the crackdown began, the boy arrived home from school one day to find police surrounding his house. Three weeks later, the authorities broke in to discover his grandmother and aunt hanging side by side in a dual suicide. The boy and his mother were incarcerated at the kindergarten where she taught, but refused to renounce Falun Gong. So last December, when a labor-camp sentence seemed certain, his mother gave her son to other practitioners, kissed him goodbye and fled. “We talked on the phone last month for about a minute,” he says. “She is trying to find a school for me.”

It is rare and dangerous for practitioners to meet. But Falun Gong’s leaders overseas can still get their message out through followers like a woman in her 30s who met recently with TIME. An accountant for a foreign company in Beijing, she secretly uses her firm’s overseas data line to read Falun Gong’s website. In early January she found an essay by Li Hongzhi called “Beyond the Limits of Forbearance.” Written at the time the demonstrations were starting to ebb, the essay urged more dramatic actions against the “evil” of the crackdown. “I copied it to a CD-ROM and gave it to everyone I know,” she says. Through such networks, Li’s words have spread to more radical practitioners. On Jan. 23, five suspected followers set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square. Two of them, a 12-year-old girl and her mother, were killed.

The immolations were a gift to the authorities. China’s newspapers and TV screens were covered with grisly images of smoldering human forms. Suddenly, the “evil cult” looked genuinely sinister. In South China, 1,200 miles from Beijing, the incident gave a typical follower pause. The young man, an artist, had tried to preserve his faith. Though he had put his thumbprint on a police document promising never again to practice Falun Gong, privately, he continued meditating and gliding through the exercises at home. The deaths shook his belief. “I thought, ‘It’s wrong for people to do that, for any reason,'” he recalls. He no longer practices.

The Communist Party’s most ingenious weapon has been its “responsibility system.” According to an internal party document seen by TIME, for each protester who reaches Beijing, “all levels of government leaders, police, neighborhood cadres, work units and family members must receive punishment.” Bosses face fines or demotions when their workers protest. Worse, police officers face heavier penalties for allowing people under their watch to demonstrate than for beating them to death.

Although foreign companies often provide havens for practitioners, many comply with the authorities’ demands. Indiana-based Cummins Inc., for example, followed government orders to investigate workers at its Beijing engine factory and issued a document to the police stating that nobody practiced Falun Gong. Had it found Falun Gong followers, says a company spokesman, “the government would have wanted us to report them, so we would have [done so].” Nor is Cummins alone. Chen Gang began working in 1996 for Carlsberg Brewery, the Danish firm that produces one of China’s most popular beers. Police last year sentenced him to a year in a Beijing prison for practicing Falun Gong, and relatives say he was tortured when he refused to disavow his beliefs. Chen is due for release this week. He needn’t bother asking for his old job back. “If a person can’t work, then we have to find someone else,” explains Wang Hong, head of human resources for Carlsberg.

Yet for all its success in breaking the movement, the government has not yet addressed the sense of spiritual emptiness that gave birth to Falun Gong. Incense smoke flows thick in Buddhist temples across China, and the number of Christians has increased tenfold, to roughly 40 million, since the communists first swept to power. Even Liu Shujuan, the apostate who now leads others away, seems ambivalent about her conversion. “It’s hard to say,” she replies when asked whether she would still practice had the government not banned Falun Gong. Pause. A glance at her government minders. “I think it’s still better not to.”

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