In the decade since the Chinese government began repressing Falun Gong, a crusade that human rights groups say has led to the imprisonment of tens of thousands of practitioners and claimed at least 2,000 lives, the world’s attention has long since shifted elsewhere.
The drive against the spiritual group has eliminated its leadership, decimated the ranks of faithful and convinced many Chinese that the group is an “evil cult,” as the government contends. But 10 years on, the war on Falun Gong remains unfinished.
In the past year, as many as 8,000 practitioners have been detained, according to experts on human rights, and at least 100 have died in custody, among them Yu Zhou (于宙), 42, a popular Beijing musician, and Cao Changling (曹長玲), the 77-year-old vice director of a paper plant in Wuhan, whose bruised body was returned to his family by the police last summer just as China was reveling in the glory of the Olympic Games.
In recent months, scores of practitioners have been given long prison terms, including Zhang Xingwu (張興武), a retired physics professor from Shandong Province who last week was sentenced to seven years after the police found Falun Gong literature in his apartment, according to family members.
The continued crackdown highlights the difficulty of eradicating a movement whose adherents stubbornly cling to their beliefs, but it also provides a window into the psyche of an authoritarian government that, despite its far-reaching power, remains deeply insecure.
From the outset, the group, which at its peak claimed to have millions of followers around China, insisted that it wanted only legal recognition, not political power. But the country’s top leaders were alarmed by the group’s ability to attract a devoted following from so many citizens — from retired functionaries to pimple-faced college students.
The decision to ban the group entirely was made after 10,000 Falun Gong adherents staged a silent protest outside the gates of Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party’s leadership compound in Beijing, to complain about reports in the state-run media that the group said were defamatory. Security forces apparently had no advance knowledge of the demonstration, which took place on April 25, 1999, and they began treating the group as a threat to national security.
“Even a soccer team with an organization like Falun Gong might have produced the same reaction,” said T. Kumar, the Asia advocacy director for Amnesty International.
Although the propaganda juggernaut has eased in recent years, Falun Gong remains a toxic subject in China. Few academics will speak about it on the record, and the Internet is scoured clean of information that might be construed as sympathetic to Falun Gong, an amalgam of Buddhism, mysticism and qigong, the traditional exercise regimen that remains broadly popular.
For the Falun Gong devotees who practice in secret, the only glimmer of hope has come from a small but growing number of lawyers who have dared to take on their cases. Even if the legal efforts have mostly come to naught, until recently Falun Gong detainees were denied even the right to a lawyer.
Last week, Jiang Yu (姜瑜), a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, reiterated the government’s long-held stance that Falun Gong warrants suppression because it emphasizes meditation and the paranormal over modern medicine.