On this day in 1999, the Chinese Communist Party turned the lives of tens of millions of Chinese people upside down, banning their peaceful spiritual practice and unleashing a campaign of persecution that has spawned horrific human rights atrocities and untold deaths.
Seventeen years later, the atrocities continue.
A steady stream of reports from people inside China indicate that over 930 Falun Gong practitioners have been sentenced to prison after farce trials since January 2015 alone. Tens of thousands more languish in extralegal detention centers, “black jails,” or remain destitute as they seek to avoid illegal abduction by Chinese officials. According to Amnesty International, torture is rampant as officials try to force Falun Gong practitioners to renounce their most deeply held beliefs. Cases of practitioners—like 45-year-old Gao Yixi—dying in custody within days of their arrest continue to come to light.
Most alarmingly, a recent investigative report indicates that Chinese hospitals are performing tens of thousands of organ transplant operations a year. A majority of those organs come from Falun Gong practitioners who are illegally held and killed in the process of extracting their organs. Some estimates say more than a million Falun Gong practitioners may have been killed for their organs since 2000.
But something few observers would have foreseen in 1999 has also occurred—Falun Gong has survived, some would say is thriving, and now some Chinese officials are on the defensive.
Tens of millions of people still practice Falun Gong in China and some have taken it up recently, performing quiet meditative exercises in private and incorporating the core tenets of Truthfulness, Compassion, and Tolerance into their daily lives. Even among those who were forced to renounce their faith under torture, over 500,000 have posted statements online declaring such comments “null and void.”
After nearly two decades of making phone calls, printing homemade leaflets, or distributing VCDs to counter vilifying state propaganda and educate fellow citizens about the abuses occurring in their own backyards, Falun Gong’s grassroots outreach efforts are bearing fruit. Hundreds of lawyers defend Falun Gong practitioners, argue their innocence in court, and challenge the legality of their persecution. Thousands of Chinese people who do not practice Falun Gong are signing petitions to call for the release of fellow citizens who do. Freedom House and our own sources report that police in some locales actively protect Falun Gong residents or refuse to arrest them.
Meanwhile, top security officials like Zhou Yongkang, who terrorized millions, are sitting behind bars. The campaign’s ultimate mastermind, former CCP head Jiang Zemin, is the subject of over 170,000 criminal complaints lodged with Chinese prosecutors since May 2015.
On the 17th anniversary of the CCP’s illegal persecution against Falun Gong, it is critical to recognize both these dynamics and respond accordingly. Taking measures to stop the arrest, torture, and killing of Falun Gong practitioners is as urgent as ever. At the grassroots level, police are navigating a slightly wider space for individual choice, so the impact of any step taken on behalf of Falun Gong detainees is likely to be greater than in the past.
At the party’s top echelons, there is also an opportunity for the international community to pressure current CCP head Xi Jinping to bring Jiang Zemin and other key perpetrators to justice.
At this critical moment, Chinese people in growing numbers are peacefully taking steps to defy the Party’s persecutory policies and assert that the values of Truthfulness, Compassion, and Forbearance are worth defending. If they have the heart and courage to do this inside China, certainly we, amidst the comfort and freedom of the West, can ensure they do not stand alone.
Levi Browde is Executive Director of the Falun Dafa Information Center.