Twenty years ago today, Falun Gong, a meditation movement, organised a major demonstration in the Chinese capital. More than 10,000 adherents surrounded the centre of government in Beijing. The protest lead to persecution and an on-going propaganda war involving claims of human organ harvesting.
“It came to me as a total surprise, in 1999 when the government decided to prosecute these people,” says Zhang Erping, “volunteer” spokesperson for the Falun Dafa Information Center in New York, speaking to RFI.
“Because the government was promoting it, and suddenly they reversed the policy. So a lot of us tried to stop the prosecution.”
What is Falun Gong?
Falun Gong, also known as “Falun Dafa,” combines routines derived from qigong, a set of movements that facilitate the flow of vital energies or “life forces” throughout the body, along with Buddhist and Daoist concepts. It also warns against materialism and “moral degeneration”.
"Falun Gong comes from Chinese culture," explains Alain Tong, president of the Falun Dafa Association in France. "If we look behind it, it is simply a method of Chinese meditation. It is aimed at acquiring energies to be in good health and good spirits."
Practitioners are attracted by claims that by controlling the “Dharma Wheel,” which is said to revolve in the body, one can cure a wide range of ailments and diseases, including diabetes and cancer.
But the “philosophy” also has xenophobic and homophobic elements, and claims that adherents can walk through walls. Falun Gong teaches that many of the world's technological developments are controlled by aliens - as was stated by the movement's creator, Li Hongzhi, in a memorable interview with Time Magazine in May 1999.
Initially China's Communist Party welcomed the Falun Gong. The movement was created during a surge in interest in qigong during the 1980s and early '90s, thus forming part of state-sanctioned meditation techniques that had their roots in ancient tradition.
In 1992, Li Hongzhi, a state official-turned-mediation-guru, created Falun Gong. One year later the movement was officially incorporated into the Scientific Qigong Research Association under the Ministry of Health.
Beijing argued that meditation and a healthy lifestyle could reduce pressure on China's bankrupt healthcare system.
Within a few years, Li Hongzhi had set up a nationwide network of “practice centers,” giving lectures to audiences of up to 20,000 people. In the process, he created a body of millions of followers who came together to practice meditation in parks and public places all over China.
They were guided by Li's 242-page core scripture Zhuan Falun (“The Rotating Dharma Wheel”). His writings also include titles like The Great Way to Spiritual Perfection, Hong Yin, a collection of annotated poems dating back to 1976, and transcripts of his lectures at mass gatherings.
But when Falun Gong's membership was rumored to exceed that of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP, estimated to have 80 million members), Beijing grew nervous and its relationship with the movement changed. Falun Gong was kicked out of the Qigong research association and, in 1995, Li Hongzhi left China to settle in the US.
The final showdown came after Li - during a brief stay in Beijing - ordered the 25 April 1999 mass demonstration in the capital's Zhongnanhai government zone, protesting against increasing pressure from the Chinese authorities.
Within two months, the CCP declared the movement an “evil cult,” forbade it, and rounded up its members. Tens of thousands of Falung Gong practitioners are, still today, said to be in jail, their fate documented by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other international organisations.
“Harming people” vs “organ harvesting”
Since 1999, Falun Gong and the Chinese government have been locked in a propaganda battle.
"Ma Jianmin, a retired worker in north-east China, had been a Falun Gong follower for two years," writes the CCP-sanctioned propaganda booklet Li Hongzhi and his Falun Gong - cheating the public and harming people, published by the New Star Publishing House in Beijing.
"In those years he became convinced that the Wheel of Law was embedded in his stomach, turning and rotating. In search for eternal life he decided to take it out. He did so with a pair of scissors. He bled to death, lying on the floor of his kitchen." The story is accompanied by gruesome pictures of alleged slaughter committed in the name of Falun Gong, and is one of hundreds of examples the CCP gives to prove the “evil nature” of the movement.
Falun Gong denies all this, and hits back with equally gruesome accusations.
According to the movement, Beijing has a systematic program of “organ harvesting,” allegedly using the organs of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners before they were executed, selling them on the international market.
Allegations of organ harvesting first emerged in 2006, when stories appeared that the Sujiatun Thrombosis Hospital in Shenyang was involved in collecting organs from thousands of Falun Gong prisoners.
The rumors were supported by an international investigation carried out by Canadians David Matas, a lawyer, and David Kilgour, an independent member of parliament. Neither Amnesty International nor Human Rights Watch think there is sufficient evidence to support the allegations of systematic "organ harvesting" of Falun Gong prisoners.
Today, the total number of Falun Gong practitioners in jail in China is unknown and the subject remains taboo on social media.
Outside China, Falun Gong is headquartered in upstate New York, but members insist it has no “hierarchical structure”. Local Falun Gong associations, created after 2000 to “raise awareness” about the persecution of the movement in China, are involved in organising commemorative activities.
On 25 April, Falun Gong members will hold demonstrations in front of Chinese embassies worldwide to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Beijing protest.