Upon Falun Gong's initial introduction to the public, the government of China not only acquiesced to its spread, but even encouraged it, inviting its founder Mr. Li Hongzhi to teach in government facilities, and praising the practice for the benefits it brought to public health and morality.
Then, on July 22nd, 1999, the Chinese Communist Party defied China's own laws and banned Falun Gong, beginning a protracted and violent campaign of persecution against tens of millions of innocent, peace-loving citizens.The campaign continues to this day and has cost billions of dollars and thousands of lives.
Why did China's leaders change their attitude and embark on such a costly and brutal initiative?
The complex factors driving their actions can be broken into four elements: Falun Gong’s popularity, the role of Jiang Zemin, confiicting ideology, and the nature of the Chinese Communist Party’s system.
Popularity: The more popular Falun Gong became, the more resistance it encountered. Party leaders fear any large, independent spiritual group. When Falun Gong books became bestsellers in 1996, they were banned; when a government survey estimated that over 70 million people practiced Falun Gong - more than the Communist Party’s own membership - state-run media began attacking Falun Gong and security agents began spying on and harassing adherents.
Individual leader’s role: Personality may have also played a significant role. Fearing Falun Gong’s rapidly growing popularity was overshadowing his own legacy, then-Party leader Jiang Zemin ordered that the practice be “eradicated.” According to a 1999 Washington Post article, “Jiang alone decided that Falun Gong must be eliminated.” Journalists and inside sources have described Jiang as “jealous” of Falun Gong and “obsessed” with eliminating the group. As China analyst Willy Lam has argued, by launching a nationwide campaign, Jiang sought to both align power to himself and eradicate a group he viewed as a threat. Before his retirement in 2002, Jiang secured top posts for his loyalists, ensuring that the campaign - and impunity for the ensuing human rights violations - have continued under the watch of his replacement Hu Jintao.
Conflicting ideology: The ideological differences between the atheist Communist Party and the spiritual Falun Gong must also be taken into account. Falun Gong’s deeply spiritual belief system and its moral code are rather antithetical to the beliefs held by the Communist authorities and their approach to governance. Where Party-controlled media deceive the public, Falun Gong emphasizes truthfulness; where the Party calls for people to struggle against each other, Falun Gong urges kindness; and where the Party often uses violence to enforce its will, Falun Gong teaches strict nonviolence. Moreover, although religion is again becoming increasingly popular in China, religious groups must have their leaders and theology be Party approved. Other groups who, like Falun Gong, have chosen to preserve their belief system and refused to submit to the Party’s authority have also met with persecution.
Nature of CCP rule: Finally, the persecution of Falun Gong is simply the latest in a historical continuum of violent campaigns that the Party uses to consolidate its control. Indeed, since the 1950s not a decade has gone by without some violent state-led campaign aimed at the masses, be it the suppression of “counterrevolutionaries,” the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the 1989 crackdown on the democracy movement, or Falun Gong.
Commonly cited but erroneous explanations
Of all the available explanations for why Falun Gong was banned, one explanation commonly cited in the media – that Falun Gong was banned as an “evil cult” – is false. It wasn’t until October of 1999 that Communist Party leaders attempted to label Falun Gong an evil cult to retroactively justify the ban on that basis. The persecution had in fact officially started three months earlier, and when it began, the “evil cult” language did not feature in the official discourse.
The party’s initial justification for the ban centered mainly around accusations that Falun Gong was anti-government or that its teachings were incompatible with Communism.When the “cult” label was applied, it was not the outcome of measured analysis, investigative findings, or theological debate. Rather, it was a political move engineered by Jiang Zemin.
The label appeared at a time when the Chinese public was becoming increasingly sympathetic to Falun Gong’s plight, and international criticism of the Party’s actions against Falun Gong was growing. Domestically, the application of the “cult” label was meant to undercut public sympathy for Falun Gong. Second, it was an attempt to shift the spotlight away from the unlawful acts of the Party-state and to the victims instead. Third, it was an attempt to dehumanize the Falun Gong, paving the way for more drastic violations of rights.
Another common misconception is that a peaceful gathering of 10,000 Falun Gong adherents in Beijing on April 25, 1999 is what led to the persecution of Falun Gong. While the event catalyzed Jiang Zemin's launch of a full-blown persecution campaign, oppression of the practice actually began at least three years earlier. Indeed, it was against existing restrictions and the arrest of over 40 practitioners in a nearby city that people were appealing on April 25th (analysis).