Ian Johnson

Many stories emerged about former president Jiang Zemin after he passed away last week. But the way he dealt with Falun Gong, a mostly forgotten uprising against China’s leadership, has been left out in most reports, says journalist Ian Johnson who focused in his writings on this touchy part of China’s history, he writes at China File.

Ian Johnson:

In comparison to Xi Jinping, Jiang Zemin is often seen as a reformer, and in many ways he was. But a key part of his legacy is the sometimes forgotten or downplayed destruction of arguably the largest and most widespread post-Tiananmen political protest movement: Falun Gong.

Falun Gong was what the scholar David Palmer calls “militant qigong.” In other words, a hard-edged version of the mystic martial arts movement that rose up in the 1980s and ’90s when qigong became hugely popular, with tens of millions regularly practicing its exercises and following the many gurus who led numerous schools of thought around the movement. The government was eager to prevent qigong from becoming too popular and limited the groups’ media exposure. Most groups acquiesced, but Falun Gong pushed back. When an atheist agitator named He Zuoxiu defamed Falun Gong in the media, the group staged a silent sit-down strike of more than 10,000 people outside the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Beijing.

Premier Zhu Rongji reportedly met the protesters and they dispersed quietly, but Jiang essentially freaked out. On June 10, 1999, he banned the group and set up offices named after that date: 610. Every level of government, from province to village, had to set up a 610 Office and stamp out Falun Gong. This became extremely difficult because Falun Gong staged protests for well over a year in many Chinese towns and cities, dwarfing the scale and geographic spread of the recent COVID protests.

Many Falun Gong adherents made their way straight to Beijing, where they held up placards calling for their group to be legalized. Forbidden by their faith to renounce it, they were rounded up, detained, and beaten. Jiang organized a meeting of provincial officials and read them the riot act: they had to prevent people from coming to Beijing. The buck was passed down the chain of command, with careers made or broken on their ability to stop Falun Gong adherents from reaching the capital. Local authorities set up illegal holding centers and beat people to death…

In hindsight, Jiang’s crackdown on Falun Gong set the stage for the state’s reassertion of control over the rest of religious life and civil society. Interestingly, the significance of Jiang’s crackdown was not lost on China’s human rights lawyers. Terence Halliday and Sida Liu have documented how Falun Gong became a litmus test for rights lawyers. More than a decade after the crackdown, only the lawyers most committed to free speech and freedom of association dared to take on their cases.

More at China File.

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