The oppression of the Falun Gong: China’s spiritual crusade

This month is the 16th anniversary of the Chinese governments crackdown of Falun Gong in 1999. The persecution of Falun Gong has a surprisingly low profile in the UK considering the millions of victims. Particularly so when compared to the high level of sympathy the neighbouring Tibetan cause has elicited. Here Paula Williamson tries to understand why and readdress the balance.

The solemn declaration ‘never again’ is periodically sworn at the anniversaries of historic atrocities. Yet when it comes to ongoing atrocities, we are not as responsive as one might think. this raises the question, at what point is an atrocity against a group so systemic, so widespread and destructive, and so morally outrageous that it compels action?

©longtrekhome/Creative Commons License

©longtrekhome/Creative Commons License

In terms of the morally repugnant, the Chinese state’s persecution of the Falun Gong certainly stands out; reports of abuse – extreme torture, sexual assault, disappearing people and forced organ harvesting – have been alarmingly frequent over the past 16 years. The case of Falun Gong represents a systemic effort to wipe out a major spiritual group in China. It alsorepresents one of the most disturbing crimes against humanity of the 21st century based on the scale of the persecution and the horrific acts of abuse the perpetrators are accused of.

However, at one point the Falun Gong in China numbered 70 million and would regularly gather in public parks to practice their gentle tai-chi and meditation exercises throughout the country. The crackdown since 1999 has pushed the spiritual practice completely underground. Little is known on how many still practice in secret.

China is notoriously wary of spiritual groups, especially those with perceived foreign links. With those following Falun Gong reaching into the high millions and their leader domiciling in the US, Falun Gong became a sore spot for the Government. Despite previously enjoying official state sanction and followers at the highest levels of government, Falun Gong was branded an evil cult, anti-socity and anti-humanity by the state, titles that commentators have pointed out as jarring with Falun Gong’s principle tenants of Truthfulness, Compassion and Forbearance.

The secretive nature of the persecution has made the death toll difficult to estimate. Estimates range from 2,000 to the tens of thousands. Whatever the death toll may be, the incarceration numbers are huge. In fact, at one point, the Falun Gong made up almost half of the three to five million people detainees who make up China’s network of detention centres, so called “black jails”, labour camps and psychiatric wards that make up China’s penal system. These numbers have since dropped, but investigative journalist Ethan Guttman suggests that at any one time there are approximately between half a million to a million Falun Gong detained in China.

A 2006/2007 Kilgour-Matas report suggests that the sheer mass of Falun Gong interned has made them the unwilling main source of organs for a state’s organ transplant system based on executed prisoners. The report won Kilgour and Matas Noble Peace Prize nominations and inspired the birth of the international non-profit organisation Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting (DAFOH). DAFOH estimates that between 2000 and 2008 65,000 interned Falun Gong practitioners had their organs harvested for profit by the state.

©Andrew Ratto/Creative Commons License

©Andrew Ratto/Creative Commons License

The work of investigators like Kilgour, Matas and DAFOH has convinced a handful of parliaments, including those of the US, Canada, Taiwan, Italy, Spain, Australia, Israel, Taiwan and the EU, to respond with resolutions condemning China and preventing their own citizens from participating in China’s organ tourism. Australian transplant hospitals have also restricted training for surgeons from China. The UK is yet to join in such actions.

16 years on many have never heard of the persecution. Attempts to bring the issue into official discourse has had mixed success. Nobel Peace Prize Nominees Kilgour and Matas have made multiple trips to Westminster and the Scottish Parliament to raise awareness over organ harvesting of Falun Gong. While both Westminster and the Scottish Parliament have been responsive in allowing hearings, this has yet to turn into headline making momentum and Falun Gong has but sporadically made it into UK press.

China may be ripening in amenability to reconsidering its stance on Falun Gong. China has seen a significant shift in power with its new leader, Xi Jinping, representing a victory over the conservative Maoists who initiated the crackdown on Falun Gong. As a result, political will behind the persecution may be losing its driving forces.

Within the past month alone, over 10,000 legal complaints were delivered to China’s Supreme People’s Court charging former President Jiang Zemin, under whose leadership the persecution was conducted, with unlawful imprisonment of the Falun Gong, torture, corruption and abuse of power amongst other crimes. The fact that these legal complaints are being acknowledged by China’s legal system is a major step forward.

Xi Jing Ping, China’s current leader, it set to come to the UK in October. The time is right for Britain to finally do the Falun Gong justice by registering loud collective outrage over this ongoing atrocity. Hopefully China will take note.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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