In late April this year, Xi Jinping, the incumbent leader of China, issued three decrees in rapid succession. These three decrees, taken together, quietly indicate the start of a momentous change in China.
The First Decree for Chinese Petitioners
The first decree, issued on 21st April, exhorted Chinese officials to amicably settle the grievances of Chinese petitioners – victimised populations who are denied all avenues of legal protection. For the past two decades, victims under Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) massive religious persecutions have petitioned for religious freedom. In a farcical twist, they are instead sent to detention facilities where many are raped and brutally tortured – some to the point of death.
The Second Decree of Religious Freedom
The second decree was delivered in a two-day national conference on religious affairs held on April 22 and 23. The conference, ordered by Xi Jinping, was called for the first time in fifteen years. Before the top leaders of CPP, Xi recited the familiar Party sermon on religion that was previously pronounced by former CCP chief Jiang Zemin in the last religious affairs conference held in 2001. In both conferences, the CCP leaders instructed Party members to “guide religions to serve the motherland” and called on religions to support the socialist’s system and ideals.
Both conferences also talked about respect for religious “freedom”.
Yet in Xi’s conference, there was a catch. The catch lies not in what was said, but what was unsaid.
In Jiang’s 2001 conference, respect for religious freedom was immediately qualified by the imperative for CCP to completely dominate and suppress “deviant” religions and religions that existentially threaten the “stability” of communist rule. This exception, printed in red ink and pointed to by a red hand, was really what the 2001 religion conference was mostly about. By “deviant” religion, Jiang was no doubt referring to Falun Gong, a peaceful Chinese spiritual discipline of an ancient Buddhist tradition that emerged in China in 1992.
At the time of Jiang’s 2001 conference, Jiang had already commandeered the violent repression of Falun Gong for two years. That repression captured most of CCP’s political energy and attention for over a decade, and it has lasted till this very day.
The ‘Falun Gong’ Exception in 2001 Religion Conference
To understand the significance of Jiang’s “exception”, it is first necessary to explore the “what” and the “why”.
There have been many differing explanations as to why CCP persecutes Falun Gong. But a common denominator among these explanations is the fact that the CCP see in Falun Gong an intense ideological threat.
Falun Gong is not an organisation. It has no membership and no leadership. Falun Gong practitioners do not make financial contributions and they do not worship or practise any ritual or ceremony. They do not isolate themselves from the communes or the society. They go to work and their children go to school. All teachings of Falun Gong are publicly available on the internet.
What Falun Gong stands for, however is a set of ideology and beliefs – a belief that the principles of “truthfulness”, “compassion” and “forbearance” order the universe. Living by these principles leads to the flourishing of life.
By 1999, the beliefs of Falun Gong have firmly taken root on Chinese soil. Falun Gong adherents numbered at 70 million – surpassing the size of the CCP.
The CCP’s fear of Falun Gong was lucidly articulated by human rights lawyer David Matas and former Canadian secretary of State David Kilgour:
“At the time of the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, what was to fill the ideological gap left by the global breakdown of communism? For China, it seemed, the answer was Falun Gong…
“To the CCP, Falun Gong is a regression… back to where China was before the Party took over… The problem for the Communists is not just that Falun Gong is authentically Chinese. It is also that Communism is so patently foreign, being a Western ideological import into China. Communists see a widespread, popular Chinese-based ideology as cutting out from under them the very ground on which they stood.
“Tolerating Falun Gong would … have meant the disappearance of whatever ideological presence the CCP still had in the hearts and minds of the Chinese people. Once there is no one left to believe in Communism, even within the Communist Party, the loosening of the Party’s grip on power would not be far behind.”
CCP’s persecution begins with vilification, dehumanisation and demonisation of Falun Gong practitioners. As David Matas and David Kilgour noted, the extremes of language used by the CCP against Falun Gong are unparalleled, unmatched by the comparatively mild criticisms China has of the victims the West is accustomed to defend. The CCP also staged attempts to deceive the Chinese population into thinking that practitioners committed suicide by self-immolation, and that they killed and mutilated family members.
Falun Gong practitioners were arrested and asked to denounce their faith. Those who did so were released. Those who did not were tortured. Those who still refused to recant after torture were subjected to the ultimate treatment – death by live organ harvesting. These organs were sold in the global organ trade for profit. This “Final Solution” transforms the persecution of Falun Gong into genocide. When the target of genocide is a group of 70 million, this genocide transforms into a holocaust.
There is yet another uncanny similarity between the genocide of Falun Gong and the Holocaust. Like Nazi Germany, the CCP was not content to limit its attack on Falun Gong in China. Anti-Falun Gong is CCP’s major foreign policy and CCP uses its political muscle and economic weight to conduct a worldwide propaganda campaign against Falun Gong.
It is no coincidence that despite the gravity and magnitude of this humanitarian crisis, there has been disproportionate passivity and inaction in the international community relating to the victimisation of Falun Gong. This is a direct consequence of the CCP’s global anti-Falun Gong smear campaign. Our human sympathy is reserved mostly for fellow man. Against a group that is thoroughly and consistently dehumanised, this sympathy wears thin. In other cases, external parties undertake a deliberate policy of self-censorship and silence in exchange for lucrative economic relationships with China and for access to the promising Chinese market. This is why many of you may not have received such information until today. This is what it is like to live in the age of holocaust.
Religious Freedom in Jiang’s China
The state of religious freedom in China under Jiang’s leadership may therefore be best understood by envisioning three zones. The yellow zone delineates religions authorised by the CCP and led by its appointed heads. These religions maintain a working relationship with the CCP and are “guided by CCP to serve the motherland”. The orange zone specifies groups such as Tibetans and Uighurs. They are led by CCP appointed Buddhist Panchen Lama and Muslim imams, but they suffer from a history of maltreatment and human rights abuses. In sharp contrast, Falun Gong falls squarely in the red zone, and is designated as the CCP’s mortal enemy. Against Falun Gong, there are to be no negotiations, only outright extermination.
Jiang’s creation of the red zone is not just destructive to Falun Gong; it is also alarming to all religious adherents in China. The CCP can force any religion upon the red seat. Therefore, the policy of religious affairs under Jiang’s era is not religious freedom, but religious repression – to the fullest extent of the word.
The Missing Bit in Xi’s 2016 Religion Conference
Such was the state of religious affairs in China when Xi conducted the recent 2016 conference on religious freedom.
Here comes the most important part. In Xi’s conference, however, there was no mention or even the slightest allusion to the Falun Gong exception and the red zone.
It is unlikely that Xi voluntarily called for the conference for the first time in fifteen years, just to forget about CCP’s ultimate policy on religious affairs that has whipped a national storm for almost two decades. The conscious and deliberate omission on the issue of Falun Gong is deafening.
There are two conceivable interpretations. First, Xi might be ambivalent on the issue of Falun Gong, preferring to dissociate himself from the grave state crimes committed by Jiang and his associates. The second, more plausible interpretation is that Xi’s omission was in fact a thinly-veiled positive message to begin the end of genocide against Falun Gong and abolish the red zone, making the first step towards religious freedom.
Two circumstantial facts lie in support of this interpretation. First, if Xi wanted to maintain the status quo, the better move would be to simply not hold the conference at all. Party leaders typically helm work meetings to set or change policy direction. Xi has shown himself to be a bold reformist and he made the surprising move to hold a conference on religious work for the first time in over a decade. Given that the bulk of Xi’s speech was just a stiff repetition of Jiang’s speech in 2001, we suggest that the aforementioned omission was the real difference that mattered.
The real giveaway, however, was the date on which Xi chose to make this move.
A Subtle Coincidence
The CCP keeps a list of politically sensitive dates. A prominent example is June 4, the date of the Tiananmen Student Massacre. In the period surrounding these dates, the Party’s security apparatus becomes unusually vigilant and any political moves by the Party is carefully planned and calculated.
It so happened that Xi’s conference on religious freedom was held on one of these sensitive dates, April 23, which coincided with a date that had particular significance in Falun Gong history. On April 23, 1999, the Chinese police “acted with unusual brutality, spilling blood for the first time in Falun Gong history”, in the words of investigative journalist Ethan Gutmann.
In response to this incident, 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners petitioned the Appeals Office in Beijing two days later on April 25. They were herded by Beijing police in a half circle around the adjacent CCP headquarters Zhongnanhai. The act of Falun Gong practitioners “besieging” the Chinese government quarters on the historic day of April 25 was to become the official excuse for Jiang to launch the persecution against Falun Gong.
Holding a conference on religious freedom, for the first time in over a decade, on the day when Falun Gong was first brutalised 17 years ago, can only mean two things. Either Xi wants to reaffirm the persecution of Falun Gong, or he wants to end it and effect true religious freedom. To suggest that it was inadvertent or a coincidence is to make a mockery of the political intelligence of the head of CCP. Given that there was no mention of Falun Gong or religions that must be “dominated” in Xi’s speech, we suggest that the second conclusion is more likely to be true.
The Final Decree – Reforming Security Apparatus.
The third and final decree, issued at the national politics and law meeting, required the judicial and security sector to engage in capacity building and improve professionalism, honesty and non-corruption. The CCP’s security apparatus was the primary bludgeon used to brutalise Falun Gong. The decree is dated April 25, the 17th anniversary of Falun Gong’s Zhongnanhai incident.
A Coherent Theme
Together, the three decrees by Xi, issued on landmark dates in Falun Gong history, form a coherent picture. The message: to end the brutality against Falun Gong and rebuild China on the tenets of religious freedom and law.
The three decrees also cohere with a larger pattern of reform. In 2015, Xi initiated legal reforms that allowed more than 200,000 Falun Gong victims of persecution to file criminal complaints against Jiang without encountering CCP’s systematic reprisal. Xi’s longstanding anti-corruption campaign has also seen numerous high-level Party officials who built their careers on the persecution of Falun Gong such as Zhou Yongkang and Bo Xilai imprisoned and disgraced.
Since coming into office, Xi has also revived discourse on the rule of law and constitutionalism.
External observers, academics and reporters have consistently cast doubt on the seriousness of Xi’s commitments. This scepticism is understandable. No country can maintain any semblance of human rights and the rule of law while it slaughters innocents like livestock.
Moreover, any genuine effort to reverse the policy of persecution against Falun Gong will encounter heavy resistance from the communist perpetrators and may even endanger the reformer himself. As Gutmann wrote, “The party cannot stop organ harvesting. Like a game of musical chairs, when the music stops one faction will not be seated. And then the digging into the past begins.”
It may well be for this reason that Xi has wisely kept a tight lip on Falun Gong thus far. But if actions speak louder than words (a phrase especially apt for politicians), there are good reasons to give more credit to Xi’s outward political commitments.