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"Falungong is an anti-scientific, anti-human, anti-social, anti-government and illegal organization with all the characteristics of an evil religion."
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, August 1999


Executive Summary

Since 1999, Falungong practitioners have been the target of an aggressive and often violent crackdown by the Chinese government, one aspect of much broader tightening of controls on individuals and organizations whose activities China's leaders perceive as threatening to Chinese Communist Party control. The past two years have witnessed a deterioration in civil liberties nationwide, with disparate groups-political dissidents, foreign scholars, labor organizers, religious believers worshiping outside official aegis, activists in Tibet and Xinjiang, Internet users, academics, and editors whose messages challenge the Party line, among others-facing new restrictions and abuses. The crackdown on Falungong is both symptomatic of the larger trend and significant in its own right for the vehemence with which the authorities have moved to eradicate the organization and "reeducate" its members.

Falungong is a modern variant of ancient Chinese practices of exercise, deep breathing, and meditation, collectively known as qigong, that enthusiasts claim promotes physical, mental, and spiritual well-being by enhancing the flow of vital energy through a person's body. There is no question that Falungong promotes salvationist and apocalyptic teachings in addition to its qigong elements. Despite its own protestations to the contrary, it also has a well-organized and technologically sophisticated following and has deliberately chosen a policy of confrontation with authorities. But the confrontations have been peaceful. Apart from those held in connection with the self-immolation suicides in Beijing in January 2001, none of the tens of thousands of Falungong practitioners detained, arrested, or convicted have been held in connection with violent actions or threats of violence. Instead, their "crime" is their belief in Falungong and their efforts to promote the practice. As such, their treatment violates fundamental rights - freedom of conscience and belief, freedom to associate with others who share one's beliefs, and freedom to exchange information within and across borders.

This report provides a comprehensive account of the emergence of Falungong in China and the government's response, with particular emphasis on events since the mass Falungong demonstration on April 25, 1999 outside Zhongnanhai, the compound in Beijing housing China's leaders. The report sets forth a detailed chronology of major developments as well as analysis of existing data, much of it flawed, on who is in custody in prisons, reeducation through labor camps,psychiatric institutions, and other incarceration facilities and how they have been treated. Additional chapters address how the crackdown by Chinese authorities on Falungong practitioners has spread beyond the mainland to Hong Kong and other countries, and analyze some of the key reasons for the Chinese government's vehement response to Falungong. Two aspects of the Chinese response are highlighted: the decision to ban Falungong and make its eradication a national priority, and the decision to craft a series of laws and legal decisions, explanations, and interpretations to justify and implement the crackdown, a development that has much to say about Chinese authorities' manipulation of the legal system.

A separate chapter is devoted to the case of Zhang Kunlun, now living in Canada, but detained in China four times between June 30, 2000 and January 10, 2001. On one occasion he was beaten and tortured until he said he "lost his mind"; throughout his time in custody, he was subjected to threats and other forms of psychological coercion aimed at inducing him to abandon his Falungong beliefs. The case concretely illustrates many aspects of the Chinese government's response to Falungong, including the considerable attention local authorities have paid to those they evidently consider "leading members" of the movement who might be induced to repent and provide evidence against more serious "backbone elements." The case also illustrates the mounting frustration of the Chinese leadership in the face of Falungong members' tenacity, and the government's reliance on the administrative, extrajudicial reeducation through labor system despite its repeated insistence that its response demonstrates a commitment to the rule of law.

The emergence of Falungong in May 1992 was part of a nationwide resurgence of membership in qigong groups that began during the 1980s as many of the tight controls that marked the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) were lifted. In 1989, the official China Qigong Scientific Research Association announced that "one in twenty practices qigong." Falungong, founded by Li Hongzhi, was probably the most successful of the affiliates in the early 1990s. Although details are sketchy, there is evidence of tensions between Falungong leaders and authorities as early as 1994, and, by 1998, Li had settled in the United States. The April 25, 1999 10,000 person Falungong rally changed a de facto government policy of tolerance to a campaign of suppression. By July 1999, Chinese authorities had banned Falungong; by October they had declared it an "evil cult." The stream of detentions and arrests that began immediately after the mass rally was continuing as of this writing.

In one sense, there is nothing new about the Chinese Communist Party's response to Falungong. For hundreds, if not thousands, of years, quasi-religious mass organizations have emerged at irregular intervals to challenge China's rulers. For hundreds of years, China's rulers have viewed as politically most threatening those that combine elements of charismatic leadership, a high degree oforganization, and mass appeal. They have labeled such organizations "heretical cults" or "sects" and moved forcefully to eradicate them. The 1900 Boxer Rebellion is only one of many well-documented examples. The decision to label Falungong a "cult" is thus a political one, with potentially far-reaching political consequences. Many of the methods used during the crackdown also echo earlier efforts by the Chinese Communist Party, beginning shortly after it took power, to eradicate religion and, when that proved impossible, to organize and control it.

Official Chinese sources have cited many factors in support of their decision to label Falungong (or Falun Dafa as practitioners prefer) a cult, among them the organization's hierarchical structure and the notion that U.S.-based Falungong leader Li Hongzhi-"Master Li" to his followers-will be the savior of mankind. Chinese officials claim that Li's followers are willing to follow his instructions blindly "even to death." The reference originally was to Li's suggestion that the health benefits of "cultivation," as practitioners call their exercise-meditation and spiritual regime, would obviate the need for medical treatment. But the January 23, 2001 self-immolation attempts by seven alleged Falungong members in Tiananmen Square, Beijing's most important public space, gave the government new ammunition for its arguments.

China's leaders pointed also to Falungong's alleged disruption of public order, stability, and social ethics; to its anti-scientific beliefs that Chinese authorities claimed would hinder China's march to economic development and increasing global influence; and to its flouting of Chinese law. They stressed Falungong's political aspects and purported collusion with "anti-China forces abroad" and enemies within, including advocates of Taiwan and Tibet independence. At the same time, as already noted, the Chinese leadership claimed to have followed strictly legal methods in dealing with the Falungong threat. The record, however, shows something very different.

Although the analysis provided here is necessarily provisional and far from complete, serious human rights violations-including restrictions on freedom of thought, belief, and expression, wrongful detention, unfair trials, torture, and deaths in custody-have accompanied the Chinese government response to Falungong. China does not allow independent monitors in prisons and reeducation camps and has made it too dangerous for family members, friends, or workmates to speak with journalists or other outsiders except under strictly controlled conditions. Despite this fundamental limitation, there is substantial evidence that, since Falungong was officially banned in July 1999, tens of thousands of practitioners have been temporarily detained and thousands have routinely been sentenced to administrative "reeducation through labor" terms as long as three years. A marked discrepancy exists between Falungong and Chinese explanations for deaths in custody and accounts of treatment of inmates in prisons, reeducation camps, and other facilities,but there is substantial evidence that torture and other abuses are common during "transformation" sessions in at least some of the facilities.

Far fewer individuals-government figures as of August 2001 admit to some 350; Falungong sources as of April 2001 list 260-have been judicially prosecuted. Although Chinese government public relations materials have repeatedly alleged that Falungong leaders purposefully delude followers into committing irrational and dangerous acts, such as refusing medical treatment, there is little evidence that more than a handful of Falungong adherents have been tried on such charges. Until mid-2001, prison sentences, ranging from three to eighteen years, appear to have been reserved almost exclusively for key Falungong leaders; for those involved in large-scale printing, publication, and distribution of Falungong materials for use within China; and for those who publicize abuses to an overseas audience. By August 2001, however, after intense government pressure had shut down such activities, prison sentences, in the most severe cases up to thirteen years, were imposed on individuals charged with organizing the printing of leaflets and banners, using the Internet to circulate Falungong materials, or arranging meetings of practitioners. One alleged practitioner received a life sentence for his part in organizing the self-immolation incident in January 2001.

The struggle by Chinese authorities against Falungong has not been limited to the Chinese mainland but has spilled over to Hong Kong and countries in Asia and the West. Falungong leaders have sought leverage and legitimacy by urging governments in the West and throughout Asia to express outrage at China's human rights violations and to pressure the Chinese leadership to reverse its ban. With the crackdown underway and the possibility that Falungong's visibility within China would wane, its leaders have also promoted the growth of the movement in countries outside China to demonstrate Falungong's continued vitality and effectiveness.

In spite of Falungong's extraordinarily skillful advocacy campaign and the risks ethnic Chinese practitioners living outside China have been willing to take, neither effort has been entirely successful. China responded to Western condemnation with accusations of interference, collusion, and ignorance of the danger Falungong presented to China and to individual practitioners. In Asian cities-Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, Tokyo-where a vibrant Falungong presence might have helped sustain the movement, China went on the diplomatic offensive.

Foreign governments generally have been unwilling or unable to do much in the face of the Chinese crackdown on Falungong beyond providing rhetorical defense for practitioners' basic rights. In some cases, foreign governments have responded to Chinese government pressure by turning their backs on reports of abuses, denouncing Falungong, or, in isolated instances, limiting Falungongmembers' freedom of association and expression in their own countries. In Hong Kong, the government, caught between responding to pressure from Beijing and demonstrating its autonomy, has characterized Falungong as an "evil cult" that bears watching, but has refrained from enacting any laws that would shut it down. In other parts of Asia, treatment of Falungong appears to be emerging as an important test of governments' commitment to civil liberties in view of the presence of small, unpopular, but vocal Falungong communities in many countries in the region and China's policy of demanding that such communities be silenced as a precondition to good relations.

As of this writing, it appears that the Chinese government has succeeded in thinning the numbers of Falungong practitioners within China. Those still committed to keeping the movement alive have, for the most part, gone underground.

Note on methodology:

Almost all the information available to Human Rights Watch comes from either official Chinese government (such as Xinhua, the official news agency; People's Daily; or Zhongguo Xinwen She, an official news service for overseas Chinese) or Falungong sources, both of which obviously have a stake in releasing data that supports their respective claims. In most cases, the accounts are inconsistent. However, the often conflicting versions together give a picture of the scope of the crackdown. In cases where competing accounts of the same events are available, we have noted the discrepancies in order to illustrate the claims each is presenting. Reliable firsthand reports of the treatment meted out to Falungong practitioners in China have been almost impossible to obtain. Human Rights Watch's lengthy telephone interviews with Zhang Kunlun, described in detail in Chapter IV below, corroborates much of what we learned from our analysis of other materials.


To the Chinese government:

* Immediately release from detention and incarceration all Falungong followers held for peaceful practice of their beliefs.

* Permit the resumption of public and private Falungong practice.

* Remove all mention of "superstitious sects," "secret societies, and "evil religious organizations" (Article 300) from the PRC Criminal Law; rescind subsequent interpretations, decisions, and explanations relevant to article 300,and bring other laws and regulations into conformity with the revisions. Human Rights Watch recognizes that individual members of a spiritual group may properly be punished for acts that directly endanger the health and safety of others. A general criminalization of belief, opinion, and expression, however, contradicts international human rights standards. Article 300, as demonstrated in its application to Falungong practitioners, fails to distinguish between belief and dangerous act.

* Abolish the inherently arbitrary reeducation through labor system to allow anyone who has been deprived of his liberty the right a court hearing and due process.

* Re-issue invitations to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture and the Special Rapporteur on Religious Freedom to visit China on terms consistent with their mandates.

* Permit domestic and foreign observers to attend all trials including those of Falungong practitioners as provided for under international human rights standards.

* Implement the recommendations of the U.N. Committee against Torture, endorsed by the Special Rapporteur, including: revision of the definition of torture in domestic law so that it fully complies with the definition in the Convention Against Torture; investigation of all allegations of torture in an impartial and thorough fashion; and abolition of regulations requiring permission before a suspect in custody may see a lawyer.

* Amend the "Regulations on the Registration and Management of Social Organizations" and revise the "PRC Law on Assembly, Procession and Demonstration" to eliminate clauses that allow for politically motivated vetting of applicants.

* Revise the PRC Law on Protecting State Secrets so as to limit the scope of information deemed secret in line with international free expression standards.

* Revise regulations that effectively censor the media and the Internet and that interfere with the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information in accordance with international human rights standards.

To the Hong Kong government:


Do not deny visas or otherwise deny entry on the basis of Falungong affiliation.

* Reject pressure from Beijing to restrict Falungong practitioners' rights to freedom of association and assembly.

* Oppose the enactment of any anti-subversion law that is inconsistent with international human rights standards on the rights to free assembly, association, and expression. In no case should such legislation permit punishment of individuals for peaceful expression of their beliefs or views or for dissolution of the organizations to which they belong.

To the international community:

* Resist Chinese government pressure to deny asylum or refugee status to all Falungong practitioners; rather treat each case on its merits.

* Accord Falungong practitioners the right to free assembly as provided for under international human rights standards.

* Human Rights Watch urges the international community to continue to speak out against China's deplorable human rights record, including its treatment of Falungong practitioners, particularly through support for a resolution at the 2002 March-April meeting of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.

To corporations doing business in China:

* Refrain from assisting Chinese authorities in imposing censorship on websites or on other Internet-related material in China such as e-mail.

* Refrain from complying with demands by Chinese authorities to fire or discipline workers for Falungong practice or related activities protected by international law.

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