Banding after the Ban: The Underground Falun Gong in China, 1999-2011

James W Tong. Journal of Contemporary China. Volume 21, Issue 78. November 2012.

A decade after the Falun Gong was outlawed in China, public forms of its organized activities have virtually disappeared and its overt acts of defiance have precipitously declined from 2000 to 2011. However, some determined practitioners continue to engage in stubborn protest activities in public, while others meet covertly in small groups or in larger conferences to share experiences of cultivation. Falun Gong practitioners have also adhered to their Grand Master’s call to ‘clarify the truth’ about their beliefs as well as persecution by the regime. For both the Fa conferences and the Clarify the Truth campaign, they are connected to each other and to their global community through the vast Falun Gong telecommunications network outside China, and a proliferating system of domestic, cellular material centers.

A decade has passed since the Chinese regime outlawed the Falun Gong in July 1999. Clearly the public forms of its organized activities—daily exercise assemblies in city parks, larger convocations held in sports arenas on special anniversaries, three or four day training sessions, and the nationwide distribution of Falun Gong publications—have not been seen inside China since the ban. There are still periodic reports in official media on arrests of Falun Gong practitioners for staging protests in provincial and national capitals, sabotaging media broadcasts, and displaying Falun Gong banners in public places, although these acts of overt defiance have become rare in recent years. But what has become of the mass practitioners of the sect that combines physical and spiritual cultivation, that once numbered between 2 and 80 million in China, and that Jiang Zemin considered the most serious domestic political threat to the regime? Has the regime been effective in not only demolishing Falun Gong’s organizational structure and decimating its leadership, but also in altering the minds of its rank and file, at least in preventing them from returning to their former daily practice? Or is it the case that the regime is capable of eradicating Falun Gong protests only in public places, but is unable or unwilling to exterminate Falun Gong practice at the grassroots, where many of the sect’s remnants still perform its daily breathing exercises and read its revered scripture at home, even find ways to assemble in groups, to communicate with the Falun Gong community outside China, and to counter official propaganda?

This article examines the new forms of underground existence of the Falun Gong following the official dissolution of July 1999. The analytical focus is not on their acts of open defiance above ground—staging protests in public, petitioning in Beijing or provincial capitals, or in acts disrupting social order or damaging human lives and property. Reports of such examples of overt defiance are few, have become even more rare since 2002, and have been analyzed elsewhere. Rather, the focus of the present article is on the covert and collective activities of Falun Gong practitioners since the ban—how they assemble for their physical and spiritual exercises, mount a counter-offensive against official propaganda, and establish links with the global Falun Gong community.

The article draws on both official government sources as well as those of the Falun Gong. The former sources include the Party newspaper, Renmin ribao, the procuracy annual reports as well as provincial and municipal yearbooks. Falun Gong sources include reports from its two news agencies and its official website, Minghui. We should note that the covert nature of Falun Gong activities presents a special problem for our analysis. As in other banned religious sects, underground resistance movements, and anti-government insurgent groups in history, independent sources on the organization, activities, and historical evolution of these outlawed groups are rare. Government sources as well as those of underground groups are often polemical, one-sided, and contradictory to one another, while media reports are hostage to these two sources with vested and opposed interests. There is thus a need to caution readers that descriptions of Falun Gong activities and government law-enforcement operations in the following pages often rely on a single source without corroboration. On the other hand, it is also the case that our enquiry is not a subject of contention between the government and the Falun Gong, both of which acknowledge that the sect still exists in China after the ban, engages in propagation activities, and communicates with congregations outside China, and that these activities are illegal under the present legal system. In the pages that follow, where they disagree or agree will be noted.

Below, our analysis of the underground Falun Gong congregation, their propagation activities, and communications with the Falun Gong universal community is presented in order. We will begin, however, with an overall trend of Falun Gong defiance over the past decade.

Gradual Reduction of the Temporal-Spatial Scope of Falun Gong Defiance

While periodic collective protests and sabotage attest to the ability of Falun Gong practitioners to make mischief, the overall trend appears to be one of precipitous decline of Falun Gong activities in overt defiance of the regime from 2000 to 2002, a sharp rebound in 2003, and then a steady decline from 2004 onwards. The trend can be observed from three official sources. Table 1 presents references to the Falun Gong in the annual Chief Procurator Report from 2000-2011. Delivered by the top law-enforcement official of the land to the National People’s Congress, which votes on and adopts the document, the annual Chief Procurator Report reviews the main law-enforcement tasks of the nation in the preceding year, addresses major law and order issues facing the country, and states the priority procuratorial tasks for the year ahead. As shown in Table 1, the Falun Gong was named as a notable law-enforcement problem from 1999 to 2003, but was dropped from the annual report from 2004 through to 2011. At least at the national level, the Falun Gong appears to have remained a public security risk in the first five years after the government ban in 1999, but declined in relative importance from 2004 on.

Table 1. Reference to Falun Gong as a law-enforcement problem in the Annual Chief Procuracy Report to the National People’s Congress, 1999-2011

1999

2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
X X X X X
Note

: Since the procuracy report of a given year provides law-enforcement data for the preceding year, data in the table refers to the law-enforcement calendar year and not the year when the report was delivered.

Sources

: Zhongguo jiancha nianjian, annual issues from 2000 to 2010; and (accessed April 2012).

At the next administrative level, provincial procuracy reports offer a similar but more detailed narrative. Similar to its central government counterpart, the provincial procuracy report is also an annual ritual delivered to the provincial legislature, covering the same subject scope and written in the same format. As shown in Table 2, provincial trends largely mirror the national trend, where the Falun Gong was depicted as a major law-enforcement problem from 1999 to 2003, but faded out in significance thereafter. A great majority of the 31 provinces (29 in 1999, 28 in 2000) referred to the congregation in the procurator report in the first two years after the ban. There was a sharp drop in 2001, when only 21 provinces referred to the Falun Gong, followed by an even more precipitous decline in 2002, when only four provinces made that reference in their procuracy reports. Replacing the Falun Gong as a top local law-enforcement problem in 2001 and 2002 was the ‘Strike-hard Campaign’ that targeted organized crime, triads, and serious violent crime like explosions, murder, robbery, and kidnapping. From the low of 2002, the number of provincial procuracy reports citing the Falun Gong as a law-enforcement problem surged to 12 in 2003, then declined monotonically from seven in 2004 to two in 2008, and dropped to zero from 2009 onwards. We should note, however, that procuracy reports are not available for a small number of provinces for 2008-2011, and this lends a lower level of confidence to the observed trend for that period.

Table 2. Reference to Falun Gong as local law-enforcement problem in the Annual Procuracy Report to Provincial People’s Congress, 1999-2011

Province

1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Beijing X X X
Tianjin X X X X X
Hebei X X
Shanxi X X
Neimonggu X X X X
Liaoning X X X
Jilin X X X X X X X
Heilongjiang X X NA
Shanghai X X X X
Jiangsu X X
Zhejiang X X X X X X X
Anhui X X X X X X
Fujian X X X X X X
Jiangxi X X X
Shandong X NA
Henan X X X NA NA
Hubei X X X X
Hunan X X X
Guangdong X X
Guangxi X X X X X
Hainan X X X
Sichuan X X X X X
Guizhou X X NA
Yunnan X X X
Xizhang X X
Shaanxi X X X X X X X
Gansu X X X X
Qinghai X X X NA NA
Ningxia X X X X X X NA NA NA NA
Xinjiang X X NA NA NA NA
Chongqing X X X X X X X
Total no. of provincial reports with ref. to FLG 29 28 21 4 12 7 6 5 4 2 0 0 0
Notes

: Full Chinese texts of provincial procuracy reports for 2009-2011 are obtained from Internet searches. ‘NA’ denotes provinces where the latter has not yielded any such documents for given years using the subject keyword and searching for the websites of the Provincial Government, the Provincial Legislature and the Provincial Procuracy.

Sources

: See source note for Table 1.

A similar pattern on the decline of the Falun Gong threat can also be seen in the number of articles on the Falun Gong published in Renmin ribao. These are articles that either refer to the Falun Gong in the title or name the Falun Gong in the text. Table 3 presents the monthly total of such articles from July 1999 to December 2011. It can be seen that, except for 2000, the annual aggregates have been on a monotonic decline, registering 609, 325, 534, 198, 54, and 17 from 1999 through to 2004, and in the single digits thereafter. Monthly totals also show a similar pattern. In 1999, such totals ranged from 41 (October) to 196 (August), from 10 to 63 in 2000, from 6 to 66 in 2001, from 1 to 28 in 2002, from 2 to 9 in 2003, from 1 to 4 in 2004, and from 1 to 2 in 2005-2011. Data from both the annual central and provincial procuracy reports, as well as Renmin ribao articles then, point to a sharp reduction in both sets of indexes since 2003, followed by a steady decline thereafter, with a stubborn remnant that survived and continued to defy official suppression efforts through to at least 2008. In combination, they show that the Falun Gong has been emasculated in China but not eradicated.

Table 3. Articles on Falun Gong in RMRB, 1999-2011

Jan Feb Mar Apr May June July Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Total
1999 170 196 25 41 104 73 609
2000 52 25 63 38 23 34 25 10 14 10 10 21 325
2001 59 66 20 46 25 28 34 6 15 10 12 23 534
2002 20 11 22 24 26 10 25 7 28 17 1 7 198
2003 5 2 9 2 5 2 2 4 4 3 5 3 54
2004 4 1 1 3 1 2 2 1 2 17
2005 2 1 1 2 1 2 9
2006 1 2 2 1 6
2007 1 1
2008 1 1 2
2009 1 1 2 4
2010 1 1 2
2011 1 1 1 1 1 5
Grand total 1,767
Source

: Renmin ribao, 1946-2011, on-line edition.

New Forms of Organized Underground Falun Gong Existence

The above trends suggest that the Falun Gong has not been on its way to steady and certain demise inside China. The remaining pages of this article will document the evolution of forms of Falungon activities that connect Falun Gong practitioners with each other inside China and with the outside universal Falun Gong community. There are three main forms of organized Falun Gong activities, including: (1) underground assemblies; (2) propagation activities; and (3) communications with the universal Falun Gong community. The sources are primarily those of the Falun Gong. Government publications, including provincial procuracy reports and provincial newspapers, are generally uninformative on these types of Falun Gong activities. To look beyond these two provincial government sources, we have also examined the yearbooks of municipalities where the Falun Gong had established main stations [zhongzhan], in years where their provincial procurator identified the Falun Gong as a local law-enforcement problem. In these editions of municipal yearbooks, we sought information on underground organized Falun Gong activities in their procuracy, public security, and judiciary sections. While these sources sometimes report Falun Gong activities in general terms or in aggregate numbers, they are invariably silent on the form of their underground organizations or illegal activities. In the pages below, the English translations for these Falun Gong institutions and activities are drawn from the Falun Gong portal, Minghui.org.

Underground Falun Gong Assemblies

The official ban in July 1999 demolished the former Falun Gong structure which was organized as main stations, stations, and practice sites. In its outlawed existence, two forms of underground activities have survived, akin to Christian house fellowships: small study groups and the larger Fa conferences which were both in existence before the official ban. Protective features have been added to the larger Fa conferences.

Small Study Groups

The Fa study group [xuefa xiaozu] is an extension of the individual practitioner, where small cells of two or more engage in common spiritual cultivation. Already in existence before the ban, and continuing to be a common form of organized Falun Gong activity outside China, they have assumed greater significance as a group activity and basic organization of the Falun Gong inside China since the crackdown. A great majority of references to the Fa study group are reports of spiritual cultivation of the single practitioner, who meets with the same small set of other practitioners at fixed or irregular intervals. Since both breathing exercises and spiritual cultivation take place largely on the individual rather than the group level, these activities do not seem to be different from an individual practicing Falun Gong by him/herself, with the exception of group discussion and mutual exchange. None of the extant reports suggests that it has a formal structure, with a fixed meeting schedule, format, size, and organization. The few reports with information on the meeting schedule suggest that these groups meet once or twice a week, usually in the residence of one practitioner. At least in one case, it was convened by the host, who invited each practitioner to attend on Saturday mornings. The venue in this case did not vary for several years. To accommodate the growing attendance, the host couple borrowed several tens of thousands of yuan to buy a larger home that took them several years to repay. As with early Christian disciples traveling in pairs to proselytize, group practice does seem to create solidarity and mutual support. The latter is especially important when the small group is on a mission to put up posters, to spray Falun Gong slogans on walls, and to explain the Falun Gong view to outsiders. These study groups also form the building blocks of the Fa conferences and material centers.

Fa Conferences

Larger gatherings of Falun Gong practitioners in the form of Fa conferences have also been reported. An extension of the small study groups, these conferences are assemblies of practitioners who meet for collective meditation, scripture reading, and group discussion. Also in existence before the official ban in July 1999, these were earlier labeled ‘Experience sharing conferences’ [xinde jiaoliu hui] on the Falun Gong website. Instituted by at least 1996, they have been a common practice in Falun Gong gatherings, with more than 14,000 reports found in its official website. Inside China, due to the security risks involved, these conferences do not appear to be widespread, compared to other forms of Falun Gong activities. At least some were convened on major Falun Gong anniversaries, such as 25 April when the Falun Gong staged their historic protest rally in Beijing’s Zhongnanhai, or on 20 July, the date commemorated by many Falun Gong groups as the anniversary of the ban on the Falun Gong. The Falun Gong Minghui.org website reports fewer than a dozen of these cases inside China, and counseled in early December 2005 against convening large-scale assemblies on security grounds. Regardless of their relative infrequency, the presence of these conferences illustrates a form of covert activity that requires a high level of organization and risk-taking by the outlawed Falun Gong.

Almost all reported Fa conferences were convened in the homes of Falun Gong practitioners. The few exceptions include one that took place in a city park in Kunming where a meeting of over 30 Falun Gong practitioners was busted and all attendees detained. For house gatherings where the size of attendance was reported, one conference had an attendance of nine and another ten. Together with one other convocation where the number of attendees was not reported, these were all referred to as small Fa conferences [xiaoxing Fa hui] in the title of published reports. One took place in a mountainous county in Henan Province on 5 August 2005, another in some unspecified city on 22 November 2005, and a third in some unknown rural town close to 2 December 2005. In these reports, the meeting format did not vary significantly among these small Fa conferences. The main agenda items of one rural Fa conference were exchanging experiences on practicing the Falun Gong, and discussing its health, spiritual benefits, and supernatural effects. A second conference used the bulk of conference time to discuss the three main tasks as instructed by Li Hongzhi—’Studying the Fa Method’ [xuefa], ‘Sending Forth Righteous Thoughts’ [fa zhengnian], and ‘Clarifying the Truth’ [jiang zhenxiang]. A third that convened in an unspecified city was also focused almost exclusively on carrying out the above tasks, but it also included operations to download and distribute Falun Gong materials, to put up posters, to encourage former practitioners to retract their coerced confessions, to persuade members of the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese Youth League who practiced Falun Gong to recant their stated defections from the sect and to withdraw from party organizations.

One Fa Conference Described

In the most detailed three-part report serialized in Minghui.org, one of those conferences was convened in an unspecified location on 20 July 2005, the anniversary of the official ban. First suggested in a small study group meeting, the news of the convention was communicated to different study groups in the locality. The conference appears to have been held in the residence of a Falun Gong practitioner. A make-shift altar was set up with a Falun Gong plaque placed at its center, on top of a Falun Gong table-cloth, beneath two Buddhist or Li Hongzhi portraits. A candle stand was placed in the middle of the altar in front of the plaque, itself flanked by a plate of fruits or buns as tributary articles [gongpin], surrounded by silk floral arrangements [juanhua] on each side of the altar. Practitioners sat on the floor with their legs crossed in a standard Falun Gong exercise posture.

The congregation was called to order at 8 am. The meeting consisted of four segments each punctuated by ten-minute meditation sessions on the hour where practitioners were called on to join the universal Falun Gong congregation to send forth righteous thoughts. After lighting candles, a short video entitled ‘Remembrance’ [daonian] was played, where photographs of Falun Gong practitioners who allegedly died in official custody were shown on the screen. After a short commentary by the host, another short video on ‘The Flying Revolving Wheel’ [feixuan di falun] was also screened. This was followed by the main part of the conference where practitioners discussed the recent articles by Li Hongzhi, who instructed all practitioners to perform the three tasks of ‘Studying the Falun Method’, ‘Sending Forth Righteous Thoughts’, and ‘Clarifying the Truth’. The session began with a reading of Li’s article on ‘The Fa Conference’ and ‘A Letter to Shijiazhuang Dafa General Assistance Center’, followed by a free-wheeling discussion among practitioners moderated by the host, taking each of the three tasks in order. Before the discussion of the third task, a musical video entitled ‘Coming for You’ [wei ni er lai] was played. It was about 36 European Falun Gong practitioners who went to Beijing on 20 November 2001 and displayed a Falun Gong banner in Tiananmen Square. Returning to Europe, they composed the title song and formed a ‘Coming for You European Choir’ made up of over 80 singers from 13 European nations that performed in London, Paris, New York, and Hong Kong, singing separately in Mandarin, Swedish, French, Italian, and in four voice parts. At the conference, both the musical CD, as well as the commemorative video elicited strong emotions from sobbing participants. As the last item of the conference, the host mentioned two specific projects to which participants were called upon to contribute their efforts. The first was to collect documentary evidence of official persecution, including indictment, sentencing, and ruling statements, detention notices, and summons to appear in labor reform institutions, as well as official receipts for fines and Falun Gong material confiscated by the authorities, which would be sent to Falun Gong media organizations overseas for documenting official repression. The second was to locate and assist the orphans of Falun Gong practitioners who had perished in official custody. The conference adjourned at noon.

Propagation Activities to ‘Clarify the Truth’

Like resistance movements in history, the Falun Gong wants to break the propaganda monopoly of the ruling regime. Not satisfied with circulating their views among the faithful, they also want to reach out to inform society about what they regard as true about themselves and the regime. Since 22 July 1999, the Falun Gong has been engaging in an incessant propaganda campaign through their official website, radio, TV, and newspapers outside China to get their stories heard. Inside China, there are also occasional protests in Beijing and provincial capitals by lone or small groups of practitioners, defying the official ban by unfurling Falun Gong banners, practicing Falun Gong exercises in public, and distributing Falun Gong materials, where they invariably end up being arrested. The ‘Clarifying the Truth’ campaign goes beyond these individual acts of defiance. It is a direct instruction from Li Hongzhi to his adherents that all should do their part in letting the public know about the true Falun Gong doctrine and practice, and the plight practitioners suffer under the repressive regime, repeated in many of his written messages and public speeches. In response to the call, there are many reports that Falun Gong practitioners have tried to make their views known to others. This has been done both in passive and active ways, and both in their work units and residences as well as outside their places of employment and domicile. The following are recent cases reported in Minghui.org, drawn from responses when the Falun Gong website invited contributions related to experiences of ‘clarifying the truth’. It is not clear how representative these practices are; they seem to be selected for their exemplary value for other practitioners to emulate rather than for the commonality of practice.

Passive Methods

Passive methods of ‘clarifying the truth’ entail drop-and-run tactics of leaving Falun Gong materials in target sites, without active interaction with the recipients of those materials. There are reports of such activities in both rural villages and urban centers. In the countryside, a practitioner who was a mobile street food vendor on his tricycle placed Falun Gong booklets and CDs at the door of every house he passed along one of his service routes in a rural town. He also went to the county seat and city, and left Falun Gong materials in buses, shopping malls, restaurants, post offices, shopping baskets on bicycles as well as passenger and cargo vehicles. A more risk-averse practitioner opted for a safer and more covert nocturnal strategy. A migrant worker from Northeast China, he chose to return to the familiar territory of his rural hometown to spread the word. Arriving at the bus stop of the town at noon, he waited until 9 pm when it was dark and safe to distribute Falun Gong materials in nine villages, finishing at 1 am. Too late to check in at the local hotel, he waited until 7 am when the hotel opened its doors, and rested until 1 pm when he took the bus home. The same principles of nocturnity and familiarity have also guided the distribution process of another two practitioners. Targeting a mountainous county 100 li from the city, the couriers first studied the spatial dispersion of towns, villages, and communication routes before they chose the sites. Operating at night, the two worked as a pair and distributed in one trip several hundred copies of the Falun Gong weekly magazine and CDs to villages in the area. Sometimes they did saturation distribution, dropping off several hundred copies in a single hamlet or a few villages.

The same stealth tactics were employed by a young Falun Gong couple, who were members of the Chinese Youth League, to distribute Falun Gong materials. Instead of rural towns and counties, the target locality was no less than Beijing where they resided. They placed CDs, DVDs, booklets, and posters in their housing block and nearby compounds, some for the second time. They also left these materials on buses, in public phone booths, on benches in public parks, in bicycle shopping baskets, on the door handles of cars, and outside shop windows. They had some close calls but had not been apprehended at the time of the publication of the report.

Separately, another Falun Gong practitioner also operated in the national capital. The wife of a public security agent in some locality, she went along with her husband on his official business trip to Beijing. En route to Yiheyuan, Beihai, and Xiangshan, she put up a poster on the window of the train, which could be seen outside the train but was hidden by the window curtain from the inside. Arriving at the national capital, she put up posters in the bus depot, underground walkways, on trains, electric wire poles, telephone booths, and street walls. Emboldened by her initial success, she picked tourist sites with the most visitor traffic, including the Military Museum, Chang An Street, the Workers’ Cultural Palace, the Great Hall of the People, a beacon tower on the Badaling Great Wall, and even on Tiananmen Wall, under the security cameras and watchful eyes of public security agents. In all, she put up 150 posters during her Beijing trip.

More meticulous planning was reported by a small study group that carried out the task with careful logistical management. Before distribution, the materials were first read with the most attractive content folded out as the cover page, before each was put inside a transparent plastic bag. The distribution schedule varied, depending on the habit of the target population and the daily routine of local law-enforcement agents. They dropped off materials in some localities near dawn or at dusk, in the morning or after midnight, to maximize target receipt and minimize apprehension and confiscation by public security agents. Aside from the usual drop-off points like public parks, telegraph poles, and main thoroughfares with much pedestrian traffic, they also left materials inside postal boxes, milk delivery containers, newspaper holders outside doors, shelves in supermarkets, and suit pockets on racks in clothing stores.

Interactive Means

These non-invasive tactics contrast with the more interactive methods of other, bolder practitioners who engaged their targets more. One practitioner went to a nearby Home of the Aged and explained the case of the Falun Gong to the elderly. Others worked on less retiring subjects, and chose the right timing for their message. To make sure that their targets would not be distracted, one Falun Gong shopper waited until the store cashier had finished checking out other customers before telling her how virtuous the Falun Gong was. With similar patience, another rural practitioner deferred making his case to his peasant contacts until they got bored waiting in the fields for the harvester to arrive. More often, this practitioner did not have the luxury of choosing just the right moment. When he was riding a motorcycle, he stopped to talk to passers-by. As an employee of the local grain collecting station, he also spoke with all peasants who delivered the grain. Not all acts of ‘clarifying the truth’ were, however, done by lone operators. Around a dozen Heilongjiang practitioners did so in nearby villages for several months. They rode their bicycles or in two cars, bringing food and water for their own consumption to distant mountain communities. Along the way, they put up Falun Gong posters on electric wire poles, trees, and hung Falun Gong banners, traveling over 100 li (50 km or 31 miles) one-way, speaking to villagers as well as residents of forest lands, and dropped off pamphlets to rural households, putting up posters in every house.

Reactions differed. Some villagers tried to stop them, driving them out from their villages. Some surrounded their cars, and tore up their posters. One head of household chased a practitioner away with a knife. But after the practitioners explained their predicament to them, many apparently became sympathetic. Their earnestness reportedly moved even their persecutors. One practitioner was caught up by four or five public security agents in a police car. After the practitioner preached to them on the virtues of the Falun Gong, these public security agents reportedly drove off.

Communicating with the Global Falun Gong Community

Thanks to the Internet, members of the underground cellular Falun Gong community are connected with each other and with the universal Falunong congregation in the diaspora, which has organizations in over 100 countries and regions in the world, including groups in 45 of the 50 states in the US. Falun Gong practitioners inside China can thus tap into the vast resources of its universal community. At one end of this cyber link is the elaborate Falun Gong telecommunications network composed of two news agencies, three television stations, two radio stations, a newspaper, and the worldwide website Minghui.org. At the other end of the link are the ‘material centers’ established by the underground Falun Gong community inside China that reproduce Falun Gong global communications, create local content, and distribute these to other local Falun Gong practitioners.

The Falun Gong Cyber Community

Falun Gong practitioners in China can get their daily bread from the Minghui.org website, which publishes around 40 daily news items on developments relating to the Falun Gong in China. In addition to information on the Falun Gong survivors in China, what practitioners in China may find particularly useful is up-to-date intelligence on local law-enforcement. One news round-up issue warns that the Public Security Bureau of Zhucheng in Shandong was planning a systematic inspection of computers in the city, thus alerting practitioners that they should move or camouflage Falun Gong content. Several other entries report new developments in the government surveillance network against Falun Gong practitioners putting up posters and ‘clarifying the truth’. A story on Qingdao informs readers that some taxicab operators in the city were government agents, cautioning practitioners to be careful when they preached the Falun Gong doctrines to cab drivers. Another reports that the Government Building of Benxi Municipality was installing an electronic surveillance system in the compound, counseling extra caution for practitioners intent on dropping off Falun Gong materials in the building complex. Similarly, practitioners were warned that the Danzishi District of Chongqing had also gone high-tech, and installed spy cameras with small electronic monitors on street walls where practitioners used to put up Falun Gong posters.

In addition to enemy intelligence, the Minghui.org website offers a whole spectrum of technical consulting on how to set up a material center, and produce and distribute Falun Gong materials. In its section on Technical Reference [jishu cankao], it lists informational entries on 11 topics including appropriate equipment and production processes for manufacturing CDs, DVDs, video-tapes, stick-on posters, and banners; text and graphics editing; software debugging as well as computer and photocopier trouble-shooting. It suggests ways to position the household satellite dish at different times of the day in China to get the best reception for television programs broadcast by the Falun Gong New Dynasty Station in the US. It warns against the most recent mail interception techniques of public security agents embedded in Chinese post offices and advises that Falun Gong mail should not be heavy, its documents should be wrapped with ordinary paper, placed inside official envelopes with school or kindergarten addresses, use printed address labels, and be sent from different locations in small quantities. To prevent electronic locating and eaves dropping by public security agents, it suggests putting cellular phones inside metallic boxes which would block incoming electronic signals, and would elicit a voice message that the phone is out of service or out of range. To circulate Falun Gong slogans widely, it suggests ways to write those slogans on RMB bills. The recommended procedure is to put the bill over a printed slogan and place both on top of a pane of glass. Then illuminate the glass from below using a lamp and trace the printed slogan in bright and inerasable ink, so that the traced stereotypic handwriting would make identification difficult.

In a special section entitled how to evade network blocking, the Minghui.org website also provides the best technical consulting on how to set up an international communications system that penetrates the firewall established by the public security agencies in China. The range of consulting services offered is comprehensive and timely, as well as both reactive and proactive. In a period of five months from 1 March to 31 July 2006, it published 67 entries ranging from the best anti-virus and data management software available in China, through techniques to save documents and data when surfing in Internet cafes, to the latest technology by law-enforcement to erect firewalls and how to bypass these obstructions. To minimize the pernicious effects of official hacking and worming, it suggests that practitioners in the mainland should set up three email addresses, one for correspondence and the other two for storage, where Falun Gong documents and graphic data would be saved as attachments. To bypass official surveillance efforts, it offers step-by-step instructions on how to apply for free overseas email addresses, attaching the actual English-language electronic application form, highlighting the key entries that are to be filled in, translating the terms into Chinese, and providing samples of responses in English.

Material Centers

To rebuild the communications system within China, a network of ‘material centers’ [ziliao dian] was established by Falun Gong survivors to link Falun Gong practitioners inside China with each other as well as with its international media hub in the US. These material centers establish multiple channels of communication that fed instructions from Li Hongzhi, technical assistance, and doctrinal guidance from the US hub to China on the one end, while collecting and reporting on local conditions for Falun Gong practitioners, security intelligence, and government suppression back to the US hub at the other. At least for those with unblocked Internet access, Falun Gong practitioners inside China are able to engage in real-time communications among themselves and with their international counterparts, while the Minghui.org website acquires the raw data to publish their daily news items on the state of Falun Gong inside China.

Home Material Centers

Material centers can be differentiated by the size of the operating staff, the type of equipment used, and the amount of output. The modal facilities are ‘Home Material Centers’ operated by members of a single family in their own residence. The standard pieces of equipment are a computer, printer, photocopier, and CD burners. The operations of the material centers involved three basic tasks which are performed by a single individual, as well as by two or three persons. In the smallest material center, a single operator performs all three basic tasks. First, s/he downloads the master copy from the international Minghui.org website, or from other Falun Gong hubs inside China. The master file is then edited to select the items that are most relevant to produce a local edition newsletter and posters. Second, multiple copies of the local printed or electronic file are then made using photocopiers or CD burners, stapled and/or packaged for dissemination. Third, these end products are then distributed to fill local orders from other Falun Gong groups, or to their target locations in urban housing blocks or rural villages. In a report on a two-person material center, one practitioner downloads the master copy, while the other edits and creates the local file, and both take turns to make and distribute multiple copies. In yet another unit in a rural area, the material center is managed by three people. One person is the technical operator who downloads the master copy and makes multiple copies. The other two distribute these throughout the villages in the county.

A more detailed report describes the division of labor and larger social setting of a material center in an unspecified city in East China. It was part of a local network of Falun Gong material centers, with several larger centers serving as the main links with the international Falun Gong network, installed with anti-blocking software that could penetrate the public security agency’s firewall. It appeared to be housed in a residence and had two computers and three staff. One computer was used for text-processing and the other to produce graphics, with total equipment cost amounting to between 7,000 and 8,000 yuan. A similar division of labor was found among the staff, with one on text-processing, another on graphics, and a third for printing and folding.

Larger Material Centers

Larger material centers have a more complex organizational structure than the smaller centers. In a report originating in Northeast China, a larger center was set up within a few days by four young practitioners in an urban apartment around 10 July 2001, after which three of them stayed to work in the center. It was equipped with a state-of-the-art photocopier, a high-volume, multifunctional machine capable of printing 100 pages per minute, that replaced its four-page per minute predecessor. The output on a busy day was between four and five boxes of print-outs, or 40,000-50,000 sheets. Orders for printed products were placed by other Falun Gong groups in the city and surrounding urban areas, in amounts of 2,000-3,000 sheets per order, or one or two boxes (10,000-20,000 sheets). The largest single order was for 20 boxes of Falun Gong pamphlets and booklets, that need to be filled over ten days, in time for distribution for the Lunar New Year. To replenish paper supply, the material center periodically purchased a truck-load of paper of around 80 boxes. These were warehoused in either a ground level or basement room within the compound. In the three-year lifetime of the center, it moved and operated in three locations, produced Falun Gong materials printed on over 1,000 boxes of paper, burnt tens of thousands of CDs, plus produced a large volume of posters, Falun Gong exercise tapes, videos, and CDs.

The original three staff members of the large material center later grew to eight, all living in the workplace. Most had gone to Beijing to stage protests. All of them had left their domicile and jobs after having been arrested and incarcerated, and chose to leave their hometowns to practice the Falun Gong and to avoid surveillance and arrest. There were two couples, a single young man and three single women. At least one couple were both college graduates who had good jobs before they were fired for being Falun Gong practitioners. Despite the large scale and functional complexity, the large material center did not seem to have a hierarchical structure. There was no differentiation of rank, no report of anyone giving or receiving instructions in the group, and decisions appeared to be made consensually. They referred to each other in kinship terms, addressing the males as the Eldest Brother, Second Brother, and Younger Brother, and the three women also as sisters. The youngest girl addressed the two elder women as Old Aunt (Lao Yi) and Aunt (Da Yi), but did not refer to the two couples as sisters- or brothers-in-law. The daily schedule for the three single women was rising at 3-4 am, practicing five sets of Falun Gong exercises, then starting to work at 7:30 am through to 5 pm, sometimes until 9 pm for rushed orders. They lived a rustic existence, often eating plain instant noodles or rice seasoned only with some salt and oil without any side dish. It is not clear what the source was for financing the equipment, operating expenses, transportation, and living costs. There is no report regarding whether they received payment for materials they delivered.

Around four months after its establishment, the material center began to specialize, building three separate manufacturing facilities, producing stick-on posters [bu gan jiao], CDs, and video-tapes. Out of security concerns, they adopted a strategy of organizational separation. The main computer operator and three production units worked in separate rooms in the same compound, but the four did not communicate with each other. Only the delivering agent shuttled back and forth among these units. Evasive tactics were also used when dealing with the building security contingent. In the large material center’s second location, the building security team regularly patrolled the building with rubber batons and walkie-talkies in the daytime, plus electric torches at night. There was also a two-person surveillance team staying outside their unit even on cold nights. The center staff noted their patrol and surveillance routine and avoided those slots in order to transport materials in and out of their center.

Official regulations stipulate that all residents and outsiders need to be registered with the local public security bureau. To avoid detection, the small center in East China did not register with the law-enforcement agencies. Both the small and large material centers tried to keep a low profile within the compound. The large center placed curtains in all windows at their second location. In order not to give public security agents and visitors any chance of finding their illicit operations, the practitioners hid the equipment and printed products inside cabinets and under the bed, and covered the portrait of Li Hongzhi when they anticipated unwelcome visitors. To minimize noise levels, the printer was placed inside a cabinet while printing.

In August 2003, Li Hongzhi called for the extensive establishment of small material centers. Consequently, many practitioners started their own home production units. A transition period ensued, whereby the home centers produced posters and the large centers continued to supply the multipage weekly magazine, booklets, and new instructions from Li Hongzhi. Nine months into this new stage, the home centers had proliferated, most were producing at a stable rate, and the large center decided to dissolve itself. During its three-year lifetime, the large material center in Northeast China had moved twice. In the first year, the second location was raided twice, when four or five staff members were arrested and the CD producing unit was trashed. However, the third location worked without incident for nearly two years.

Conclusion

A decade since the official ban of July 1999, the Falun Gong has ceased to be a law and order problem nationally and for a great majority of China’s provinces. Public forms of its organized activities have virtually disappeared, and its overt acts of defiance have dropped precipitously between 1999 and 2011. At the same time, the decline has not been continuous or inexorable, with at least a few provinces reporting the Falun Gong as a serious local law and order problem every year from 1999 to 2008.

Below the surface Falun Gong practitioners have been engaging in many organized activities. Many of them still participate in small group meetings, usually in someone’s home, while larger gatherings are held as Fa conferences which take place on special occasions, like the anniversary of the official crackdown and the birthday of Li Hongzhi, with liturgical rituals including altar decorations, Falun Gong music, commemorating the deceased, reading Falun Gong scriptures, moderated discussion of spiritual topics, and assignment of collective tasks. Falun Gong practitioners also adhere to the call of their Grand Master Li Hongzhi to ‘clarify the truth’ about their beliefs as well as persecution by the regime, in both verbal and written form, using passive drop-and-run tactics to leave apologetic literature at random or selected targets, or through more active, interactive proselytizing conversations. For both the Fa conferences and the ‘Clarify the Truth’ campaign, practitioners are connected to each other and to their global community through the vast Falun Gong telecommunications network outside China, and a proliferating system of domestic, cellular material centers that feed local information to the universal community, as well as to download, print, and distribute hard copies of news items to local Falun Gong groups.

On the tenth anniversary of the suppression of the Falun Gong in China, one may well ponder why the authoritarian regime was able to emasculate but not eradicate what its top leader considered to be the most serious domestic political threat since the 1989 Democracy Movement. Has the regime that once crushed demonstrating students with tanks become mellow, second-guessing itself about the expected utility of nipping another domestic challenger? Is it a case of calculated inaction, where the price of the pyrrhic victory was considered too costly for China’s newfound international status? Or is it rather that the Anti-Falun Gong Campaign had a limited objective in the first place, including only the liquidation of its national and provincial leadership, decimation of its organizational structure, the purge of Falun Gong adherents who were inside the Communist Party, sanctions for its collective actions that breached the law, but excluding grassroots practitioners who do breathing exercises and read Falun Gong mantra in the solitude of their homes, or even gather for piety and not for protest? And since the regime has delegated law-enforcement authority relating to the Falun Gong to local governments, should explanations for regional variations in repressive efficacy be sought not at the central but at the local levels, which differ significantly in their willingness and ability to deal with the outlawed sect? Or is it the case that China cannot be the exception to the general rule that few governments can exterminate well-entrenched and committed ideologues, determined insurgents, and underground churches, especially one that has metathesized and nourished by daily and easy international contact with a well-established global community that enjoys international protection? These are questions that need to be addressed in subsequent studies.