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“They could not imagine it was all fabricated,” she said.
After the persecution started on July 20, 1999, all of the media in China began running articles attacking Falun Gong. Sometimes the media would simply make up stories out of whole cloth. At other times, it would claim Falun Gong was responsible for terrible things that really happened, but that had nothing to do with Falun Gong.
Tourists visit Tiananmen Square on Nov. 14, 2013, in Beijing, China. On Jan. 23, 2001, the Chinese regime staged “self-immolations” by alleged Falun Gong practitioners and then featured video of the fabricated event in propaganda attacking the group. (Feng Li/Getty Images)
There must be a special circle of hell reserved for those who devote their lives to molding the souls of their countrymen so that they accept evil doctrines.
The Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels knew how to use a big lie, repeated over and over, to inflame his countrymen with hatred for the Jews.
Leni Riefenstahl, a consummate filmmaker, understood the power of a sublime image to make fascism seem to be powerful and inevitable to the Germans.
Like Goebbels and Riefenstahl, Li Dongsheng, the man responsible for selling the persecution of the spiritual practice Falun Gong to the Chinese people, worked to make hatred respectable.
For the past 14 years, Li was first a deputy director and then director of the 610 Office, the extra-constitutional Party organ tasked with eradicating the Falun Gong (also known as Falun Dafa) practice.
He came to the 610 Office from China Central Television (CCTV), where he was deputy director from 1993 to 2000 and in charge of its prime-time Focus news magazine program.
When then-paramount leader Jiang Zemin created the 610 Office on June 10, 1999, in anticipation of launching the campaign against Falun Gong a little more than a month later, Li signed on as the deputy director in charge of propaganda.
Jiang felt this campaign was needed because he feared the popularity of Falun Gong and the power of its traditional moral teachings.
According to official figures, in 1999 more than 70 million people in China—more than the CCP’s membership—were practicing Falun Gong. Falun Gong practitioners say the true number was over 100 million.
Beyond the numbers, Jiang saw the content of Falun Gong as a threat. Falun Gong involves doing gentle, meditative exercises and living according to teachings based on the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance.
In a letter Jiang sent to members of the Politburo on the night of April 25, 1999, he cast the need for a campaign against Falun Gong in ideological terms: “Can the Marxism, materialism and atheism that our Communist Party members uphold not win the battle with what Falun Gong promotes? This is absolutely ridiculous!”
While Jiang saw a battle that needed to be waged, the practitioners of Falun Gong wanted only to tell people about their practice.
Li Dongsheng’s job was to win Jiang Zemin’s ideological battle.
After the persecution started on July 20, 1999, all of the media in China began running articles attacking Falun Gong. Sometimes the media would simply make up stories out of whole cloth. At other times, it would claim Falun Gong was responsible for terrible thingsthat really happened, but that had nothing to do with Falun Gong.
For instance, if a psychotic murdered others, the media would claim he did this because of practicing Falun Gong. Falun Gong practitioners would investigate these stories and show they were false, but they didn’t have the giant bullhorn of the CCP’s media to get their message across.
Jim Li, a college student at Beijing University at the time, took up Falun Gong after immigrating to the United States, where he now teaches in a college.
“A lot of people knew about Falun Gong,” Li said about the situation in China when the persecution started. “Most people knew it was popular. It was considered to be something good.”
“Then suddenly there was a huge political campaign and a lot of propaganda,” Li said. “They didn’t know how to think about the conflicting information. A lot of people were puzzled. From their personal experience, they knew Falun Gong was good. But from what was said, they saw something suspicious was going on.”
On Jan. 23, 2001, things changed. Five people identified by CCTV as Falun Gong practitioners immolated themselves on Tiananmen Square. Within two hours, CCTV airedreports of the immolations and then continued airing reports.
This time, the CCP’s propaganda struck a nerve.
“News about the immolations appeared several times a day,” Jim Li said. “It was overwhelming. People saw graphic images and harsh language. They were bombarded with this.”
Jennifer Zeng was a Communist Party member and researcher for the State Council who had been arrested in April 2000 for her belief in Falun Gong. She was held in a labor camp when the immolations took place.
“After I was released from the labor camp, a few months after the immolations, I found there had been a profound change in people’s attitudes toward Falun Gong,” Zeng said. “At that time, I think a majority of the people were deceived by the reports.”
“There were so many shocking and vivid images—the burning bodies and the child crying, ‘Mom, Mom, Mom.’ [The CCTV video showed a close-up of the child’s burned face as she cried for her mother when she was loaded into an ambulance.]
“And they had a lot of follow-up pieces, like interviewing the 12-year-old girl in the hospital and people coming on the TV to criticize Falun Gong,” Zeng said.
“People believe what they see,” Zeng said. “This really turned all the public opinion against Falun Gong.”
According to Jim Li, the immolations aroused hatred toward Falun Gong practitioners.
Terry Xu was an associate professor of civil engineering at the elite Tsinghua University in Beijing at the time of the immolations and is a Falun Gong practitioner who now teaches ina college in the United States.
“After the self-immolations were broadcast, people found Falun Gong to be something terrifying,” Xu said. “They believed people would harm themselves or kill themselves, [that] they would go insane because of this.”
“This was used as the main excuse by the law enforcement units, the labor camps, to arrest and brainwash practitioners,” Xu said. “The immolations seemed to show Falun Gong would harm people, so the policemen used this as a means to arrest practitioners.”
Jennifer Zeng experienced the effect of the immolation videos in the labor camp. From the beginning, the guards in the camp told the practitioners that when the guards mistreated them, it was for their own good. But after the immolations were aired, the guards had a good conscience about the way they abused practitioners, Zeng said.
“They could not imagine it was all fabricated,” she said.
A Staged Event
In July 2001, New Tang Dynasty Television (NTD) aired a documentary that took a careful look at the CCTV propaganda.
NTD showed how police were present on Tiananmen Square with fire extinguishers before the immolations took place, as though they were waiting for the immolations to happen.
While CCTV claimed the video of the event was confiscated from CNN, CNN denied this. The video clearly shows, though, a Chinese cameramen filming close-ups undisturbed bypolice—something unimaginable in China unless the cameraman is working with the police.
One of the immolators was shown “on fire” with a plastic Sprite bottle between his legs. The Sprite bottle was said to be full of gasoline, yet it did not explode and was neither melted nor blackened with soot. The immolator’s hair was also untouched by the flames that had supposedly engulfed him.
The child, Liu Siying, was interviewed in the hospital days after the immolations and after having had a tracheotomy, something surgeons say should have been impossible, as the child would not have been able to speak.
According to a report done by the Washington Post, none of the neighbors of the child’s mother had ever seen her practice Falun Gong. They did see her beat her child and her mother, actions contrary to Falun Gong teachings.
Li Dongsheng’s End
The immolation videos were the highpoint of Li Dongsheng’s efforts to make the Chinese people hate Falun Gong. According to a report by the World Organization to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong, the propaganda attacking Falun Gong proved so ineffective that after 2005, the regime mostly stopped using it.
Li was not only in charge of propaganda. His portfolio also included responsibility for brainwashing practitioners. In 2009, he was named director of the 610 Office, and then took command of the whole, massive effort to uproot Falun Gong from China.
During Li’s 14 years in the leadership of the 610 Office, the Falun Dafa Information Center has confirmed that over 3,700 Falun Gong practitioners have been killed by torture and abuse. The true number is believed to be much higher. In addition, tens of thousands are believed to have been murdered through the practice of forced organ harvesting.
Li’s career with the Chinese Communist Party is now over. On Dec. 20, the Party announced he was being investigated, which means he is now undergoing an abusive style of interrogation the Party reserves for its own.
The announcement of the investigation of Li only mentioned “serious crimes.” It did not suggest he was being punished for his work in persecuting Falun Gong. Several news stories have treated his arrest as part of the ongoing power struggle in Beijing.
“On the surface, this is because of a power struggle,” the engineering professor Xu said. “The Chinese have a saying that good will be rewarded with good, and evil with evil. Because the CCP fabricated these stories to demonize Falun Gong, Li Dongsheng is now suffering retribution. All of the others involved in these crimes will eventually also get what they deserve.”