On 25. April 1999, 10,000 supporters of the mysterious Falun Gong movement demonstrated in the heart of Beijing. It was the biggest demonstration since the student protests of 1989. The communist leadership cracked down, banning the movement and launching a massive propaganda campaign. Today, the loose movement -- whose head Li Hongzhi is based in the US -- has followers all over the world, including in Germany.
Protests against the persecution of Falun Gong followers take place regularly in German cities
On a Saturday in Germany, it is not uncommon to see groups of activists handing out leaflets to passers-by about Falun Gong.
Ralf Gronau, who has been practising Falun Gong for over seven years, explains that it “is a very old tradition in China. It is basically a qigong school. On top of that, there’s a philosophical doctrine which has its source in Buddhism.”
Every week, Gronau stands in front of Cologne’s imposing cathedral protesting against the persecution of Falun Gong in China, where the movement has been banned since 1999.
10,000 Falun Gong followers on the streets of Beijing
In April 1999 in Beijing, just a few metres from Tiananmen Square, a group of Falun Gong followers gathered to protest in silence against what they considered unfair coverage about the movement by the media. Soon, there were over 10,000 people on the street.
It was the biggest demonstration since the student protests one decade before. It came as a shock to the Chinese government, says Thomas Heberer, a professor for East Asian politics at the University of Duisburg-Essen.
"For the first time, the political leadership and the security agencies became aware that there was an organisation with a lot of power that could organise significant demonstrations,“ Heberer adds.
The alarm bells went off in Beijing -- especially because Falun Gong’s influence reached into the highest echelons of power. Falun Gong was labelled a dangerous "evil cult" and supporters started disappearing into labour camps. Those who were later released said they had been abused and tortured.
Allegation versus allegation
At the same time, the government launched a propaganda campaign against the movement. Claims that Falun Gong supporters were not allowed to use medicine and that many people had died as a consequence were spread. Falun Gong supporters supposedly isolated themselves from society and let their families in the lurch.
The worst allegation was that the movement drove its supporters to suicide. According to the official Chinese version, a thousand people have died because of Falun Gong. Falun Gong rejects all these claims and fires back with its own allegations.
The New Tang Dynasty station, that has close links with Falun Gong, accuses the Chinese government of systematic torture. Moreover, it says that Falun Gong supporters have been subjected to operations to remove their organs, which are then sold at high prices. They even say there are death camps and draw comparisons with the Holocaust.
However, these allegations are considered by many observers just as dubious as those of the government.
What is certain is that many supporters of Falun Gong have been persecuted. Experts, such as Thomas Heberer, say this is normal practice when the government feels China’s stability is under threat.
Back in Cologne, Falun Gong supporter Ralf Gronau says he will continue distributing leaflets until the persecution ceases and the movement is legalised in China.