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Hong Kong Lawmakers Leave Xi Jinping With a Falun Gong Dilemma

◎ The following analysis was first published in the July 8, 2021 edition of our subscriber-only SinoWeekly Plus newsletter. Subscribe to SinoInsider to view past analyses in our newsletter archive.


Pro-establishment Hong Kong lawmakers pressed Secretary for Security Chris Tang on the issue of Falun Gong during a meeting of the Legislative Council (LegCo) on July 7 (starting from 12:39:40 in the LegCo’s recording of the meeting). 

Elizabeth Quat, a member of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), said that Falun Gong has been active in Hong Kong for over two decades despite the PRC having banned the spiritual discipline from July 1999. She added that “external forces are making use of ‘religious groups’ and ‘media organizations’ and so on as a disguise for extending anti-China forces in the city” before accusing Falun Gong of being “one of these ‘fake organizations’ that aims to subvert state power.” Thus, Falun Gong “should be immediately outlawed,” Quat argued. She then asked the Hong Kong government to investigate whether the Falun Gong in Hong Kong carried out “illegal fund-rising activities and received overseas funding,” and whether the government will ban Falun Gong and restrict its activities. 

Two other DAB members, Holden Chow and Wong Ting-kwong, asked Chris Tang if Falun Gong or other political parties were involved in the July 1 police officer stabbing incident. Wong also noted that “lone-wolf terrorists” can be easily influenced by “radical publications.” (By “radical publications, Wong is almost certainly referring to Falun Gong-linked media like The Epoch Times and pro-democracy media in Hong Kong.)

Wong Kwok-kin, a Federation of Trade Unions lawmaker and a LegCo Executive Council member, called for an investigation into Falun Gong’s assets and use the Hong Kong National Security Law (NSL) to freeze said assets in the event of legal violations. 

Junius Ho, a controversial pro-establishment lawmaker who shook hands with the triad elements who attacked pro-democracy protesters and passers-by during the 2019 Yuen Long incident, asked how the Hong Kong government would deal with Falun Gong or other “subversive” groups designated by the CCP following the passage of Article 23 of the Basic Law. 

Paul Tse, an independent pro-establishment lawmaker, argued that the Hong Kong government could have earlier “enforced” the law on the books to “handle” Falun Gong before the imposition of the NSL. He then asked why the government has been “weak” in “handling” Falun Gong all these years, why Falun Gong information street stalls are allowed to be set up, and why the government has been “negligent” on the Falun Gong issue for many years. 

Chris Tang read from his notes for the most part in responding to the pro-establishment lawmakers. He spoke in generalities and barely made any references to Falun Gong. Tang also frequently cited verbatim from the NSL or Hong Kong’s Basic Law. 

Highlights from Tang’s replies include:
1. Tang noted that “nobody is above the law” and the NSL in Hong Kong, and that the Hong Kong government will operate in accordance with the law. He added that opposition to the CCP and the socialist system per the PRC constitution is a breach of the NSL, and cautioned Hong Kong residents against supporting or funding individuals, institutions, and organizations who “endanger the country and subvert national security.”

2. Tang noted that while the Hong Kong government will investigate funding and other NSL related complaints, it will not publicly comment on individual cases or whether specific organizations are in breach of the NSL.

Tang also noted that “there have been numerous accusations concerning whether Falun Gong has violated the national security law” and that the Hong Kong government is looking into them. “Further action will be taken if there is evidence,” he repeated in responding to different lawmakers. 

3. Tang read out Article 4 of the NSL, which states that “human rights shall be respected and protected in safeguarding national security” in Hong Kong, as well as the protection of “freedoms of speech, of the press, of publication, of association, of assembly, of procession and of demonstration” that Hong Kong residents enjoy under the Basic Law. 

4. In responding to queries about links between Falun Gong and the July 1 stabbing incident, Tang noted that the “current evidence shows that there is no more than one perpetuator.” He added that there is ongoing investigation into whether the perpetrator was inspired by other people. 

5. In responding to a query about Article 23 of the Basic Law, Tang said that more work needs to be put into the legislation and it would be “very difficult” to pass it before the conclusion of the current LegCo (the sixth). Elections for the next LegCo (the seventh) is currently scheduled for Dec. 21, 2021. 

6. In responding to why the Hong Kong government did not take action against Falun Gong before the imposition of the NSL, Tang said that the NSL makes law enforcement “more effective.” He added that the government has been removing “unauthorized” publications from Falun Gong and other groups from government premises since 2013, and that Falun Gong-specific publications have been removed 3,525 times. 

OUR TAKE
1. In analyzing the questions by the pro-establishment lawmakers and Chris Tang’s replies, it seems highly unlikely that either side was acting on their own volition. 

As we noted above, Tang mostly stuck to his prepared notes, which dealt in generalities and did not offer any clarification on whether Falun Gong was in breach of the NSL. He also did not offer additional insights beyond what the public has already been speculating about Falun Gong and the NSL, i.e. that the Hong Kong government is investigating Falun Gong on national security grounds. Tang’s careful, non-definitive response, as well as his senior position in the Hong Kong government and supra-authority national security apparatus, suggest that he is following explicit Party Central guidance in handling the Falun Gong issue in Hong Kong. 

Meanwhile, the pro-establishment lawmakers mostly repeated CCP talking points about Falun Gong and were clearly egging on the Hong Kong government to take action against the spiritual discipline. In particular, the lawmakers sought to blame Falun Gong for the July 1 stabbing incident in what appears to be the first major effort by pro-CCP elements to create disinformation and attack anti-CCP elements in the city. That the lawmakers harbor ulterior motives is also evident from their effort to hold Falun Gong “accountable” now despite having had ample opportunities to do so in the past two decades. 

2. In considering the discussion about Falun Gong in the July 7 LegCo meeting solely from the perspective of CCP characteristics and operations, it appears that the Party is laying the groundwork to expand the Falun Gong persecution campaign in Hong Kong. 

The CCP may believe that the time is now ripe to target Falun Gong in Hong Kong owing to several factors: 

  • With the imposition of the NSL and the passage of Article 23 looking inevitable, the Hong Kong government and the CCP can finally move against Falun Gong practitioners in Hong Kong “in accordance with the law”while deflecting criticism from the international community.  
  • The July 1 stabbing incident affords the CCP a convenient excuse to openly investigate and take down Falun Gong in Hong Kong under the guise of preserving national security.
  • In the face of mounting domestic and external problems for the regime, the Party needs to eliminate all opposition to its rule and get its own house (including Hong Kong) in order as soon as possible to have one less crisis to worry about. 
  • The arrest of prominent Hong Kong pro-democracy figures and shut down of Apple Daily leaves very few voices capable of defending Falun Gong in the event of a crackdown. 
  • Taking major action against Falun Gong in Hong Kong around the anniversary of the persecution campaign on the mainland (July 20) would be a victory for the CCP. 

If the CCP is preparing to move in on Falun Gong in Hong Kong, then the July 7 LegCo exchange between pro-establishment lawmakers and Secretary for Security Chris Tang is merely an act to provide a veneer of legitimacy to future proceedings. The lawmakers played the role of “concerned” elected representatives troubled by how an “illegal fake organization” is “radicalizing” the Hong Kong population through organization-linked media outlets and conspicuous activism. Meanwhile, Tang played the role of an “impartial” senior law enforcement official assuring legislators and the public that investigations are being carried out without any bias and guilty parties will be handled “in accordance with the law.” When a crackdown does come and there is huge international uproar, the Hong Kong government and the CCP can point back to the LegCo meeting to claim that everything was done by the books. 

3. Interpreting the July 7 LegCo meeting, however, becomes less straightforward when factoring in factional struggle in the CCP elite.

As we previously explained, the Falun Gong persecution campaign, a political legacy of former Party boss Jiang Zemin and the Jiang faction, is a key fracture point in the struggle between the Jiang faction and the Xi Jinping camp. Based on our research, Xi and some members of his inner circle neither expressed a clear stance (biao tai, 表態) nor actively engaged in the persecution of Falun Gong before coming to power in 2012. This contrasts with many members of the Jiang faction, including top lieutenants like Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang who rose swiftly up the official ranks owing to their diligent efforts to carry out Jiang’s persecution campaign. Further, it is widely known (at least in Chinese dissident circles) that many relatives of senior CCP officials and Party princelings, including Xi’s, had practiced Falun Gong before the crackdown on the mainland in 1999. Wang Youqun, the former aide to Jiang’s anti-corruption chief Wei Jianxing and an Epoch Times columnist, said in an interview that there was a Falun Gong practice site in Zhongnanhai before the persecution where senior officials and their relatives would frequent to do Falun Gong exercises. 

The Xi camp’s unclear stance on Falun Gong represents an existential threat to the Jiang faction. Since the founding of the PRC, Party bosses have gone to great lengths to preserve their political legacies (whether positive or negative), even if it means replacing handpicked successors or carrying out deadly purges. For instance, Mao Zedong mercilessly purged Liu Shaoqi and Peng Dehuai, his fellow founding revolutionaries, for criticizing his Great Leap Forward campaign, and later turned on his own successor Lin Biao. Meanwhile, Deng Xiaoping had Zhao Ziyang removed over the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and threatened to remove Jiang Zemin when the latter appeared undecided about pursuing Deng’s “reform and opening up.” 

For Jiang and his faction, Xi’s ambiguous stance on Falun Gong raises the possibility that the persecution against it could be lifted and the group “rehabilitated” (平反) under his leadership. Given previous examples of CCP leaders looking to protect their legacies in retirement, the Jiang faction has a natural incentive to prevent such a reversal at all costs—in the event of Falun Gong’s rehabilitation under the current leadership, blame for the persecution would certainly be pinned on those who began and carried out the campaign. 

We have identified repeated attempts by the Jiang faction or its affiliates to force Xi’s hand on the Falun Gong issue, either by having him clarify his stance or getting current leaders to actively take charge of the persecution—which carries the baggage of slave labor, torture and psychological abuse, and forced organ harvesting. Having the Xi leadership “take the reins” from Jiang’s factional network under the cover of routine CCP operations and ideology would offer them a measure of protection, as accomplices in a crime are less likely to betray one another. 

Xi, however, has largely resisted taking on the Jiang faction’s “ownership” of the persecution, and appears to be playing the Falun Gong card to gain leverage in the factional struggle. While the Falun Gong persecution campaign remains on the books, Xi has taken steps that amount to weakening the persecution mechanism, including closing the labor camp system in 2012 (Falun Gong practitioners made up more than half of the labor camp population during the Jiang era), condemning the “610 Office” in 2016 and dissolving it in 2018, shutting down paid services in military and paramilitary hospitals (the Chinese state-run hospital system is believed to be deeply connected with forced organ harvesting) during his second term, and continually purging personnel involved in the anti-Falun Gong campaign. Xi’s moves would come as body blows to the Jiang faction, and they also coincided with critical moments of power consolidation for the former; the “610 Office” was targeted in the years that Xi acquired the “Party core leader” title and did away with presidential term limits (2016 and 2018).

In the past seven months, factional fighting in the CCP elite over Falun Gong appears to have come to the fore in Hong Kong. On the one hand, there have been developments uncharacteristic of the CCP regarding Falun Gong in the city, such as the disbanding of the anti-Falun Gong Hong Kong Youth Care Association at the end of 2020, Hong Kong police unprecedentedly arresting thugs who attacked Falun Gong booths on two occasions, and the Hong Kong government’s general lack of action against Falun Gong despite the passage of the NSL in June 2020. On the other hand, thugs assaulted the Hong Kong printing press of the Falun Gong-linked Epoch Times and assaulted a local Epoch Times reporter with a baseball bat. 

In considering the factional struggle angle, the July 7 LegCo discussion on Falun Gong between pro-establishment lawmakers and Chris Tang seems to be another public manifestation of the Xi-Jiang struggle, with Tang speaking for Party Central (Xi). Meanwhile, by highlighting the Falun Gong issue at the time that they did, the lawmakers appear to paint themselves as representing the views of deeply entrenched factional forces in Hong Kong (Jiang faction). 

4. From the perspective of  CCP characteristics and operations alone, it is only a matter of time before Falun Gong in Hong Kong meets with suppression by the CCP as the NSL, Article 23, and other measures are taken to dismantle the city’s freedoms. This eventuality, however, becomes far less certain after factional struggle factors are taken into consideration. 

Xi Jinping’s actions in recent months indicate clearly that he is boosting his “quan wei” in hopes of paving the way for a norm-breaking third term in office at the 20th Party Congress in 2022. But with domestic and external problems growing more severe for the PRC and providing ready-made reasons for his factional rivals to legitimately challenge his third term bid, Xi has to keep all options on the table, including the Falun Gong card. 

In our special report on the coronavirus pandemic and its implications for CCP factional struggle, we identified a shift in the rules of the political game in Zhongnanhai, with anti-Xi elites expressing willingness to remove or marginalize him even if Xi’s ouster means the end of Communist Party rule and a Soviet-style transition. 

In such “perish together” factional struggle, factional or personal interests may trump the interests of the CCP regime. Accordingly, as resentment and disloyalty to the current leadership grow, Xi’s greater concern becomes deflecting the attacks of his factional rivals, including preventing the Jiang faction and the broader “anti-Xi coalition” from turning Hong Kong into an “anti-Xi” base from which to undermine his third term ambitions in the near term. As Falun Gong adherents display “Heaven Will Destroy the CCP” (天滅中共) banners in the streets of Hong Kong,” the local authorities’ inactivity a full year after the implementation of the NSL seems less a coincidental bureaucratic delay, and more an exercise in deliberate ambiguity on Beijing’s part, as Xi looks to avoid any moves that give the Jiang faction an advantage. 

Should Xi intend to maintain the “Falun Gong card” with the implicit threat of undoing the Jiang faction’s legacy, then he will likely forestall any serious suppression of Falun Gong in Hong Kong until after the 20th Party Congress at earliest. Falun Gong could see an increase in “soft” restrictions on their activity in the territory, including curbs on street stalls, practitioners being placed under surveillance, and tighter financial regulation. However, Hong Kong law enforcement officials could turn a “blind eye” to other Falun Gong activities (such as media operations), pending further guidance from Beijing.

Xi’s continued “tolerance” of Falun Gong in Hong Kong, however, will only increase fears among Jiang factionalists and give them greater incentive to drive the struggle with Xi to a conclusion. To goad Xi into “taking” responsibility for the persecution, the Jiang faction could use its networks in Hong Kong to stage false-flag operations (already, incidents in the city involving Falun Gong or The Epoch Times are reported in the context of the NSL and the overall authoritarian trend under Xi), as well as work with the “anti-Xi coalition” inside and outside China to shift blame for the persecution of Falun Gong to Xi. For instance, media outlets and experts who benefit from the “anti-Xi, not anti-CCP” agenda could use growing reports of organ harvesting among Uyghur detainees to claim Xi’s culpability in the crime, while airbrushing the period in the 2000s during which CCP officials affiliated with Jiang expanded the prisoner transplant system to deal with incarcerated Falun Gong practitioners. International focus on the CCP’s moves against Falun Gong in Hong Kong and Xi’s real or assumed role in it will steeply raise the personal political risks facing the Chinese leader, escalate infighting in the CCP elite, and further complicate Xi’s prospects for a third term. 

Growing governmental attention to Falun Gong in Hong Kong threatens to spill CCP factional fighting out into the open ahead of key Party meetings and deliberations (Beidaihe, Sixth Plenum, 20th Party Congress, etc.). Serious escalation of the Xi-Jiang struggle foreshadows the arrival of the CCP’s “Berlin Wall moment.” Businesses, investors, and governments must track CCP factional struggle developments and how the Hong Kong government handles the Falun Gong issue to avoid being blindsided by political Black Swans in China. 

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