China’s Dark Disease: How the Communist Party Hijacked the Healthcare System for Power

This month, in honor of World Health Day, we are telling the story of Falun Gong through the lens of health.

Health is the cornerstone to personal happiness and the bedrock of a thriving society. However, in the upside-down world of Communist China, a gentle meditation exercise called Falun Gong, once touted by the government for bringing good health to the citizenry, became its target for annihilation seemingly overnight. This is the story of how the Chinese Communist Party forsook the wellbeing of billions of people for the sake of maintaining its power, and how in the process, it turned the national hospital system into a massive killing machine.

Part 1: A Resurgence

It was the 1980s and early 1990s and the qigong craze was red-hot. Having survived the Cultural Revolution with significant trauma, the Chinese people were finding ways to reconnect with their ancient spiritual traditions without risking being denounced as backward or anti-revolutionary. Try as it did to obliterate ancient Chinese spiritual practices, the CCP could not remove it from people’s hearts.

Rather than returning to traditional modes of religious expression, Chinese spiritualists got to work repackaging ancient philosophy into innocuous, secular-sounding exercises generically called “qigong” (literally “energy work”). These practices touted longevity, better energy, the reduction of illness, etc. Soon, hundreds of qigong founders could be found interacting with a qigong-hungry public. Each morning, Chinese of all ages flocked to public parks to practice various styles of yoga-like exercises.

Based on the ancient mediation and cultivation systems of the Buddha and Dao schools, these practices fulfilled a deep need for rediscovering Chinese identity after decades of cultural upheaval, but the craze also opened the door to lots of quacks. Some self-proclaimed “masters” claimed that by becoming an exclusive member of their school, practitioners would develop super powers—mind reading, levitation, the ability to disappear—or that they could release healing energy from their bodies, allowing them to become qigong masters themselves over the course of a three-day workshop. The practices themselves began to look weirder and weirder, with many imitating the postures and movements of weasels and other animals. Masters sold overpriced teas laced with mystical healing energy. Some practices were outright dangerous, claiming that by fasting for long periods, practitioners could achieve spiritual elevation. Meanwhile, the most successful of these gurus amassed mansions and luxury cars. An industry had been born.

Under the guise of fashion, the Chinese were able to explore the occult. Everyone was doing it. Many enthusiasts tried dozens of qigong practices; most out of sheer curiosity but among them were people genuinely hoping to find something that resonated, and that could satisfy a deeper spiritual yearning.

Part 2: A Picture of Health

While conventional practices vied for followers, one came onto the scene that made all of China take notice. Hailing from the northeastern town of Changchun, Li Hongzhi had practiced with Buddhist and Daoist masters in his youth. In 1992, Li began lecturing throughout the country, making these ancient cultivation methods accessible to the general public. His talks were unlike others’. Falun Dafa, also called Falun Gong, teaches the principles of truth, compassion and forbearance and emphasized character-building and virtue—rather than physical exercises and supernormal powers—as the true path to health and spiritual elevation. Li charged only small entrance fees to cover the costs of traveling and venue rentals. Though he never advertised speaking engagements, they had the greatest turnout, its amazing effect on improving health eventually attracting thousands at a time by word of mouth.

By 1999, according to China’s official estimates, 70 to 100 million people were studying Falun Dafa, not counting the many more who had casually practiced it at some point. A huge reason for Falun Gong’s popular appeal is its simple and straightforward requirements for practitioners: live your life according to truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance (Falun Gong’s core tenets); hold yourself to high standards, let go of negative attachments, and be responsible to yourself and others. Li disliked the fanaticism practitioners of other qigong schools so often dedicated to their masters, and encouraged Falun Gong practitioners to focus on what matters—self-cultivation. The Chinese public quickly recognized Falun Dafa as a truly useful set of principles for living a meaningful life. This attracted practitioners from all backgrounds: from barely literate farmers to homemakers, from university professors to Communist cadres.

Falun Dafa taught that only with elevation of thought and behavior could true and lasting health follow. And so it was. A 1998 survey of 6,000 practitioners in Dalian city showed a near-complete recovery rate among those with diseases. So did similar studies in other Chinese cities and Russia. Even chronic and terminal patients—such as those with cancer, immunological diseases, and neurological problems—showed marked or complete recovery by practicing Falun Dafa, and without the help of medical intervention. A later study in 2016 by an Australian researcher found that Falun Gong practitioners reported fewer health problems, better mood, and much lower drug and alcohol use compared to non-practitioners. These cases demonstrated that the practice worked on the individual’s holistic health—emotionally, mentally, and physically.

In a Feb. 22, 1999 interview with US News & World Report, a Chinese sports commission official praised the practice for reducing the state’s medical costs:

“Falun Gong and other types of qigong can save each person 1,000 yuan in annual medical fees. If 100 million people are practicing it, that’s 100 billion yuan saved per year in medical fees,” the official said, adding that Premier Zhu Rongji was very happy about this.

Unfortunately, Falun Dafa’s good reputation drew attention from less enthusiastic observers within the communist party. As early as 1996, the publication of Falun Dafa’s main book, Zhuan Falun, was banned by government censors. Atheistic party hardliners looked askance at faith groups in general, and Falun Gong in particular, precisely because of its immense popularity.

Jiang Zemin, a Shanghai bureaucrat, was chosen to lead the CCP leader after he actively supported the Tiananmen crackdown on students by censoring students in his jurisdiction. Naturally, he was nervous about anything outside his control that could win the people’s heart. Seeing that so many people admired Master Li Hongzhi, he became jealous and decided that the practice had to be annihilated.

In the summer of 1999 Zemin acted independently of the People’s Congress to launch a crackdown on the practice. He established the 610 office (later nicknamed “China’s Gestapo”) to kidnap and extrajudicially incarcerate practitioners en masse. In true genocidal dictator fashion, he announced his goal of “defaming their reputations, bankrupting them financially, and destroying them physically.” Meanwhile, the entire state-controlled media apparatus dutifully went into overdrive to justify the crackdown.

Part 3: Willful Misdiagnosis

The most powerful weapon in the communist arsenal is public opinion. In the later 1990s, China’s state-run media outlets had a lot of minds to turn. With over 70 million practitioners, many people had a first- or second-hand account of Falun Gong’s real benefits. If they didn’t, they certainly had heard about the practice in glowing terms through state-run media itself. To pull off this about-face, the CCP had to first elicit doubt about Falun Gong’s greatest selling point: health. So it had to warn the public about Falun Gong’s detrimental health effects.

Falsified reports of mental illness attributed to the practice were broadcast on state television. On the eve of Lunar New Year, 2001 (perfectly timed for maximum viewership), actors were hired to set themselves on fire on Tiananmen Square. They were alleged to be Falun Gong practitioners, committing suicide to reach heaven. Just before they went up in flames, however, policemen had already arrived with fire extinguishers and all the actors were ambulanced away unscathed. (See the documentary False Fire for analysis of the news footage.)

As a Chinese citizen hearing these frequent negative reports, one had to wonder: I haven’t heard of these things myself, but maybe they do happen outside of my knowledge; besides, why would the government say Falun Gong was evil if it weren’t actually dangerous for us?

Being decidedly apolitical, the meditation practice posed no direct threat to the Communist Party’s power. It was precisely because of this that the government’s supposedly altruistic motivations for eliminating it came with an air of credibility.

Unjust as libel is by itself, these lies had real consequences. Healthy people were deemed “insane” if they did not keel under the pressure to stop practicing—because who in their right minds would continue following a faith that the whole society has agreed is harmful? Thus, practitioners were forced psychotropic drugs and other dangerous treatments to cure them of their supposed delusion. The administers took the behavioral effects of these substances as further evidence that the practice produced ill effects, and the cycle of needless torment continued. Brainwashing centers pumped visual and audio propaganda into the minds of adherents for days on end until they could no longer tell apart their own thoughts from those manufactured by the state.

A 2002 paper published in The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law described the extent of psychiatric abuse in China’s mental hospitals:

“Human rights groups now estimate that there are 1,000 Falun Gong practitioners being held against their will in mental hospitals. The actual number is very likely many times higher. The lengths of these detentions range from a few days to 1.5 years. The perversion of mental health facilities for the purpose of the torture of Falun Gong practitioners is widespread. At least 57 hospitals in 36 cities are known to be involved in the illegal detention of practitioners, with some of them located in major cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, and Wuhan. At least 6 of the 320 documented deaths caused by official mistreatment have been the result of abuse of psychiatric treatment.”

It is difficult to imagine the breadth of this persecution. Those who had been forced into such treatments were perfectly well functioning people, often successful professionals as well as mothers, fathers and elderly people simply exercising to improve their health and trying to improve their characters, who had simply refused to declare that they would give up their practice of Falun Gong.

Many other false news reports were used to justify real medical actions against practitioners, whose families are often denied access to information about what drugs were administered and why. Deemed categorically unfit, anyone who identified as a practitioner fell to the whim of the state. Incarcerated practitioners sometimes protested by refusing food, at which point they would be force-fed via tubes inserted through the esophagus, arguably for the sake of keeping them alive so as to continue their “treatment.” Just before they are tortured to the point of death, they are released, left to their own devices—or left for dead.

Part 4: Doctors of Death

The first major reports of organs being harvested from imprisoned Falun Gong practitioners were unveiled in 2006. In a few short years, Falun Gong practitioners had gone from normal and respected members of society to becoming its reviled underclass. Now, it was revealed, that their bodies were being sold for parts.

China has no cultural tradition of organ donation, nor a voluntary donation system. Since the 1980s, organs were extracted from executed prisoners. The fact all of a sudden Chinese hospitals were advertising short wait times for livers and lungs transplants with no corresponding increase in executed criminals would have been a surprise for anyone who stopped to consider where so many organs came from. Many people, particularly desperate transplant patients, didn’t think too much of it, and flew to China for their speedy surgeries.

Canadian MP David Kilgour and human rights lawyer David Matas looked into China’s booming transplant industry and discovered substantial evidence of China’s killing machinery. Unlike illicit organ trades in other countries, these organs didn’t come from the desperate poor willing to trade a kidney for cash, or unsuspecting individuals kidnapped by gangs. In China’s case, the butcher was state-sanctioned, and the black market was China’s transplant industry itself.

Joined by Ethan Gutmann, Kilgour and Matas released an update to their research in 2016. “Bloody Harvest/ The Slaughter — An Update” details the types and locations of the transplant centers, the volume, organ type, and frequency of transplants, and sources of the organs. Numerous documentaries have been produced in the past decade showing that the short wait times and organ availability advertised to medical tourists meant that the organs couldn’t have any other possible source: prisoners were being killed on demand.

Furthermore, eye-witnesses have come forth to tell what they’ve seen, or what they’ve had to do, in hospitals where they worked. Practitioners who have somehow escaped the prison system tell of routine blood typing and medical exams whose purposes were not told. Doctors have since confirmed that those sorts of tests are necessary to find out whether a “donor” could be a match for the hopeful transplant patient who had just arrived at the surgical suite down the street. To keep up with the pace, Chinese pharmaceutical laboratories and their international partners have developed chemicals to help keep organs fresh in transit. Execution vans have reportedly been in use since 1997 to further alleviate the time-in-transit problem.

As always, where the Mengeles of China went, its Goebbels followed.

TV anchors continue to tout China’s state-of-the-art transplant technologies as a point of national pride. Chinese hospitals and their affiliates overseas recruited transplant patients to become a Falun Gong practitioner’s next unsuspecting executioner. Top medical officials in the Communist party go on PR tours to whitewash China’s actual transplant practices and to make hollow promises of ethical improvement.

Even qigong societies, once operating like sports associations domestically, now took on the task of cultural diplomacy, extending China’s soft power and making sure that the world knows that China respects its cultural and spiritual heritage—and that it is committed to promoting the right kinds of qigong (ones approved by the state) and warning people of the dangers of the wrong kinds (Falun Gong).

Part 5: Medicine Reclaims its Voice

This article focuses on medical torture as a tool of persecution, but it is important to note that medical torture is just one form of torture. Falun Gong practitioners who have been in and out of China’s gulag system these 18-plus years have experienced forced labor, sexual abuse by police and other inmates, prolonged exposure to heat, cold, filth, or water; beatings and electrocutions, sleep deprivation, forced feeding, and a number of other unimaginable horrors.

That the profession of healing could be perverted to suit such ends should be no surprise to anyone familiar with the travesties in the Soviet Union. The question is what we will do to stop such crimes now.

Without receiving much fanfare from the mainstream media, ordinary people, legislators, and medical professionals with consciences have made strides to uncover the Chinese regime’s lies and urge the world’s people to stand up against all forms of its tyranny. More and more states across America have prohibited Chinese doctors involved in organ harvesting to be trained in their hospitals. Israel ended funding, through the health insurance system, of transplants in China for Israel nationals, making it a crime to receive a trafficked organ from China. Spain now has a 12-year prison sentence for anyone who promotes or facilitates organ trafficking. Australia is currently working on legislation to make organ transplant tourism illegal.

There is much more to be done. Nurses, hospital staff, and families of patients deserve to know about China’s illegal practices. Chinese citizens cannot pretend to remain in the dark. Chinese doctors and surgeons acting in the cover of anonymity need to reckon with their crimes, along with the main perpetrator of the persecution, Jiang Zemin. China’s current leadership needs to know that the world is awaiting an end to the atrocities.