Accounts in Chinese local media are often subtle, signals of something that’s been transpiring and is only now surfacing and suitable for exposure. There’s the neighborhood news story, the tale of transgression and redemption, the relating of a small event or series thereof—released to enlighten the public that the authorities, local and otherwise, are doing something worth noticing.
Maybe that’s what’s occurring with a rather lengthy article in Nanjing Daily on recent jail sentences handed down to followers of the banned Falun Gong [法轮功] or Falun Dafa [法轮大法] cult [邪教].
But it’s also likely that there’s a larger story being composed.
Where cults are concerned, Nanjing has been here before. Last year, local news accounts extolled the soft approach of prevention and re-education that was being employed to reverse the apparent progress made by Falun Gong in recruiting residents. At that time, Nanjing city authorities seemed to be telling Beijing that they had a different approach and it was working well; that there wasn’t a need to be so draconian in dealing with cults. Don't attack the cults, local officials were arguing, attack the conditions that promote recruitment. Get to the discontented before the sects promising salvation do, because prevention is its own cure. By alerting the public to the danger beforehand through education and exhibits, Nanjing believed it could deter citizens from being seduced by spiritual organizations such as Falun Gong, instead of punishing them with jail terms and Xi-knows-what-else.
The present article, entitled “Intensify The Crackdown Against The Cult” [加大打击力度 严惩邪教犯罪] tells a different tale, and implies that Nanjing’s tactics didn’t work so well after all.
For example, in early 2015, four Falun Gong followers made hundreds of leaflets attesting to the spiritual cult’s teachings, and then distributed them one evening in doorways, bicycle baskets, and handed copies to people boarding local buses and also stuck them in car doors. Roving police patrols picked up one of the followers, while the other three were apprehended shortly after, in possession of further materials, including CDs. Qinhuai District People's Court held that the four adherents knew that Falun Gong was a cult that was banned by the State and yet they still propagated its teachings. The leader, a woman named Zhang Xiu [张秀] received 3 years in jail and a 30,000 RMB fine.
The article noted that this was not Zhang Xiu’s first offense. In June 2000, she was imprisoned for 15 days by inciting others to practice Falun Gong. In October of that year, she was sent for re-education for six months for continuing to practice. Between 2005 and 2014, she was detained a further 4 times for disseminating Falun Gong materials and placed in re-education through labor [劳动教养和拘留]. None of those measures prevented Zhang from continuing to produce and distribute “promotional materials” [宣传资料], according to the report, and she told anti-cult volunteers that she “didn’t think the government had the capability to stop her.”
The article admits that there was some merit to her confidence, because in the past, re-education through labor was the default sentence. “However, after the reeducation-through-labor system was canceled, how to punish the illegalities associated with cults became something of a legal void.” It wasn’t until the 16th session of the Standing Committee of the Twelfth National People 's Congress passed Criminal Law Amendment 9 to further increase the punishment of crimes associated with cult activity that this problem was addressed. Now, according to the report in Nanjing Daily, “if the circumstances are particularly serious, more than seven years imprisonment or life imprisonment, as well as fines or confiscation of property is prescribed; if the circumstances are minor, imprisonment for three years, criminal detention, control or deprivation of political rights, and a fine" is advised.
Wang Ming, a Nanjing taxi driver, was fortunate to fit into the latter category.
According to the article, in early 2011, Wang, caught disseminating Falun Gong propaganda, was reeducated-through-labor for one year. After being released, Wang continued to secretly practice Falun Gong and started writing the cult’s propaganda slogans on the renminbi (RMB).
In December 2015, public security officers found Wang to have written anti-government, pro-cult slogans on various denominations of RMB using a pre-made stamp. In part because Wang confessed, Yuhuatai District People's Court in December 2016 found that his behavior did not cause adverse effects, that the circumstances were minor, and so he was sentenced to imprisonment for six months, and a fine of 10,000 RMB.
On one level, the article is about recent modifications to Chinese laws that are portrayed as necessary to confront the persistence of religious cults. As with many treatments in the State media here, the point is explanation, explication, and justification. The piece is signaling that laws work, and tighter laws work even better.
But on another level, the article is a political condemnation--a slap at Nanjing’s soft campaign to convince potential recruits to Falun Gong to be strong and just say “no”. Nonsense, the piece is saying: Only a strong State can keep society secure. Without sharper and harder laws as the priority, social threats will continue, this argument goes--and may even be emboldened by experiments and campaigns at the neighborhood level that emphasize prevention over punishment. Soft power is no power at all.
The short story then is that religious cults remain active, and strictness in applying existing law is needed to keep them from doing any more damage.
The long read seems to be that ill-conceived local policies which depart from Beijing's approach might be more dangerous to social stability than sects themselves. After all, Nanjing's effort to go creative didn't solve the problem, but prolonged it.
It will be interesting to see which of these admonishments Nanjing authorities think is most relevant to local conditions in the coming weeks—and whether some in the government here look to a strike-hard campaign as the best protection, for society and their own political futures.