The banknotes are genuine. They show state founder Mao Zedong on the front in all denominations from the green one yuan note (15 cents) to the reddish 100 yuan note (15 euros). The explosive messages can be found on the back as political slogans or as self-promotion such as “Falun Gong is good” for the healing teachings founded in China in 1992. According to its website, it sees itself as a Buddhist-inspired school for spiritual self-cultivation that uses physical meditation exercises to strive for “truthfulness, mercy and forbearance” while promoting health. Beijing has branded it a “criminal cult” since 1999, persecuting its followers with all the resources of its state power. Falun Gong accuses China’s government of mass incarceration with countless deaths and barbaric crimes against its followers.
Deliberately damaging legal tender is against the law all over the world, not to mention turning money into leaflets. Falun followers, mostly middle-aged men and women, have been sentenced to ten years in prison for repeatedly circulating the money. Mostly they do not attract attention with it. The slogans printed on them match the pictorial motifs and basic colors of the banknotes, and are not noticed at first glance. The vernacular calls them “money with characters” (带字币). Authorities speak of money with “reactionary inscriptions” (反动标语). Falun Gong calls its resistance action “sincere money” (真相币).
One, five and ten yuan banknotes in particular are in circulation with ever-changing texts and symbols – and have been for many years. When I was looking through my change, I first discovered how common the notes are. I got the highest printed note, worth 20 yuan (three euros), from a taxi driver. I asked newspaper vendors, market traders, waiters in restaurants what they do with such money. “We pass it on.” None said they would take it to the bank to exchange, or report it to the police. That would only mean unnecessary trouble.
Police are looking for the Presses
The grotesque phenomenon demonstrates the unbroken resistance of Falun Gong activists despite brutal repression to this day. But it also shows how incomplete China’s gigantic surveillance and control bureaucracy is in everyday life. Leaflets thrown from bridges or skyscrapers, or stuck to walls, would not escape the ubiquitous video cameras. But when it comes to money, no one looks that closely
Police are trying to track down the modern underground colour printing presses. Official anti-sect websites proclaim success. The biggest bust came in 2014, when police seized 34 special printers and computers in three raids in Wuhan alone and arrested 38 people involved. The central bank tried other ways. In January 2016, it had all one-yuan banknotes replaced with coins in five Shandong cities as a pilot project. The People’s Daily online site explained that this was to “stop the spread of reactionary slogans by criminals via banknotes.” In 2019, the central bank renewed all banknotes in China with a new series that looked the same as the old one. But the colors are more vibrant and the paper has a smoother coating. Apparently, the printing should be made more difficult.
Beijing’s fight against Falun Gong began on 25 April 1999, triggered by a demonstration organized three days earlier by Falun Gong adherents in the neighboring city of Tianjin in front of the editorial office of a magazine. The magazine had called for a ban of the spiritual teachings as superstition and health risk. The police had some activists arrested. In response, the national leadership of the Falun Gong mobilized its followers to come to Beijing for the large-scale protest, using modern means of communication and e-mail. 10,000 Falun practitioners traveled from four provinces. From morning until night, they silently besieged the entire government quarter with party headquarters in Zhongnanhai in a peaceful sit-in until their leaders received the concessions they demanded.
“Neither Man nor Devil noticed anything”
It was a masterstroke of modern communication and logistics. China’s then party leader Jiang Zemin became aware for the first time of the power of spiritual movements. Falun Gong had until then been registered with the Ministry of Sports as a meditation group for traditional healing exercises with an officially counted 2.1 million followers, many of them members of the Chinese Communist Party.
As late as the evening of April 25, the shocked Jiang wrote a letter to his colleagues on the Politburo Committee, which was published six years later. He began mystically. “What happened today is worth thinking deeply about. Neither man nor devil noticed anything. Suddenly, tens of thousands of people had gathered at the gates of our power center and surrounded it all day.” The action was the largest protest since the 1989 Tiananmen riot, he said, adding that China’s security apparatus had failed. He himself had only learned from the Internet how efficiently Falun Gong was organized and that they represented a new social trend. What is the point of having state security equipped with computers if they don’t use modern information technology?
In July, Beijing launched a nationwide persecution of the Falun Gong, criminalized as a “cult” and a danger to the state. What particularly excited Jiang is in the last sentence of his letter, “Could it be that the Marxist theory of us communists, the materialism and atheism we believe in, cannot defeat this stuff spread by Falun Gong? If it could, wouldn’t it be a joke – as big as heaven?” The fear of failing to reach China’s people spiritually with its hollow ideology continues to drive the Party and its leaders to this day.