I have a very special Chinese banknote. It’s only worth ten Yuan, but it might be the most precious object I own. The front of the note shows a drawing of the former leader of the Communist Party, Mao Zedong. Rumour has it, he spent every night with the young, virginal daughters of different farmers, because he believed popping cherries was the key to eternal youth. But that little factoid is not what makes this banknote so special. What’s special about my banknote is that in China – a country where everything is about money, money and more money – nobody accepts the damn thing. It’s practically worthless. And I now understand why.
During a recent reporting trip to China, I found myself with a group of journalists and Chinese fixers sitting in the biggest mall in Shanghai eating shitty pizza at a fake Pizza Hut. When it was time to pay for the food, we all pulled out our cash. Amy, a Chinese student who showed us around, took the stack of bills and handed it to the waitress. Not long after that she came back with one piece of legal tender in her hand, stammering that the restaurant didn’t accept the cash because it was a “bad note”. I asked why, but she wouldn’t say. “Later, later,” she told me. When she offered up the bad banknote to my group, I snatched it up.
At first sight, it was just an ordinary 10 Yuan. Mao, a small rose and the official logo of the Communist Party were on the front, while a charming Chinese mountain scene with rivers was on the back. But if you look closer, you’ll see the stamps. Amy pointed them out to me a few days after the incident. There were Chinese characters on the bill that didn’t belong there. “This is anti-Communist Party,” she said. “The note says you have to abandon the Party in order to be free.”
In China, protesting against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is dangerous – especially if you disrupt the public peace. And in China this is a pretty broad concept. Just take Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, for instance. If you are retweeted more than 500 times on Weibo with a message that the CCP deems inappropriate, you’ll end up spending years in prison. Every form of protest is suppressed and severely punished. And still, there I was with this banknote of ten Yuan in my hand telling me to leave the Party. How was this possible? In China, it was impossible to answer the question. Nobody wanted to discuss the bill with me. But the more people turned me down to talk about it, the more I wanted to solve the mystery of my strange banknote.
After my trip in China, I travelled to the Netherlands. Although, I was finally beyond the reach of the CCP, I didn’t even know where to start in terms getting to the bottom of the banknote. So, I brought it with me to Amsterdam’s Chinatown to ask some Chinese-Dutch folks exactly what it means, hoping they’d spill the beans or point me in the right direction.
On a rainy day, after cowardly passing by ten times or so, I stepped into a Chinese acupuncturist’s office. Behind the counter, I found a man who was about 40 years old, sporting a white coat. I told him my story – that a restaurant in China wouldn’t accept my banknote and that I had no idea why. The man grabbed the note from me and analysed its front and back. Then he glared at me and threw the bill in my face. “This is not good,” he said. “This is a bad movement against the Chinese Communist Party. This is Falun Gong. This is not good at all.” That’s the only thing he would to say about it. Before it got too awkward, I quickly thanked him and ran out of the store.
To make sure he wasn’t pulling my leg, I walked into a Chinese restaurant down the street. A middle aged Chinese man welcomed me. He took his reading glasses off and stared at the banknote for a while. Then he looked at me and said, “This? This is nothing. These are just rules. Communist Party rules. This is just what you are supposed to do in China.” He passed the bill back and started an extensive conversation about his holidays to China and the fact that he didn’t have many customers during Christmas. He clearly didn’t feel comfortable talking about Falun Gong, whoever that was.
I finally found someone willing to openly discuss my strange Chinese currency – sinologist Stefan Landsberger from Leiden University translated the stamp on the bill in the following way:
How many prophets have warned
Humanity knows great decay
Retreat from the ranks and levels of the Chinese Communist Party
And wait for the moment till the Great Law will guard peace
That Great Law is another name for the Fa, the theoretical arm of Falun Gong. The movement was introduced in China in 1993 as a spiritual discipline. By 1999, tens of millions of Chinese people were practicing Falun Gong. It became so immensely popular among the population that it frightened the powers that be. The Communist Party has gone to great lengths to supress the movement, even though the millions of followers contend that they only want recognition, not political power. Human rights groups attest that the CCP is responsible for imprisoning and executing thousands of Falun Gong practitioners. Also – according to China watchers – thousand of Falun Gong followers were sent to labour camps in order to convince them to abandon the spiritual discipline. A lot of these people were physically and psychologically tortured. At the same, the Chinese government started a propaganda campaign on radio, television and in print to denigrate the movement.
Since 2006, there are vicious rumours that organs of Falun Gong-members are being traded on the Chinese organ market. And up until today, everything that has something to do with the movement is censored. Chinese embassies seem to be used to suppressing Falun Gong-tendencies among their people at home and abroad. That might explain the reaction of the two men in Chinatown.
The note that I intercepted was printed in 2005. It has, including the stamp, been able to circulate among the people of China for a maximum of nine years, without the CCP ever finding out about it. The most recent stamped bills were printed in 2011. I wonder if still, somewhere in a secret place in China, someone is stamping banknotes with Mao, a rose, a charming Chinese mountain scenery and a bold protest slogan.