Vol. 2, No. 3
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: The BVM at the BMA
Vouchers Move to Center Stage
The Kansas Compromise
Those Revolting Greeks
Covering Israel's Religion Wars
|Why Smash the
appearance of 10,000 Falun Gong devotees before the gates of the Zhongnanhai leaders
compound in Beijing in April 1999 to protest the harassment of their membership by state
authorities produced a harsh repression that sent American journalists in search of
explanations. What could the state have against a group that appeared to be simply
promoting exercise and an odd but benign faith?
Many of the resulting articles attempted, not inappropriately, to set the states
reaction in historical context. But the use of history was problematic. Consider this
analysis from Washington Post Beijing correspondent John Pomfret: "One hundred years
after cults preaching immortality and xenophobia helped bring Chinas last ruling
dynasty to its knees, inspirational sects, ancestor worship, fortunetellers, and
conventional religions are again blossoming in China, challenging the rule of the
countrys officially atheistic Communist Party."
The "cults" presumably referred to were those spun off by the Boxer Rebellion
in 1900. They did not, however, "bring Chinas last ruling dynasty to its
knees." To the contrary, the Boxers were co-opted by the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).
Chinas Manchu rulers had excellent reasons to dislike many of the foreign states
that established themselves on Chinese soil after the Opium War. They belatedly, and for
complex reasons, latched onto the Boxers in an ill-considered effort to drive out the
British, Japanese, Germans, and French-and paid a terrible price for doing so. But what
did any of this have to do with the Falun Gong?
The answer is nothing. The China of 2000, unlike the Qing dynasty of one hundred years
ago, is on a roll. Its economy is healthy and the reform program launched in 1979 is
working. There is not a shred of evidence that the Zhongnanhai leaders cower in their
residences worrying about challenges from "inspirational sects, fortune-tellers, and
conventional religions." To the contrary, relaxed Party policies are responsible for
the renewed existence of these forms of belief.
Or take Henry Chu and Anthony Kuhns front-page report from Beijing in the Los
Angeles Times: "The Beijing leadership is especially fearful of movements it
does not control that are capable of organizing coordinated action across the country. Chinas
history heightens this fear. [Emphasis added.] For centuries, millenarian cults such
as the White Lotus and Eight Trigrams have propagated beliefs combining Buddhism and folk
religion. Visionaries occasionally have incited followers to revolt and prepare for
doomsday by accelerating the destruction of society."
Again, the reasoning is fuzzy and tendentious. "History" does not do
anything. No evidence is offered in support of the articles claim that Chinas
leaders think that the Falun Gong is like the White Lotus Society and are acting against
it because they fear that Li Hongzhi, from where he is now living in Queens, N.Y., is
plotting to bring down the communist regime. The potted history lesson, rather than
illuminating the subject, actually makes it harder to understand why the Chinese state is
behaving in such a dogmatic and ham-handed manner with Master Lis followers.
A related widespread confusion can be found in a May 5 Christian Science Monitor
editorial claiming that Falun Gong was one of a number of Chinese groups with "a
strong religious tendency" that are asserting "alternatives" to party cant.
The lesson? "[R]egulation of faith is becoming less and less feasible as the Chinese
seek not only economic opportunity, but spiritual sustenance." Stressing that many
Falun Gong believers are members of the gigantic community of unemployed and underemployed
people living in Chinas large cities, the editorial wondered if the ideas of Mao
Zedong or Deng Xiaoping could compete with the "cosmic-powers musing of Falun Gong
leader Li Hongzhi" -- or, by implication, with the even more dangerous teachings of
But while this is a time of deep questioning in Chinese society, it is very far from
clear that Chinas urban masses are thirstily seeking religion as a panacea for
"uncertainty" rooted in joblessness and want. Indeed, 50 years of Marxist
education have caused the masses to look to economics for solutions to economic problems.
Correctly perceiving the spiritual vacuum in China today, the Monitor apparently
imagines that Christianity could rush in to nourish the souls of Chinas hundreds of
Christian missionaries nurtured this illusion, too, at several junctures in the closing
decades of the Qing dynasty. Like the Monitor, they believed that the Chinese
masses might embrace Christianity, democracy, or an array of post-Enlightenment ideas to
remake society, and were ultimately disappointed because they mistook what they desired
for China for what Chinese desired for themselves. As in the case of the misleading
history lessons examined above, the Monitors quixotic ideas about powerful
religions competing with communism do not fit the Falun Gong, and provide no help in
assessing the crackdown.
To some extent, the journalists were misled by the China specialists they talked to. In
an August 2 report on NPR by Melinda Penkava, Minxin Pei, a senior associate of the
Carnegie Endowment for International History, agreed with a spokesperson of the Chinese
Embassy: "What worries the government is the political potential of the movement
because this movement has really a nationwide organizational infrastructure. It has 40
so-called teaching centers spread around the country-thats about one in every
province-and it has 28,000 exercise spots. So there is great potential, real potential,
for turning this movement from a religious, quasi-religious, or physical fitness movement,
into a political movement." Similarly, Merle Goldman, a professor of Chinese history
at Boston University, told Penkava, "Throughout Chinese history there have been these
mass religious movements that have turned political and undermined the prevailing
government. So for them [the PRC leaders], there certainly is the example of being
overthrown by religious movements that become political."
But aside from one peaceful demonstration, where is the evidence that the Falun Gong
has any (much less great) political potential? That Beijings leaders actually fear
being overthrown by them? That Li Hongzhi has in fact attempted to politicize the Falun
Gong? Both Pei and Goldman give unsupported credence to the governments asserted
Throughout Chinas dynastic history, religious groups following what the state
considered to be "heterodox paths" [xiedao] appeared at regular intervals. Most
did not in any way threaten the state. They grew up in various parts of China, followed
esoteric rites, established temples, and drew ideas from folk religious tradition, Daoism,
and Buddhism. The state was skeptical but let them flourish. Other such sects were not
harmless. From the Yellow Turban rebels of the Han dynasty to the Taiping rebels who shook
the world when they created a rival state in Nanjing in 1853, Chinese dynasties found
their rule contested time and again by religious groups hungry to seize state power.
In its 50 years of ruling China, the Communist Party has only in the last 20 years and
in a limited fashion come to tolerate religious faith. In the early days of the
Peoples Republic, the Party remembered the past -- albeit in its own limited and
stereotyped way -- and suspected religious belief as zealously as any dynastic state. The
new twist was that the dictatorship of the proletariat brought into being in 1949 was seen
as a scientific tool specifically designed to eliminate anachronistic systems of thought
and behavior. No dynastic state came close to possessing so sophisticated a means of
dissolving belief or could match the PRCs comprehensive hostility to forms of
thought it regarded as "superstitious."
Religions were, in Beijings eyes, simply pernicious vestiges of Chinas
"feudal" past. In the new communist age, socialist morality and faith in the
revolution were binding orthodoxies that played a role akin to that fulfilled by
Confucianism in the dynastic state. Traditional faiths were seen as especially damaging
when they reinforced ethnicity (as in Tibet) or regionalism (as in the folk religions of
Chinese persecution of Buddhism in Tibet is well known, but it cannot be understood in
isolation from a pattern of religious persecution that covered all of China. Daoist and
Buddhist monasteries, temples, and pilgrimage sites, Christian churches and Islamic
mosques, and the folk-religions of minority peoples were all seen as "poisonous
weeds" and marked for destruction. Believers were, indeed, treated as enemies of the
state. Millions underwent humiliation and were forced to renounce their beliefs; many went
underground as their holy places were sacked or destroyed.
So thorough was the Partys obliteration of folk religious practice that when Deng
Xiaopings era of reform got underway in 1979 and state suppression of religion was
relaxed, practitioners found themselves obliged to re-invent their religious practices.
And amazingly enough, eclectic structures of religious belief emerged and began to
flourish in many parts of China. Meanwhile, Daoist and Buddhist religion re-emerged in the
south, Islam took off in the northwest and west, and Christianity began to be practiced
openly as churches and cathedrals were reopened. The state continued to be watchful of
religion but in an era of free enterprise, relaxed ideological controls, and dwindling
belief in the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist dogma and morality, it was hard to enforce the
draconian limitations on religious practice of earlier decades.
In an excellent piece of reporting in Newsweek in August, Melinda Liu noted
that new religions like Falun Gong have come to life all over China in the reform era.
Most lack the web sites and e-mail chat rooms of Li Hongzhis group. But they worship
a variety of dieties -- mummified Buddhist nuns, Daoist worthies, even the spirit of that
great sage Mao Zedong -- in a variety of settings. Although these groups are often
tolerated, the public security office arrested over 15,000 people last year for
"disturbing public order through superstitition." In short, the limits of state
toleration were tested and found wanting even before Falun Gong came to light.
It is in this ambiguous setting, where toleration exists but not without risk, that Li
Hongzhi, like other founders of Chinese folk religions, rose to prominence. Here is what
the government-controlled Chinese Daily had to say about him in September:
Li Hongzhi was born on July 7, 1952, in the Gongzhuling City of Northeast
Chinas Jilin Province. From 1960 to 1969, he studied successively at local primary
and secondary schools.
After 1970, he worked at an army stud farm and later served as a trumpet player in
a band of the Jilin Provincial Forestry Armed Police Corps. From 1978 to 1991, he worked
as an attendant at a local guesthouse run by the Jilin provincial Forestry Armed Police
Corps and [was] a member of the security section at the Changchun Municipal Cereals and
Li Hongzhi began to propagate his ideas of Falun Gong in the late 1990s. Initially
he fabricated the so-called "way of practice" of Falun Gong by combining the
movements of martial arts he learned from other people with movements imitated from
traditional Thai dancing.
It is remarkable how closely this picture of Li as upstart nonentity, endlessly
repeated in the Chinese press, mirrors Confucian critiques of the founders of heterodox
faiths of the past. They too were contemptible upstarts who peddled their religions like
snake oil to the ignorant and gullible. They too were subject to foreign influences -- a
potent charge in a country where suspicion of the outside world and frank dislike of
"inferior" countries and peoples are taken for granted. But reading between the
dismissive lines, one guesses that Li, like millions of other young people of his
generation, suffered from the disruption of education during the Cultural Revolution and
was obliged to take the jobs fortune doled out to him as a young person growing up in the
Is there, in this case, anything for the state to be afraid of? Is Li Hongzhi, like
Zhang Que of the Yellow Turbans or the famous 19th-century rebel, Hong Xiuquan
of the Taipings, a religious zealot who might lead a rebellion to topple the communist
state if thwarted in his desire to create exercise sites all over China where devotees can
learn to practice qigong exercises and meditate on the meaning of the characters zhen shan
ren (truth, goodness, and patience) that he has made catchwords for his group? This, in a
China that is moving toward the largest GDP in the world in the first decade of the 21st
century? This, in a China possessed of a huge army and internal security force, as well as
an arsenal of nuclear weapons and missiles? Or if, as seems much more likely, Falun Gong
is just a harmless combination of Chinese aerobics and half-baked Buddhism practiced by
old people, why have the Beijing leaders resorted to arrests, vilification, self-criticism
meetings, and other repressive techniques?
The straightforward answer to this question is that this is the partys natural
reaction to any form of dissent it interprets as antagonistic. When the party identifies a
target for destruction, it readily flips into a Stalinist/Maoist mode of operation to
isolate and destroy "the enemy."
All the mechanisms are in place. The Party still controls the press and broadcast
media, and therefore controls the texture of public discourse. The press campaign, scare
stories about weird practices of Falun Gong believers, forced recantations by prominent
followers, and the campaign to undermine the credibility of Li Hongzhi are familiar
elements of the political practice of the PRC and in this case they are being applied to
the Falun Gong in a way designed to intimidate all but the most zealous.
To destroy an "antagonistic" ideology in China you first need to prove that
it is immoral, a fraud, empty, heterodox, and, especially, destructive of the good order
provided by the state. Among the justifications for cracking down on the Falun Gong
Chinese officials have cited an alleged refusal of adherents to seek medical treatment
that has led 1,400 of them to die. But Trotskyism, rightism, capitalist roadism,
revisionism, pro-democracy, or exercise fanaticism can all be dealt with in the same
manner. The specific nature of the opponent is irrelevant.
If this is so, what about the Falun Gong actually alarmed Chinas leaders? In an
interview with CNN, Master Li asserted that one might actually become a better communist
by suffusing communist practice with Falun ideals: "If people have high moral
standards, that is good to the party, whether youre a party member or whether
ordinary citizens, it is good to the government, its good to the country, and now
they treat me as a threat." At the same time, he has claimed that the number of Falun
followers may outnumber members of the Communist Party and wondered (!) whether this is
not a cause for the partys suspicion.
There is, in fact, ample reason to believe that Falun Gong is linked to a large body of
believers abroad -- a big taboo for any Chinese religious group. Master Li himself now
lives in New York, after all, and it is readily apparent from (for example) the
groups Bay Area web site that there are hundreds of exercise sites in California
alone. In addition, his religious writings, accessible almost in toto via the web, are
filled with comments about health, demons, aliens, and other matters hardly in accord with
the world view of the party.
But this is not fundamentally a story about religion. The states suppression of
the Falun Gong has to do with a generalized intolerance of any group that flaunts itself
in the partys face. The sin of Master Lis sect is not that it harks back to
earlier religio-political movements but that it represents a large organization
independent of the state that violates the unwritten "rules of engagement" that
govern the relations between the state and such organizations.
Much has changed in 20 years of reform, but Chinas political culture still values
predictability, obedience, order, and outward harmony; and its leaders detest surprises.
Li Hongzhis followers are, so far as can be told, simply asking to be left alone.
But by appearing en masse before Zhonghanhai -- and later showing up repeatedly in small
organized bodies in Tienanmen Square-they have rattled the cage of a command structure
that has not forgotten its origins, and have produced a reaction perfectly in harmony with
party practice since the founding of the Chinese Communist state.