Fall 1999, Vol. 2, No. 3

Contents Page,
Vol. 2, No. 3


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: The BVM at the BMA

Vouchers Move to Center Stage

Spiritual Victimology

The Kansas Compromise

Those Revolting Greeks

Covering Israel's Religion Wars

Discriminating Bodies



Why Smash the Falun Gong?

by Michael Lestz

Falun_Gong_Black_Plate_GIFF.gif (13729 bytes)The unheralded 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 state’s 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 China’s last ruling dynasty to its knees, inspirational sects, ancestor worship, fortunetellers, and conventional religions are again blossoming in China, challenging the rule of the country’s officially atheistic Communist Party."

The "cults" presumably referred to were those spun off by the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. They did not, however, "bring China’s last ruling dynasty to its knees." To the contrary, the Boxers were co-opted by the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). China’s 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 Kuhn’s 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. China’s 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 article’s claim that China’s 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 Li’s 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 China’s 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 Christianity.

But while this is a time of deep questioning in Chinese society, it is very far from clear that China’s 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 China’s hundreds of millions.

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 Monitor’s 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-that’s 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 Beijing’s 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 government’s asserted fears.

Throughout China’s 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 PRC’s comprehensive hostility to forms of thought it regarded as "superstitious."

Religions were, in Beijing’s eyes, simply pernicious vestiges of China’s "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 south China).

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 Party’s obliteration of folk religious practice that when Deng Xiaoping’s 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 Hongzhi’s 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 China’s 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 Oils Company.

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 Chinese northeast.

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 party’s 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 China’s 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 you’re a party member or whether ordinary citizens, it is good to the government, it’s 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 party’s 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 group’s 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 state’s suppression of the Falun Gong has to do with a generalized intolerance of any group that flaunts itself in the party’s face. The sin of Master Li’s 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 China’s political culture still values predictability, obedience, order, and outward harmony; and its leaders detest surprises. Li Hongzhi’s 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.