An inquiry on the phenomenal movement in China known as Falun Gong needs to be seen in the context by which it is practiced and culturally grounded. Like a blind man describing the elephant in a certain angle, and in another blind man’s view – we need to have a wider view as to what led to the crackdown crusade of the Chinese government against Falun Gong.
Falun Gong which literally means, “Practice of the Wheel of Law,” is a system of mind and body cultivation. It is also known as Falu Dafa (Great Law of the Wheel).1 The Falun Dafa movement is a tradition in Xulian with its prehistoric roots applying ancient Chinese methods to cultivate mind and body as a way of keeping fit and healing oneself. It is also associated with religious practices. Later on, the leaders of Falun Dafa adopted a new word: Qi which means universal life energy; while Gong means cultivation energy.2 Buddhist and Taoist principles are incorporated in this practice through exercise and the cultivation of the body. Their teachings are taken primarily from Falun Gong 3 and Zhuan Falun.
Most of the practitioners of Falun Gong are drawn to it because of the beneficial impact of its practices and exercises as Barend ter Haar mentioned in his article. Haar said, “published experiences by practitioners stress the positive effects for their health. Given the growing expense of the health system to many people and faltering mutual support networks, the positive effects of Qigong practice and the support networks resulting from membership will have been supportive for the spread of the Falun Gong.” 4
Founder Li Hongzhi Li said that in the past its secrets were passed only from master to
student but Hongzhi made the movement public in China in 1992 and is now available to anyone
through its worldwide branches. It claims a 100 membership of 70 million on China and 30 million elsewhere in the world. They continually deny being a religion, cult or sect claiming that they are mainly “a network for transmitting information and practices, in which people may dip on an incidental basis or more regularly.” 5
The Falun Dafa Australia website lists three surveys conducted in 1998 all of which suggesting significant improvement in health. The first survey lists a team of eleven researchers assembled from various universities, hospitals and institutes. It was conducted on more than then thousand Falun Gong adherents in Beijing. The latter two did not provide information on who performed the surveys. The results suggested 99.1% disease healing rate, and 58.5% cure rate among the participants. 6
Many expert and scholars are divided in labeling Falun Gong as a ‘cult.’ Stephen Hassan’s criteria of ‘Thought control’ includes control of behavior, thoughts and emotions. According to Hassan, “it is by manipulating these three elements that cults gain control over a person’s identity.” Claiming to draw on his experience working with “former cult members,” Hassan adds a fourth component, the control of information. For each of these components, Hassan provides a list of specific practices (e.g.: a need to internalize a group’s doctrine as “Truth” is one aspect of Thought Control). Hassan suggests that “destructive mind control” can be determined when the “overall effect” of these four elements “promotes dependency and obedience to some leader or cause.” It is not necessary for “every single item” to be included and contends that “mind-controlled cult members” can be integrated members of society, but “still be unable to think for themselves and act independently.” Hassan claims on his website that with Falung Gong” ‘thought control and phobia indoctrination is very much used,’ and elsewhere that Li Hongzhi is “the cult extreme” and the “authoritarian stereotype.” 7. Though he said that he has not had an opportunity to interview any “individuals who have been very involved with this group and decided to leave,” and is thus not convinced that Falun Gong “fulfils thought control model in its entirety.” 8
It became the center of international notice when more than 10,000 of its followers staged a silent protest in Beijing on April 25, 1999. The demonstrators did not draw attention to themselves and were not noticed until there were suddenly thousand of them sitting quietly in one of the most politically sensitive locations in the nation. Most were ordinary people from different parts of China .9
The said protest was the result of incidents that happened years ago in an attempt to “malign” the sect as the Falun Gong practitioners claimed. Guangming Daily (the mouthpiece of the State Council) published an article by a columnist denouncing Falun Gong resulting to a nationwide circular, banning the distribution of all Falun Gong publications by the Chinese News Publication Office. In early 1997, the Public Security Bureau began a nationwide investigation to gather evidence in the hopes of casting Falun Gong as an “evil cult,” but was later stopped. At the end of May 1998, He Zuoxiu denounced Falun Gong in an interview on Beijing saying that Falun Gong was “feudalistic superstition.” On April 11, 1999, He Zuoxiu published an article in the Tianjin College of Education’s Youth Reader magazine entitled “I Do Not Agree with Youth Practicing Qigong. “ Though it was boycotted by Beijing’s propaganda system, the article spread in Tianjin. Qigong’s followers went there to protest. Riot police were then dispatched resulting to the arrest of 45 people and the injuries of some protesters. They were later told to go to Beijing to resolve the matter when its followers requested the release of the protesters. In short notice the practitioners gathered all across the country. 10 Thus, the incident catapulted the silent protest in Beijing on April 25, 1999.
In an article, “The Falung Gong, Buddhism and Buddhist quigong,” Penny talks about the fact that critiques from Buddhist circles’ like the Chinese Buddhist Association was “especially keen to demonstrate its ani-Falun Gong credentials.” Penny says that in 1999 post-persecution context, the Buddhist Association had already been critical of Falun Gong for ‘the past few years.’ Buddhist community’s response to the Falun Gong could also have been in part to Falun Gong’s rapid growth in China, and “with a name redolent of Buddhism, must have given the Association’s leadership reason for concern and compelled a response.” 11.
The group was outlawed on July 22, 1999, followed by a national crackdown except in Hongkong and Macau. The Chinese government said that, “Falun Dafa had not been registered according to law and had been engaged in illegal activities, advocating superstition and spreading fallacies, hoodwinking people, inciting and creating disturbances, and jeopardizing social stability.” 8 Days before its ban, Chinese authorities issued a warrant of arrest for Master Li. According to the official Xinhua News Agency, the Ministry of Public Security in Beijing said that sect founder Li Hongzhi “spread superstition and malicious fallacies to deceive people, resulting in the deaths of many practitioners.” He is also accused of organizing demonstrations without first applying for permits. 12
The rationale behind the Chinese government’s decision may also be thinking back of the so-called Boxers of 1900. Although modern Western scholarship perceive it as unsystematic, the Chinese considered the Boxers as a much more organized religious phenomenon, anti-Western, anti-Christian and pro-Qing dynasty at that time, but an uncontrollable movement nonetheless. In their anti Falun Gong propaganda sites, detailed comparisons to Ming and Qing “heterodox” groups are also included. Thus, the communist rule’s response to the Falun Gong movement should probably be seen in contemporary terms (the communist state’s fear of Falun Gong as an organizational structure and alternative claimant to politico-religious legitimacy), as well as against the background of a specific cultural interpretation. Among educated groups, such as medical specialists of Western and Chinese school medicine (the latter is commonly referred to as Traditional Chinese Medicine or TCM), there may also be considerable unease about the Falun Gong paradigm of the origin of disease in karmic offense (which has clear Buddhist roots).
Interestingly, the communist rule’s fits in perfectly in a centuries old tradition. In this tradition, a religious phenomenon that is usually only marginally understood is perceived as dangerous for whatever reason and then stigmatized as rebellious, violent, deluding the people, and so forth. The present accusations that the Falun Gong is responsible for the deaths of so many people and so forth sadly fit in an old pattern of labeling and stigmatizing religious phenomena as White Lotus Teachings or otherwise. This accusation may even at times be true, but similar accusations can be made against political systems with restricted access to health care in general and health care is directly linked to wealth and from there to a specific ideological system that limits health care for poorer and older people. 13.
The Time article mentioned that even if considerable amount of limits were pushed in the midst of economic reforms, the “party’s firm grasp on the tools of repression,” is still deployed when directly threatened. 18 The crackdown of the movement includes mobilizing all aspect of the society – the police force, media, family, schools, and the workplace – going as far as creating a Body to oversee the campaign. Family members and coworkers were told to assist this campaign by encouraging the practitioners to recant. 14 Amnesty International reported that “tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners have been arbitrarily detained by police, some of them repeatedly for short periods, and put under pressure to renounce their beliefs. Many of them are reported to have been tortured or ill-treated in detention. Some practitioners have been detained in psychiatric hospitals. Those who have spoken out publicly about the persecution of practitioners since the ban have suffered harsh reprisals.” 15
The campaign at times resembles the excesses of the Cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong, says Matthew Forney, a Time correspondent. Among its campaign is the securing of 1 million children’s signatures opposing Falun Gong. After students attended a lecture by their principal on the evils of the group, students took turns to swear: “I do not believe in Falun Gong. I believe in science.” Eight-year-old Yu Xiaohong stunned his teachers by striding forward and declaring, “I do not believe in Falun Gong. I believe in Jesus.” The teachers called his parents in for a conference. “I explained we’re Christians,” says the boy’s father.
The school was satisfied, but “it was all so unnecessary,” he says. Another campaign was a variety show called The Voice of Truth and Justice in a Beijing theater. It featured a woman in a rhinestone tiara with a provocative slit up her dress who wins ribald cheers from the audience when she sings about a construction worker who goes insane practicing Falun Gong and a practitioner who burns himself alive. During the closing a man in a white tux, red bow tie, studded cowboy boots and an Elvis pompadour croons: “Li Hongzhi is a poisonous snake.” An apostate, who now leads people away from the movement, still seems ambivalent about her conversion. “It’s hard to say,” she responds when asked if she would still practice if the government had not banned Falun Gong. “I think it’s still better not to.” 16.
Time correspondent, Matthew Forney conducted an interview and found out that though the Falun Gong practice is strictly prohibited in China its practitioners still got a way of secretly getting engaged in this exercise and even getting in contact with other members of their group -going as far as accessing information and materials from Li Hongzhi. These materials will then be distributed to their members via the internet. Months after the said interview, five women set themselves on fire in Tiananmen including a 12 year old girl and her mother both of whom have died. 17
Recent reports said that Falun Gong is turning to International Courts in campaign to change the Chinese leadership. They have filed at least a dozen suits in foreign courts against Chinese officials they accuse of rights abuses with former President Jiang Zemin as their main target. Legal action is the latest tactic in a campaign to draw attention to China’s brutal 3-year-old crackdown on the group. The court cases apply foreign laws such as the U.S. Alien Tort Claims Act to crimes committed in China. ”They are stigmatizing the leaders of China with invented charges. They’re trying to tarnish our government, and they are trying to grab attention for themselves,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said. New cases were filed in Finland, Iceland, Belgium, France and Australia. The group says it has signed on high-profile lawyers such as British human rights attorney Geoffrey Robertson to represent it. ”The purpose of these cases is simple and specific: to target those responsible for the persecution. This is not a political campaign against the Chinese government,” said Levi Browde, a Falun Gong spokesman in the United States. All Falun Gong activism these days comes from abroad; mainland followers are in hiding. It is unclear how many mainland Chinese are Falun Gong practitioners. 18
The Chinese government often denied the allegations by saying that the accusers were lying. Prominent reports in the media and television claimed that Falun Gong’s follower’s death was caused by suicide. Prisoners were accused of organizing and distributing literatures of their sect. The government said that Falun Gong is an “evil cult that hoodwinked followers” and caused more than 1,600 deaths, mostly by encouraging followers to use meditation instead of medicine to cure ailments. Falun Gong on the other hand claimed almost 300 followers have died in custody during the crackdown and that many more have been tortured and abused. Thousands of followers have been sent to prisons and labor camps. 19 At present Li Hongzhi is living hiding in New York area, with his followers claiming that his life is at risk.
The Chinese government claimed in the Press Release of the United Nations that,
“respect for human rights was written into the Chinese Constitution some time ago, and progress had been made. Regrettably, there were still non-governmental organizations which were distorting facts and spreading lies, in particular with regard to Falun Gong which had violated people’s rights and harmed other people. Falun Gong disregarded the law, violating people’s rights and undermining security in China. These evil attacks had happened again and again and were a flagrant trampling of international laws. Falun Gong also undermined public facilities, cutting cables and intervening in normal broadcasts. This had aroused the great indignation of the public. No country respecting the rule of law would bear these activities, and they should be punished. There were also questions as to who provided the funds which paid for these activities.” 20
Many observers said that even if the reason for the crackdown of Falun Gong is justifiable, the means of doing it is severe and harsh. The question of why an iron fist is necessary was explored by Phil Rees in a BBC article entitled, “:Falun Gong: The enemy within.” He said that the Falun Gong protest surprised the Chinese government and exposed an issue of weakness in the Communist Party rule. “The primary concern of the government is to contain growing public unrest – and with it social stability – in the face of a rapidly changing economic landscape… the party has lost the moral and ideological leadership it could claim during former decades. Corruption and crime are growing. The gap between the rich and the poor is widening.” 21 There are still millions of unemployed in China, and the absence of social and medical health care are good enough reasons to gather crowd and stage a protest. In an angle of viewing the present population of China, a protest could be a threat strong enough to overthrow of a regime.
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2. B.A. Robinson, Falun Gong & Falun Dafa
- Falun Gong. <www.falundafa.org>
4.. B. ter Haar. Falun Gong: Evaluation and further references, at: <http://sun.sino.uni-heidelberg.de/>
- Dan et. al, 1998. “Falun Gong health survey. Ten thousand cases in Beijing”
- V. Hua, “Critics and followers of Falung Gong: Adherents find fulfillment, but detractors call movement a cult.” San Francisco Chronicle. Oct. 10, 2007
- S. Hassan. Freedom of Mind Resource Center, http://www.freedomofmind.com/resourcecenter/groups/documents/falun-gong/steve-hassan-about-falun-gong>
9. S. Faison, April 27, 1999, News Analysis. The New York Times. In Beijing: A Roar of Silent Protesters
- The Truth behind April 25 Incident <http://www.faluninfo.net/SpecialTopics/april25abridged.html>
- B. Penny. “The Falun Gong, Buddhism and ‘Buddhist”’ Asian Studies Review (March 2005) Vol. 29 pp. 35-46
- Falun Gong crackdown, ABC News, at: <http://abcnews.go.com/sections/world/DailyNews/>
- B.Haar. Falun Gong. http://website.leidenuniv.nl/~haarbjter/falun.htm
- Persecution of Falun Gong. Wikipedia <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persecution_of_Falun_Gong>
- “The crackdown on Falun Gong and other so called ”heretical organizations.” Amnesty International, March 23, 2000 <http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/engASA170112000>
- M. Forney, “The Breaking Point.” Time. Monday, Jun. 25, 2001 www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,165163,00.html
- “Falun Gong turns to international courts in campaign against Chinese leadership.” Associated Press. September 26, 2003 <http://www.rickross.com/reference/fa_lun_gong/falun282.html
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- Press Release HR/CN/1073. 02/04/2004
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