The Falun Gong (literally: The Wheel of the Law Exercise, now called "Buddhist Law" movement), first surprised world media when ten to fifteen thousand followers surrounded the Zhongnanhai compound, the seat of the Chinese government, on Sunday, April 25, 1999. Many came to Beijing from faraway. They were mostly middle- aged; they first stood shoulder to shoulder and then sat down to meditate in lotus position with their legs crossed. It was in startling contrast to the noisy student demonstrators of spring 1989. The Chinese government appeared surprised. Premier Zhu Rongji met with a few of the movement's leaders-actual or retired senior officials themselves-who complained of official harassment, especially as several of their fellow followers had been arrested in Tianjin, after criticisms of their movement were voiced by a scientist, He Zouxiu, a theoretical physicist of the Chinese Academy of the Sciences. The group wanted rehabilitation or legal status to ensure protection, especially from regional authorities who sometimes refused to give them permission to assemble. They also wanted the ban lifted on their founder's books. (The group's leaders were later identified as Wang Zhiwen, a retired official with the railways ministry, and Wang Youqun, an official at the ministry of supervision, which oversees the Chinese Communist Party.)
Three months later, on July 22, it was the Chinese Communist government's turn to surprise the West by outlawing this spiritual movement that combines Buddhist meditation and Taoist qigong exercises for the sake of promoting physical and mental health. At that time, too, tens of thousands of persons protested the decree in ten cities, including Beijing. The police took away thousands in busloads to schools and sports stadiums. Most were later released, although about seventy to a hundred leaders were arrested.1
The author visited China precisely in late July, and watched with boredom the daily television news that orchestrated the criticism of Falun Gong and its founder, Li Hongzhi. The leaders of China's officially approved religions appeared on television to denounce Falun Gong. Followers who recanted were also there to register their contrition and add to the criticisms. Falun Gong was accused of all kinds of crimes, including leading the sick astray and forbidding them to see physicians, thereby causing deaths. Following such media outcries, local Chinese friends were likewise bored and dismayed. For them, it was as though the Cultural Revolution were coming back. The problem is, two years later (2001), these media criticisms continue.
So, what is the matter with Falun Gong and with the Chinese government? Why does the one refuse to go away quietly and the other continue such high pressure tactics, including arrests, imprisonments, and long and harsh sentences against those individuals who refuse to give up their faith and practice? These questions bring to mind the basic questions: What is Falun Gong anyway, and why does the government hate it so?
To answer these questions, this essay incorporates conversations with intellectuals watching what is happening in China and with Falun Gong members in Canada and the United States. It also turns to some of Li's books, especially Zhuan Falun (Turning the wheels of Buddhist law), which allegedly outsold Deng Xiaoping's biography at a national book fair. And it reflects the news, including the People's Daily, and information provided in websites maintained by the government and by Falun Gong.2 The last question is addressed first, and then attention is turned to the others.
The Falun Gong was careful not to make itself into a religion. In China it had no temple, no official headquarters, no formal rituals, and it exacted no fees from its followers. Its gatherings were always in public. Apparently, many senior cadres, retired military personnel, and well-known intellectuals had written to Zhu Rongji in support of the group. Some said that Falun Gong was saving the people money in medical fees, and even that Premier Zhu Rongji was very happy about that. "The country could use the money right now," they reasoned.3 When the suppression began, it came from Jiang Zemin, who allegedly was unhappy that "theism" should triumph over "atheism" and, therefore, decided to act swiftly.4
Li's books are not easy to read, even in Chinese. He does not write systematically. Ethically, he advocates the cultivation of "truthfulness, benevolence and forbearance"-referring especially to the endurance of hardship-in order to transform one's karma (ye).5 Spiritually, he speaks of taking people to a higher level of mystical consciousness and supernatural feats, asserting that qigong means spiritual cultivation or xiulian. Using Buddhist language, he explains how one can cultivate the "third eye" of mystical vision and understanding, which he calls the "heavenly eye" (tianmu). He locates it in the pineal gland, hidden between the eyebrows. This is also an important acupuncture point. Li both uses Taoist language and criticizes certain Taoist teachings, such as those about the "three cinnabar fields." For him, any part of the body can serve as a cinnabar field during meditation, without need of distinctions. But he relies on established Taoist practices when he talks about completing a microcosmic and macrocosmic orbit while guiding energy through the body.6 However, the real goal is to transform the whole human being, so that every part of the body becomes pure and supple, while the spirit is completely enlightened.7 In keeping with Buddhist beliefs, he opposes the killing of life, without obliging followers to become immediate vegetarians. He opposes drinking liquor and smoking. Supposedly, his aim is to purify the body, a purification that becomes healing.8 For these reasons, he expressly forbids disciples to serve as "healers."9
Healing, especially faith-healing, has been popular in China, where visits to the doctors are expensive for those without high income. There are accounts of so-called Christian faith healing, practiced in the countryside since the late seventies. In the case of Falun Gong, the healing sessions are not unlike those one witnesses elsewhere, including in the West. Followers go on the stage, confess their sins, describe their ailments, and give thanks for the healing power they experience frequently from reading Li's books. The opposition decries this as dangerous and unhealthy, and encourages conventional medicine instead.
One concept Li discusses is that of the "primal spirit" (yuan shen). According to him-and this is Taoist belief-our primal spirit, which we all have, is indestructible. To prove this, however, he turns to the indestructibility of the body. Using the language of physics, he speaks of atoms and electrons, indeed, material elements too small for the microscope to see. They are also full of energy, dynamic, always in motion. At death, these elements still remain, with their energy, so that if the body appears dead in one kind of space, it is really alive somewhere else. With the heavenly eye, he asserts, one can see this better.10
Here, it should be mentioned that Li is often misunderstood for speaking of himself as part of the cosmos, of the "primal spirit." Apparently, he does not claim this exclusively, but believes rather in a kind of universal participation in this spirit, showing a certain pantheism. He also speaks of a catastrophic "end of the world"-a common Buddhist notion, referring to our age as a final age before this end.
Qigong is practiced to cease human thinking. As a result, a monk can sit in meditation without moving for five or six hours. Critics argue that such practice is not good for the health of young people.12
He Zouxiu claims that, while qigong is supposed to help spiritual and physical health, he knows many people whose practice led to their placement in mental institutions with various kinds of ailments. He attacks Li Hongzhi, saying, while the movement claims to help practitioners enjoy better health, live longer, and even attain preternatural or supernatural skills, such practice actually has resulted in several reported deaths. In conclusion, he refers to historical disasters connected to qigong practice.13 True, secret religious societies always were feared by the traditional Chinese state, starting at least with the Yellow Turbans (Taoists) who rebelled against the Han dynasty in the second century. In the mid- nineteenth century, the Taiping rebels, of Christian inspiration, nearly brought down the Manchu government. Fifty years later came the Boxers who sought to help the Manchu dynasty with their allegedly invincible techniques but who instead brought foreign invasions and havoc to the country. After all, the popular Iguangdao, a syncretistic traditional Chinese religion, was legalized in Taiwan only after democracy gained ground. It remains underground in China. Add to it, of course, the Communist opposition to spiritual and religious movements: even the approved religions are only tolerated, not encouraged. Besides, as a one-party government without a popular mandate, the Communist leadership remains always afraid of its own people.
At the end of January 1999, China banned another qigong group, the Zhong Gong, raiding its headquarters in Beijing. Could this be another confirmation that the present Chinese government is opposed to its citizens practicing much qigong? One should avoid speculation. The deceased Ye Jianying, a head of state, allegedly had his life prolonged by qigong. But the present leadership, with engineers like Jiang Zemin and Li Peng, may not be of the same mind.
On July 22, 1999, the ministry of interior declared that Falun Dafa and the Falun Gong it manipulated were illegal organizations, to be at once banned. Actually, hundreds of practitioners already had been detained during home arrests in the early hours of July 20. The official ban meant that unless they recanted, Falun Gong members would lose their party memberships, jobs, educational opportunities, and pensionsnot to mention that those arrested faced severe jail sentences. It is no great surprise that Falun Gong was in a legal limbo.
On October 25, 1999, the government identified Falun Gong as an "evil cult" (xiejiao). And the characteristics of xiejiao were spelled out for the first time: the worship of the cult leader (as in the case of the Aum Shinrikyo in Japan); spiritual manipulation of members; the spreading of evil teachings ("end of the world," etc.); illegal collection of funds (from teaching qigong and selling Li's books); the secrecy of its organization (with 29 main stations, 1,900 supplementary stations, 28,263 training points in the entire country, and an alleged following of 2,100,000); and its harm to society, including its political ambition (here Falun Gong is compared with Jones's People's Temple and the collective suicide of nine hundred followers).14 On October 30, special legislation against this "evil cult" passed the Standing Committee of the People's Congress assembled under Li Peng.15
The accusation of Falun Gong's being an "evil cult" made previous arrests and imprisonments "constitutional." Of course, the accusation was made after the government already had started to crack down on Falun Gong members. The enumeration of features of an "evil cult" was done by political officials on political premises, not by any religious authority. It was an atheistic, Communist government, handing down an executive decision by the pronouncement of an "evil cult," without an explanation of what would be its opposite: a good cult, or a good religion.
The government appears in the right when it describes the tight organization of the group, which Li Hongzhi characterizes as spontaneous. Still, the Chinese Constitution of 1982 protects freedom of assembly (under certain conditions). It also protects freedom of religion. Here, however, China officially acknowledges only five religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, and Protestant and Catholic Christianity. Falun Gong is outside sanctioned religious practice, and, for that reason, never claimed to be a religion. Ironically, this made it more attractive to Communist party members, who are not permitted to belong to religious groups.
The state pronounced, and it acted swiftly. In more that thirty cities, police rounded up over thirty thousand members. At the same time, police security was tightened around Zhongnanhai, the seat of Communist power. Although many of those who were detained were released later, the show of force indicated the determination of the regime.16 The surprise, however, is that the banned group did not take it all lying down. Quiet vigils by young followers were made at Tiananmen for four days, concluding with a petition to the state asking for greater tolerance. With this, the police removed the youth. There were other demonstrations as well outside China: for example, a hundred followers demonstrated at the United Nations headquarters in New York, asking for intervention in the name of human rights and on reports of tortures applied to those in prison.
The ban included a government and party purge. Some 1,200 government officials who were members were taken over a weekend to schools in a city in north China, to study Communist party documents and renounce Falun Gong allegiances.17
Now formally outlawed, the Falun Gong followers in China have become desperate. Within China, they have nothing to lose, and in prison, can always practice forbearance and perhaps gain new converts. By December 1, 1999, the state had tallied thirty-five thousand run-ins with Falun Gong members.20 Outside of China, the media have helped to publicize their cause. Nine hundred Falun Gong members met in Hong Kong, renting the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre for $13,000, paid with personal checks. They also meditated outside the China State News Agency, at the end of a quiet march on December 12. Some of these members came from Canada, the U.S., Australia, and Ireland, although most were Chinese. Without a doubt, new converts now are being won every day in Europe as well as in North America.21 Today, Falun Gong followers in China are especially challenged to practice forbearance. One wonders whether Li Hongzhi knew what might happen when he said:
What is the heart that possesses the greatest forbearance? For a practitioner, it means first of all to reach the stage of not hitting back when hit, not yelling back when yelled at, that is, be forebearing. Some may say to practice such forebearance is cowar\dly, making members prey to bullying. I say, this is not cowardice... but the demonstration of a strong will.22
Why does the government hate Falun Gong so? The press suggests that the Communist government was completely surprised by the Zhongnanhai demonstrations, a surprise that led to fear, animosity, and suppression. The overseas Chinese-language press has suggested that the Zhongnanhai demonstrations were actually organized in part by the government, to help trump up charges against the Falun Gong, which it had observed and monitored for years through its infiltrators. It even gives the name of a high official, Lo Gan, as being the chief Communist organizer of the Zhongnanhai gathering.13 As secretary general of the State Council, Lo had been investigating Falun Gong and had wanted it banned since 1996 but could not find any legal basis for transgression. In that case, it is not certain where the Falun followers intended first to make their petition, but Lo had the police direct them to Zhongnanhai, in order to create an incident with which they afterwards could be charged. Contacts from mainland China agree that the crackdown was to be expected, as the party cannot tolerate a mass movement. The party itself, after all, has only fifty-five to sixty million members, and fears infiltration, as many Falun Gong members were also party members.24 According to Communist propaganda, the Falun Gong was "competing for popularity with the party." This is an unpardonable crime.
Within the government, Jiang Zemin, at the top, seems to be leading the charge against Falun Gong, with Li Peng helping him in the People's Congress. The Falun Gong demonstrations at Zhongnanhai have become the basis for the official repression. They have been officially compared to the Tiananmen demonstrations of 1989 as a threat to political stability. Besides, it is reported that Jiang had received a letter defending Falun Gong from a high-ranking official in the 301 Military Hospital, which treats top leaders. He was further enraged to find out that the People's Liberation Navy was the publisher of Li's book, the Zhuan Falun, and that possibly seven hundred thousand party members are involved with the Falun. Now, Jiang is emphasizing the need for people, especially party members, to study politics. He accepts the threat of Falun Gong as an ideological one: spiritual beliefs against militant atheism and historical materialism. He wishes to purge the government and the military of such beliefs. His decision is in line with the suspicion of religious protest by the traditional Chinese state. As it turns out, the government's campaign against "evil cults" includes popular folk cults, as well as underground Christians-Catholics and Protestantswho meet at house churches.
In a country where many people are tired of Marxist ideology and hungry for religious and spiritual influences in their lives, cults can prevail, including the so-called Supreme Deity cult in which Liu Jiaguo, supposedly with a Christian mother, claimed to be a deity himself. He attracted ten thousand followers, swindled large sums of money, only to be hunted down and condemned to death. In his confession, Liu said: "People do not know what gods are. But if you flaunt a divine banner, people believe in you and are willing to dedicate everything to you. "25
Li Hongzhi has not claimed divinity. But he often speaks as a mystic and a pantheist, in a language difficult for those who know little about Buddhist or Taoist thought to understand. When he claims to be part of the qi or energy, he is not just speaking of himself; he is speaking of all practitioners, although not all may have the transformed consciousness. He also claims to have certain preternatural gifts, such as making himself invisible, or seeing through another's body for healing purposes. These are claims made by others, too; they are hard to prove. However, being a mystic and a teacher of morality does not elevate him necessarily to ethical superiority. A charismatic man, he has human failures and might have, as the government claims, changed his birthdate to make it fall on the same date as the historical Buddha's to attract more believers. Does that mean he is claiming to be the Buddha himself? In Mahayana, the belief is that everyone is a Buddha potentially. It is not certain if he means to claim that he already has become one in this life, but clearly, he seeks to demonstrate that he has special gifts and status.
The overarching issue is religious and spiritual freedom associated with human rights. In a dictatorship where so much of life is regulated by the state, the people need spiritual solace and individual freedom to practice meditation and qigong. They are now being told that the most popular form of qigong is illegal and evil. Besides, qigong should be practiced in open air, and in the case of Falun Gong followers, home practice itself is difficult and dangerous. They are forbidden to read Li's books. They could keep what they have, and circulate these in secret, but risk official punishments. The government, indeed, is looking into their inner souls, and rendering judgments of good and evil, as well as of legality or illegality.
However, Falun Gong's response has been surprising. It not only has complained to the public, to Amnesty International, to various overseas governments, and to the United Nations. It also has launched what may be called basically a civil disobedience campaign within China by sending followers to Tiananmen to unfurl the Falun Gong flag and then await arrest in front of the public eye. The world was shocked once more on January 23, 2001, when Tiananmen witnessed the selfimmolation by fire of five persons, male and female-a child included-who made meditation gestures in the Falun Gong style as they committed suicide. A controversy ensued after this event, however, with the Chinese government asserting this to be a crime committed by Falun Gong followers, while the Falun Gong overseas denied that any member took part in the episode, quoting the movement's opposition to violence and suicide.27 Isolated incidents elsewhere in Beijing followed. What should the world say? On the one hand, history has recorded Buddhist self-immolations by monks during the Vietnam war, and also much earlier in traditional China. Buddhist scriptures, like the Lotus sutra, recount with approval myths of self-immolations. But the immediate and vehement denials by Falun Gong have deflected criticism from the group, while the deaths of all the participants make it nearly impossible to establish in the near future how these suicides were planned and enacted. If the Chinese government staged the gruesome event in order to discredit Falun Gong, it did not make any lasting impressions on account of the controversy.
Yet, what we find is a continuing political campaign on the part of the Falun movement to counterattack the government for its human rights record, even to the point of lobbying the United Nations Human Rights Commission, and, later, demonstrating in Hong Kong during the Fortune Global Forum in Hong Kong that Jiang Zemin attended.28 It does appear that the Falun Gong has become a political force that is seeking justice for itself by pressuring China to democratize. However, it does not appear to have any other agenda than freedom for its following.
Still, there is an irony accompanying the political metamorphosis of the mass qigong movement. This paradox is not just that Falun Gong fulfills the incipient fears of the Chinese government. Nor is it the continual denial of the Falun members that they are not an organized movement. Such assertions are beyond credibility. The real irony is that, given such assertions, why should the movement fight so hard for its survival in China and worldwide? Would it not be more appropriate for the leader to ask his followers to stop public acts that would lead to instant arrest and possible death under torture? After all, the movement promotes physical and mental health, and the leader should protect his own, rather than have them suffer. What, otherwise, is he looking for?
In itself, Falun Gong is not political. However, under persecution, members have developed an astonishing political consciousness. To protect their own group survival, they have become a political force to be reckoned with. There are millions of Christians, both Catholics and Protestants, in China. Some practice in private. But they are not a polit\ical force. In contrast, Chinese Muslims easily could be, and in some cases-in Chinese Central Asia-they already have a political agenda. So do some Tibetan Buddhists. These groups want greater autonomy, if not separate statehoods. The deprivation by the government from the people of the freedom to practice breathing exercises and meditation is a serious infringement on personal liberty. Such infringements, in the long run, will work against the government. More respect and tolerance on the government's part is needed. The Communist leadership will not gain more loyalty without such. In the case of the Falun Gong, it is difficult for the government to back down under pressure. But it could treat the followers with less harshness. Early in 2001, President Jiang Zemin talked of practicing more "virtuous" governance or dezheng, a term reminiscent of Confucian teachings. Let us hope this will happen.
In the case of modern Japan, many new religions became recognized only after the Second World War. Before that, their founders suffered official persecution and imprisonment. With democratization, China might eventually enjoy true freedom of religion. Many underground cults will then reemerge, including Falun Gong. However, we don't know how long political liberalization will take. It could be a very long time, at least decades.
1. See Ming Pao (Hong Kong), July 22-26,1999; South China Morning Post, July 22-26,1999.
2. See , , and , the latter for its May 2000 response to the U.S. Human Rights Commission on international religious freedom. The Falun Gong maintains many websites around the world; see for example and , although they frequently change their names.
3. U.S. News & World Report, February 22, 1999, 46. 4 People's Daily, June 20,1999, offers Jiang's comments at a government meeting without referring to Falun Gong. 5 Zhuan Falun (Hong Kong: Falun Dafa Publication, 1998), 14. 6 Ibid., 360. 7 Ibid., 53-70. 8 Ibid., 301-12. 9 See ibid., 99.
10. See ibid., 34.
11. He Zouxiu, Tianjin qinshaonian keji bolan, no. 4, Tianjin, April 1999. 12 Translated from German, China Heute, vol. 18, nos. 3- 4 (1999), 81.
13. See He, Tianjin qinshaonian keji bolan, 82.
14. People's Daily, overseas edition, October 28, 1999. 15 People's Daily, overseas edition, November 1, 1999. 16 Globe and Mail, July 22, 2000, A13.
17. New York Times, July 27, 1999.
18. New York Times, October 28, 1999, A3; October 30, A4. 19 New York Times, October 29, 1999.
20. New York Times, December 1, 1999, A13. 21 New York Times, December 13, 1999, A12. 22 Zhuan Falun, 419-20.
23. World Journal, American edition, June 20, 1999.
24. Economist, May 1,1999, 39-40; Wall Street Journal, April 28,1999, 10.
25. New York Times, September 8, 1999, A5.
26. Julia Ching, Probing China's Soul: Religion, Politics and Protest in the People's Republic
(Harper & Row, 1990), ch. 7.
27. See , January 24, 2001.
28. May 4, 2001.