About Falun Gong and its History
Falun Gong originates from Falun Xiulian Dafa in the Buddha School. It is one of the Buddha School’s special qigong methods, yet it has its own distinctive qualities that set it apart from the average ways of cultivation in the Buddha School. This cultivation system is a special, intense cultivation method that used to require that cultivators have extremely high xinxing and great inborn quality.
Membership in qigong groups surged during the 1980s as many of the tight controls that marked the Cultural Revolution period (1966-1976) were lifted. In 1989, the official China Qigong Scientific Research Association, established in 1985, announced that “one in twenty Chinese-both old and young, strong and weak-now practices qigong.” Its popularity continued through the 1990s as the official association sponsored research into the scientific components of qigong, applauded its proven health benefits and traditional Chinese roots, and championed proselytization by its numerous affiliate groups.
Falun Gong, founded by Li Hongzhi in May 1992, was probably the most successful of the affiliates. The China Qigong Scientific Research Association approved the Falun Gong Research Branch Society for membership as a direct-affiliate branch the following year. Li, whose title became Direct-affiliate Qigong Master, continued to teach Falun Gong training seminars in Beijing and the northeastern provinces, his home base, under the auspices of local branches of the association until September 1994. The relationship between Li and the association soon deteriorated and the affiliation was eventually terminated, although the exact sequence of events and reasons for termination remain unclear. Li continued to teach Falun Gong for a time, both in China and overseas, finally settling in the U.S. in 1998.
Falun Gong did not officially withdraw from the China Qigong Scientific Research Association until 1996. During 1994-96, it had tried to ensure its legality and independence and to establish its credentials as more than an exercise group through registration as a social organization. After it applied unsuccessfully in turn to the National Minorities Affairs Commission, the China Buddhist Association, and the United Front Department, the work units of the six individuals who signed the applications warned them that all registration efforts must stop. As a result, Falun Gong spokespersons said, Falun Gong decentralized its organizational structure,and local groups affiliated with branches of China’s sports administration.
In 1996, Falun Gong suffered a second setback in its efforts to gain legal recognition when the government’s Press and Publications Administration issued a “Notice Concerning the Immediate Confiscation and Sealing Up of Five Kinds of Books, including China’s Falun Gong.” In banning the five Falun Gong publications, the notice cited another Press and Publications Administration document, the “Notice Concerning the Banning of Books That Propagate Ignorance and Superstition.” The sanctions were extended in 1998-99.
These setbacks did not impede Falun Gong’s growth. Neither did quiet objections from some officials, academics, and journalists who as early as 1996 questioned Falun Gong’s belief structure and quasi-religious character, its “anti-scientific nature,” alleged anti-modernization outlook, and willingness to defy Chinese authorities. Even alarm at the number of practitioners, some forty million at the end of 1998 by government count, did not stifle Falun Gong’s ability to organize. Part of the reason stemmed from officials’ fear that by openly challenging it, the government would be compelled to consider whether Falun Gong was a religion. Opening that debate would force the Chinese leadership to confront its policy of recognizing only Buddhism, Daoism, Catholicism, Islam, and Protestantism as legitimate faiths. The official indecision allowed Falun Gong to quietly confront open challenges and usually to extract apologies for derogatory remarks. In 1996, for example, when Enlightenment Daily, a newspaper with a major interest in cultural matters, critiqued Li Hongzhi’s work, a Falun Gong protest at the paper secured a retraction. In 1998, when He Zuoxiu, a renowned physics professor and implacable foe of all kinds of superstition, of which he considered Falun Gong one, criticized the group in an interview on Beijing Television, a protest at the station by some 2,000 practitioners succeeded in securing a retraction and asubsequent favorable report.
It should be noted that Falun Gong is not the only qigong organization that has come under attack since the late 1990s. The Chinese government began dismantling one of the largest, Zhonggong, in December 1999, later declaring it an “evil cult,” banning it, and seizing its assets. From the time its leader, Zhang Hongbao, surfaced in Guam and requested asylum in the United States, the Chinese government fought unsuccessfully for his return. The Chinese government has continued to arrest and sentence Zhonggong members since Zhang’s petition for asylum was granted in June 2001.
Practitioners say Falun Gong is a higher or advanced form of qigong. Its exercise regimen is said to deliver greater health benefits than other qigong systems and its belief system, emphasizing truthfulness (zhen), compassion (shan), and forbearance (ren), is said to encourage the highest standards of moral behavior and to augment the goodness already present within individuals and within society. There is an added incentive for the individual practitioner. As the impulse to begood and do good grows, he or she is said to be able to attain supernatural powers with the help of a master, such as the ability to literally see what most others cannot.
Although it borrows from Buddhism and Daoism, Falun Gong maintains in its own publications that it is not a religion, and that none of its exercises can be characterized as religious rituals. In response to official accusations that the Falun Gong leadership had fashioned a tight organizational structure similar to that of the Chinese Communist Party so as to facilitate overthrow of the government, practitioners respond that there is no organization, no hierarchy, and that they harbor no “political intentions”; “no one,” they say “can tell anyone else what to do.” In 1999, however, the government cited the existence of a hierarchically organized geographic structure of thirty-nine main “stations,” 1,900 “guidance stations,” and 28,000 “exercise sites” as evidence to bolster its accusations. Falun Gong spokespersons countered that these were simply avenues for facilitating practice.
Members of Falun Gong
Falun Gong spokespersons estimate that in 1999, at the start of the crackdown, membership peaked at 100 million practitioners in some thirty countries, over seventy million in China alone. Government figures have varied widely, but have also shown the movement to be significant. As noted above, the government estimated forty million Falun Gong followers at the end of 1998; in February 2001, it put the number at some two million, far smaller than the earlier estimate but still far larger than any other known non-governmental social organization or dissident movement in China.
Although most practitioners seem to come from urban districts, primarily small cities and towns where its “guidance stations” are located, Falun Gong is both a rural and urban phenomenon. The few easy-to-learn and easy-to-perform exercises-there are only five-are well adapted to an urban or village life style.
One segment of the Falun Gong population, consisting of well-educated professionals, academics, scientists, and medical personnel, among others, gives the movement a certain cachet. Other practitioners are computer-literate technocrats and students accustomed to using the Internet and e-mail systems that facilitated Falun Gong’s growth. They have kept it alive in the face of intense official pressure. Some, including Falun Gong leaders Li Chang and Wang Zhiwen, were members of the Chinese Communist Party, well-placed in key government ministries including the security apparatus; others, such as retired Lieutenant General Li Qihua and Lieutenant Colonel Zhao Xinli, were officers in the People’s Liberation Army. The Party leadership found this latter group particularly threatening.
Another group of Falun Gong followers includes men and women in their fifties and sixties, members of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution’s “lost generation.” Many are workers or lower-level government functionaries who missed out on educational opportunities when the schools were closed, and who in the late 1990s lost their jobs or were “temporarily” laid off with the restructuring of state-owned enterprises or retrenchment within government bureaucracies. Instead of the expected cradle-to-grave security, including all-important health care, this group has had to struggle on small pensions or welfare payments. Instead of the personal support networks and the opportunities for socializing that came through work relationships, they experienced dislocation and isolation. Participation in Falun Gong’s activities, often based in public parks, may have addressed some of their health care, psychological, and economic needs.
Practitioners could take part in Falun Gong on a number of different levels, from simply exercising, in public or at home, to directly confronting authorities and risking severe reprisals. Practitioners who wanted to be more involved could take on responsibility for recruitment, for production or distribution of Falun Gong literature, or for other organizational matters; others chose, often repeatedly, to joinprotests and, thus, to confront the government’s security apparatus. A practitioner’s choice of activities likely reflected what it was about Falun Gong that was most meaningful to him or her, the exercise, the meditation and spirituality, or the communal aspects. Chinese authorities implicitly recognized the differences by meting out different punishments for different forms of commitment.
Freedom of Belief in China
The crackdown on Falun Gong is reminiscent of the long history of efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to eradicate religion, and when that proved impossible, to permit its citizens to “enjoy freedom of religious belief” and to protect “normal religious activities,” but only under state control.
Much of initial religious policy was designed to bring so-called Western religions under Chinese control by replacing “imperialist forces” with “independent, self-governed, and autonomous churches.” At first, foreign clerics were deported or executed along with their Chinese counterparts. As a second step the government mandated that there be no institutional ties with foreign religious bodies and began the process of crafting a bureaucracy from the local level on up that could effectively oversee all churches, mosques, monasteries, and temples. Although the work was violently interrupted during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when all religious expression was prohibited and driven underground, it began again in the early 1980s when Chinese leaders realized they needed cooperation from all sectors of society to advance their development agenda. Full achievement of the state’s official atheist ethic could be postponed indefinitely; for the time being it would apply only to Party members. But the government’s belief that religion is inherently subversive, a vehicle for foreign and domestic anti-China forces, continued to drive religious policy and contributed to the crackdown on Falun Gong.
Although the Chinese constitution protects freedom of belief and “normal” religious activities, a series of regulations circumscribes both. Some date from the 1980s; the most recent, “Rules for Implementation of the Provisions on the Administration of Religious Activities of Aliens within the Territory of the People’s Republic of China,” was promulgated on September 26, 2000. These regulations provide for financial oversight on the part of government authorities, vetting of religious leaders and religious publications, determination of religious curricula,and a program to bring religious beliefs into conformity with socialism. To illustrate that the state was to control all religious expression, Chinese officials dealt harshly with religious leaders who refused to be coopted. Catholic bishops, Tibetan monks, Protestant clerics, and Muslim imams who inspired extraordinary loyalty from worshipers or who resisted government edicts went to prison or simply were “disappeared.” Nor did the government hesitate to use mass campaign- style tactics in areas where local antagonism to official religious policies was well entrenched. The same tactics-new laws and regulations, harsh sentences, and a mass campaign-were applied to Falun Gong.
The government’s constitutional guarantee of freedom to believe and protection of “normal religious activities” falls far short of applicable international law standards. First, thre is no legal protection for belief systems other than religion. By contrast, Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) distinguishes between religion and belief and recognizes that freedom of choice pertains to both. Chinese authorities limit the right to “have or to adopt a religion or belief of [one’s] choice” in still another way, by recognizing only five faiths as legitimate, Daoism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism (called Christianity in China). Thus, Falun Gong would not qualify for constitutional protection even if it were a religion, which it emphatically says it is not. It is the one thing on which Falun Gong practitioners and Chinese authorities agree.
China’s religious policy fails to meet international standards in still another way: its protection only of “normal” religious activities and its failure to define normal in ways consistent with Article 18 or with the standards for derogation therein. Under international law, the only limitations on manifestation of religion or belief in “worship, observance, practice, and teaching,” “individually or in community with others…in public or private,” must be “prescribed by law” and be “necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.” Although Chinese officials have claimed that Falun Gong poses a threat to each area listed, they have failed to provide evidence in support of their accusations. Peaceful gatherings in public parks to exercise and perhaps meditate violate none of the proscriptions, nor do parents who school their children “in conformity with their own convictions,” as some Falun Gong practitioners do.
The 1991 U.N. General Assembly “Declaration on the Elimination of All Form of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief” further elaborates on the rights permitted believers, a category to which Falun Gong practitioners belong. Article 6 is particularly applicable to their case, including as it does the right to “write, issue and disseminate relevant publications,” “to teach a religion or belief in places suitable for these purposes,” and “to establish and maintain communications with individuals and communities in matters of religion and belief at the national and international levels.” Chinese authorities have banned all further production and dissemination of Falun Gong materials and confiscated and burned hundreds of thousands of books, pictures, and tapes. The courts have sent distributors, even those who have handed out a few leaflets, to prison or labor camps. Communication among practitioners all across China has been branded a plot to overthrow the government, and has resulted in long prison sentences for alleged organizers.
Chinese Authorities and Falun Gong
Chinese authorities initially treated Falun Gong as a loosely knit group of quirky but benign qigong devotees. All this changed on April 25, 1999 when Falun Gong showed its capacity to quickly mobilize massive numbers. From all reports, more than 10,000 practitioners, most of them middle-aged, lined up in an orderly column around two sides of Zhongnanhai, the compound in the heart of Beijing where China’s leaders live and work. They had begun arriving in groups, primarily from townships in the countryside, as early as 3 a.m. Young leaders saw to it that strict discipline was observed. For example, practitioners were forbidden to speak with foreigners or with members of the press, to hoist banners, to shout slogans or distribute pamphlets, or to litter. By late afternoon the followers had dispersed, as quickly and as quietly as they had come. Onlookers said the police were as orderly as the demonstrators.
For almost three months after the April 25 demonstration, the Chinese leadership was ominously quiet. That is not to say that the forthcoming crackdown was unexpected or that Falun Gong leaders were unprepared. On April 28, a government official, warning believers not to repeat the April 25 protest, said in a Xinhua interview that ran in newspapers and on the air, “Those who jeopardize social stability under the pretext of practicing any `qigong’ will be dealt with according to the law.”
By May 7, reports were circulating that President Jiang Zemin had called the group a major threat, that a high-level task force had been formed with Party leaders Hu Jintao and Luo Gan in charge, and that the decision to designate Falun Gong an illegal organization had already been made. By June 1999, security in Beijing had been tightened. Early in the month, police held several busloads of practitioners in a local stadium for a day. Later in June, some 3,000 police officers cleared out practice sites on Changan Avenue, Beijing’s major thoroughfare, and vowed to clean up all public practice sites in the city. Even as Party officials denied reports of an imminent crackdown, they warned Falun Gong leaders to stop spreading rumors designed to “provoke” the membership intoreadying demonstrations.
The Chinese leadership also began to prepare the general public and rank-and-file Party members for the upcoming campaign. On June 20, Renmin Ribao (People’s Daily), the Chinese Communist Party newspaper, launched a “theoretical” series that obliquely set out the rationale for the crackdown. Without mentioning Falun Gong, the initial article discussed the necessity of opposing superstition and pseudo-science and advocating a worldview encompassing science and technology, Marxism-Leninism, and materialism if the goal of rapid development and modernization were to be achieved. Other commentaries explicitly addressed how dangerous Falun Gong had become. They stressed its political orientation and its threat to the Chinese Communist Party’s power, the risks it posed to the nation’s stability, and the appalling consequences-allegedly 1,400 deaths and counting-of Li Hongzhi’s resistance to scientific medical practice. The articles also made explicit how Party members, cadres, public security officials, and judicial officers were to conduct themselves. They were expected to maintain discipline and be consistent cultural exemplars-a veiled warning that they not practice Falun Gong-and they were to stay within the law when “combating” the Falun Gong threat no matter how resistant practitioners might be.
Falun Gong responded immediately and publicly. Li Hongzhi set the line- “we do not involve ourselves in politics and we abide by the laws of the country”-and, foreshadowing events to come, Falun Gong spokespersons vigorously protested thegovernment’s use of the terms “cult” and “sect.” They also insisted, somewhat disingenuously, that the April event was “spontaneous.” It quickly became evident, that despite Li Hongzhi’s declaration that he would “not take Falun Gong practitioners to confront [the government]” even in the face of provocation, members were mobilizing resistance. Ten days before the first roundup of key Falun Gong organizers on July 20, mass protests against media criticism erupted in several cities.
Once preparations were complete, Chinese officials moved quickly and decisively on several fronts, rounding up leaders and practitioners; issuing a series of directives that would allow the government to later claim its crackdown had a legal basis; destroying Falun Gong material including books, tapes, photographs, and posters; and issuing a steady stream of invective against Li Hongzhi and Falun Gong.
Falun Gong says its philosophies and slow-motion meditation exercises aim to promote good health and moral living. It purports to be a spiritual movement.
The Chinese government has been concerned by the group’s ability to organize and says it is an “evil” cult controlled by its U.S.-based founder Li Hongzhi and it spreads superstition and malicious fallacies to deceive people.
While Beijing has arrested and imprisoned hundreds of Falun Gong members since the movement was outlawed in 1999, followers continue to protest around the world and in Hong Kong where the sect is still a legally registered society.
The debate surrounding Falun Gong’s status as a harmless organization or evil cult continues with the Chinese government remaining implacable.