Rooting Out Falun Gong - China Cracks Down on Mysticism

New York Times, April 30, 2000
By Craig S. Smith

SHANGHAI -- Surely China's rulers never dreamed that a spiritual movement started by a former grain company clerk could turn into the most serious challenge to their authority since the pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989. But that is what the brutal suppression of the group called Falun Gong has accomplished.

Extensive media coverage of China's actions -- which have led to at least a dozen deaths, alleged death by torture, thousands of cases of abuse and the harassment of tens of thousands -- has blighted the human rights reputation of the government.

But little light has been cast on why so many people feel Falun Gong, founded seven years ago and now claiming millions of adherents, is worth dying for. Nor is it widely understood in the West that aspects of the movement, or cult, suggest that its followers are misled and its leader deluded, or even a fraud. In fact, a closer examination of Falun Gong's beliefs and practices challenges some of the easy assumptions about Beijing's behavior.

Falun Gong's founder, Li Hongzhi, was one of many professed masters of traditional Chinese breathing exercises, known as qigong, to emerge during a resurgence of the discipline in the late 1980's and early 1990's. The exercises are meant to focus the body's vital energy, which traditional Chinese medicine calls qi. This energy has its mundane uses, like improving one's health and sense of well-being. But there has always been a supernatural undercurrent to its cultivation, which has included the belief that qigong (pronounced chee-goong) can also be used to develop the ability to fly, to move objects by telekinesis and to heal diseases.

Mr. Li differentiated himself from other qigong masters by wrapping his regimen in a cosmology that promises salvation through the refinement of one's character until the body literally evolves into another form of matter. At that point, the saved person is capable of flying to paradise, which may exist out in the cosmos, or in another dimension.

He said interracial children are the spawn of the "Dharma Ending Period," a Buddhist phrase that refers to an era of moral degeneration. In an interview last year, he said each race has its own paradise, and he later told followers in Australia that, "The yellow people, the white people, and the black people have corresponding races in heaven." As a result, he said, interracial children have no place in heaven without his intervention.

He also included many of China's folk superstitions, making references to fox and weasel spirits, which make Falun Gong attractive to the masses. It offered a homegrown religion, not the staid, state-sanctioned Buddhism and Taoism, or the foreign feel of Christianity. And it did so at a time when religious interest was on the rise, as disillusioned Chinese sought spiritual solace in the aftermath of the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989.

Mr. Li preaches a number of other peculiar doctrines, among them that the Earth is gradually being infiltrated by aliens. "Some people you see walking on the streets are, in fact, not humans," he told followers last year. He reports seeing green, blue and multicolored beings in other dimensions, and says the magician David Copperfield can fly. Mr. Li claims that he, too, can fly, though he says it is against his enlightened nature to do so in public.

None of this is metaphorical. In an interview last year, Mr. Li said all of the things he talks about are real, though he is constrained in describing them by the limitations of human language. What makes such pronouncements more than harmless eccentricity is that Mr. Li also exhorts his followers to "defend the Fa," or law, as described by his teachings, praising those who confront China's often brutish state police.

Consider Jimmy Zhou, an accountant and immigrant to the United States, who returned to China late last year to help keep the banned movement alive. Soon afterward, he was arrested, beaten and humiliated for a week before being released.

That Mr. Zhou should have to suffer for his beliefs is an ugly commonplace of totalitarian societies, though in this instance that may well play into the hands of the movement the government is trying to kill.

"I see them in the tradition of millennarian movements in Chinese history, movements that talk about a new world coming and have often spelled the end of a regime," says Merle Goldman, a professor of Chinese history at Boston University. "They start out as nonpoliticized movements, but the way the government reacts politicizes them."

Mr. Zhou insists, based on Mr. Li's teachings, that the French had discovered a two-billion-year-old nuclear reactor in Africa, evidence of a prehistoric civilization that practiced Falun Gong. Mr. Li's teachings also instruct Mr. Zhou that mankind has been "left in complete destruction" 81 times and that another round of destruction may be in the offing.

Mr. Zhou spoke ominously of this coming upheaval. "Something is going to happen," he said. "That doesn't mean a catastrophe, but there will be some sudden change that will be good for good people, but bad for bad people."

It is just this sort of theologizing that disturbs Chinese leaders. China has an uneducated, increasingly restive population, one historically prone to swift and often disastrous alignments behind charismatic leaders.

Nonetheless, Beijing's crackdown on the group was neither swift nor unconsidered. On April 25 last year, more than 10,000 Falun Gong followers surrounded Beijing's leadership compound on the 10th anniversary of the start of the 1989 pro-democracy protests. This amounted to a direct challenge to the party, and as such, Falun Gong's act was inherently political and certain to provoke a harsh response. Beijing claimed that the demonstration was orchestrated by Mr. Li, who first denied, then admitted, being in China the day before.

Until that demonstration, however, Falun Gong was tolerated and even enjoyed the open support of some government officials. Millions of followers congregated in public parks and plazas across the country each morning for group exercises. The Chinese press grew increasingly critical of the group in 1998 and early 1999.

In May 1998, after Beijing Television broadcast a program critical of the group, Falun Gong followers besieged the station. The municipal government told the station to resolve the dispute before the sensitive anniversary of the 1989 pro-democracy killings on June 4, a date on which the government is wary of any gatherings. The TV station buckled, fired the reporter who had produced the program and broadcast a positive piece on Falun Gong.

In the following months, the group staged dozens of such actions across the country, culminating in the massive demonstration on April 25.

Falun Gong is no more tolerant of the Western press. When I wrote in The Wall Street Journal last year about a $600,000 New Jersey home bought by Mr. Li's wife (Mr. Li said the house was actually a gift from a follower that was later returned), Mr. Li's spokesman, Zhang Erping, told me on the telephone, "How does it feel to know that millions of Falun Gong practitioners in China know your name?"

Afterward, I received dozens of e-mail messages and faxes from angry Falun Gong followers, including one from Lili Feng, an assistant professor at Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, who warned, "You will get paid back for what you said and did by gods."

Falun Gong has not been implicated in any violent acts, though Beijing clearly fears any mass movement it does not control. But it is particularly affronted by religious faith, which conflicts with the atheism that is the official creed of the party.

As a result, the regime has no moral credibility with which to fight an expressly spiritual foe. It cannot put forward its own view of spirituality, since it hasn't got one. The upshot is that the party is increasingly threatened by any belief system that challenges its ideology. If the followers of such a belief system demonstrate an ability to organize as well, the party may well feel it has no option but to attack it to retain its hold on power.

When asked if Falun Gong constitutes a genuine threat to the party, Richard Baum, acting director of the Center for Chinese Studies at U.C.L.A., said: "Only in the sense that it has the ability to organize thousands of followers beyond the reach of the state.

In a 'normal' society, there would not be repeated displays of state force against thousands of passive, peaceful citizens who were committing no crime other than bearing witness to their beliefs."

Meanwhile, Falun Gong followers show no sign of giving up the fight. One of them, Wang Jinzhi, has been detained three times for her beliefs and is now banned from entering the country, where she has a husband and child. But she said on Thursday from Japan, "I believe that in the near future not only China but the whole world will recognize Falun Gong as the law of the universe that created life."


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