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."
SHANGHAI, China -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.
Falun Gong's founder, Li Hongzhi, was one of many self-styled masters oftraditional Chinese breathing exercises, known as qigong, to emerge during a resurgence of the discipline in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The exercises are meant to focus the body's vital energy, which traditional Chinese medicine calls qi.
Li differentiated himself from other qigong masters by wrapping his regimen in a cosmology that promises salvation.
Li preaches a number of 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. Li claims that he can fly, though he says it is against his enlightened nature to do so in public.
Fifty-five years ago this month, a clergyman named Dietrich Bonhoeffer was marched from his prison cell at the Flossenburg concentration camp in Germany and hanged. Bonhoeffer, a Protestant minister who opposed Hitler, refused to keep silent about the persecution of the Jews. He spoke out repeatedly and fearlessly until the Nazis executed him.
Perhaps such a figure in history is far removed from our time and culture in America today. But there are many Protestant house-church leaders, pastors, Catholic bishops and priests in China who are modern-day Bonhoeffers.
Bonhoeffer suffered in prison for two years--from April 1943 to his death.
Bishop Peter Joseph Fan Xue-Yan died in a Chinese prison as a result of torture and physical abuse carried out against him there. Bishop Fan was imprisoned by the Chinese government in 1958 and held for 34 years because of his loyalty to the pope. In April 1992, security officers returned his frozen and broken body in a plastic sack.
Pastor Li Dexian, a Protestant church leader in China, has been suffering unrelenting religious persecution for more than 10 years. Despite the fact that he is overtly apolitical, Li has been arrested nine times and repeatedly beaten and threatened. That has not stopped him from continuing to boldly preach the Gospel every Tuesday at meetings that draw as many as 600 worshipers each week.
Bishop Zeng Jingmu has been in Chinese prisons because of his faith for almost 35 years. He was released from jail in 1998 and continues to be under house arrest, even though he is sick and 80 years old.
These people of faith in China, like Bonhoeffer, refused to be silenced by government. The American public deserves to know the truth about religious persecution in China. I've mentioned a few cases, but many Protestant house-church leaders and their followers are in prison in China today because of their faith. There are at least eight Catholic bishops in prison for their faith, some who have been held for close to 30 years. Muslims are persecuted and imprisoned for their faith. The Chinese government has plundered Tibet, destroying monasteries and imprisoning and torturing hundreds of Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns.
In just a few weeks Congress will be called upon to vote on the question of granting permanent normal trade relations to China. I will vote no on that question for many reasons, but one of the most important is China's deplorable human rights record.
Members of Congress and the American people have the right to know that 56 percent of the world's female suicides occur in China. That's 500 women every day who take their lives in China. Why? Is it because of China's persistent policy of forced abortion and sterilization?
Perhaps the word has not gotten out about the fact that there are more gulag prisons in China today than there were in Russia when Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote "The Gulag Archipelago." Perhaps they don't realize when they see the photo of the lone figure standing in front of advancing tanks that Tiananmen Square demonstrators are in forced-labor prison camps to this day.
As concerned as I am about human rights in China, there is another reason I cannot support normal trading relations. I recently received a troubling briefing from the U.S. intelligence community about the national security threat that China poses. Every member of Congress should have this information before the vote on the China trade issue. Moreover, the American people have a right to know about the national security threat from China and the potential danger it poses.
Americans deserve to know the extent of the espionage campaign that is directed against the United States and the high-technology community, including government labs. They need to know the implications of technology transfers to China that can and will be directed against our country. They also need to know the threat China poses through cyber terrorism. The Chinese Army Daily newspaper was quoted on a recent CBS "60 Minutes" program about China's threatening to use cyber terrorism against Taiwan: "Perhaps one day people will wake up in the morning to find out all the phone systems are down, computers hacked by viruses, the state treasury being emptied."
The vote on China trade relations could be one of the most important we make in Congress. We should have all the facts before us.
Hong Kong's Falun Gong movement appears to have split, with a mainstream group publicly distancing itself from a splinter group organising an international conference.
A statement issued by the Hong Kong Association of Falun Dafa yesterday said next month's conference idea "represents the intention of a few individuals".
"We would not endorse nor support [the conference] proposed by these few individuals," it said. "We are not planning to hold any international conference or similar activities in Hong Kong in the near future since the last conference was held only four months ago. "We emphasise that whatever consequences arising from these activities will be their sole responsibilities," the statement added.
The attack comes after sect member Belinda Pang San-san and American members Kenny Qiu Jianrui and Mary Qian on Tuesday announced plans for an international conference in Hong Kong similar to one held in December.
The last conference was organised by the association at about the same time as the Macau handover.
April 25 marked the first anniversary of a mass protest by more than 15,000 mainland sect members outside the Communist Party's Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Beijing.
The protest sparked the official crackdown on the sect across the mainland and a sustained propaganda campaign against founder Li Hongzhi, now living in the United States. Ms Pang said yesterday the conference would allow local and overseas members to share views and experiences. She hit back at the association. "Individuals answer to their own faith and Falun teachings, not to other members," she said. "If they think they are spokesmen, they obviously don't speak for me."
There were about 1,000 Hong Kong followers before the mainland crackdown a year ago but the rival groups admit the numbers have dropped. Neither group could say how many people they represent because members join activities voluntarily and informally.
The dispute follows differences between members over the staging of protests in Macau during its official handover ceremonies in December.
Hong Kong's Falun Gong movement appears to have split, with a mainstream group publicly distancing itself from a splinter group organising an international conference. A statement issued by the Hong Kong Association of Falun Dafa on Friday said next month's conference idea ''represents the intention of a few individuals''.
''We would not endorse nor support [the conference] proposed by these few individuals,'' it said.
''We emphasise that whatever consequences arising from these activities will be their sole responsibilities,'' the statement added.
The dispute follows differences between members over the staging of protests in Macau during official its handover ceremonies in December.
What Is Falun Gong? See "Falun Gong 101", by Massimo Introvigne
FALUN GONG UPDATES
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