CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

"The cult that frightens the Communists"

by Richard Hopkins ("The Tablet" - London, 25 November 2000)

The Chinese Communist authorities feel themselves particularly threatened by the Falun Gong, and crack down on members of the group wherever they can be found. A lecturer who has recently returned from teaching at a university in Beijing exposes the complex and sometimes sinister aspects on both sides of the conflict.
TIANANMEN Square, the largest urban civic space in the world, is laid out to the glory of the People’s Republic of China. To the north it is bounded by the smooth terracotta-red wall of the Forbidden City, on which hangs a 30-foot portrait of Chairman Mao. The real Mao lies supine inside a pink neo-classical palace to the south – the Maosoleum, as it is known by the ex-pats – his skin tinted orange with age and formaldehyde. Sculptures and bas-reliefs of revolutionary heroes ornament the approaches to the tomb. The Great Hall of the People marks the western limit of the square, the Chinese Revolutionary History Museum the eastern. During the daytime, carp, dragonflies and buzzards made of silk and balsa-wood swoop and swoon above the paving of the square, plucked at by the hands of the kite-sellers.
At present, though it is rarely reported in the Western press, Tiananmen Square sees violence most mornings. What usually happens is this. A group of middle-aged Chinese men and women unfurl the bright yellow flags of their spiritual group, Falun Gong, and begin to practise the five callisthenic exercises of the group. Almost at once, the uniformed police who patrol the square, and the plain-clothes agents who lean against the trees, or loiter near the underground exits, converge on them, beat them, and bundle them into the government vans that appear. The protesters can be heard chanting "Falun Gong is good, Falun Gong is good" until they disappear into the sound-proofed interior of the vans.
From the square, the protesters might be transported to a variety of institutions: detention centre, labour camp, prison, or, worst of all, mental hospital. Since the Chinese Government outlawed Falun Gong on 22 July 1999, labelling it an "evil cult" (and therefore placing it outside the pale of the Chinese constitution’s protection of religious liberty), they have clamped down savagely upon its practitioners. The Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, based in Hong Kong, estimates that tens of thousands of people have been detained, 5,000 have been sent to labour camps for "re-education", and 300 are serving prison terms. There have been more than 30 deaths or suicides in custody, and Amnesty reports that the government is also using the sixiang gaizao or "thought-reform" techniques which came into vogue during the Cultural Revolution years (1966-76). "Re-educative" drugs are being administered to the most recalcitrant of followers, who are kept in secret wards in the country’s mental hospitals.
What exactly is Falun Gong? Its Chinese name can be translated as "Dharma Wheel Practice", and at its simplest it involves the practice of slow-motion exercises which fortify and harmonize the qi, or vital energy, of each individual; a well-maintained qi means increased resistance to diseases and improved longevity. There are many methods of looking after one’s qi and Falun Gong, which was developed by a railway official named Li Hongzhi in the early 1990s, is only one among a legion of such qi-oriented practices. What sets Falun Gong apart from the others, however, and what has also made it a particular target for a Chinese Government currently cracking down on "unauthorised" religious associations of all sorts, is its size. The Falun Gong propaganda machine, well-oiled by the donations of wealthy overseas followers, claims 100 million adherents in 40 countries, the majority of whom are mainland Chinese. According to its last self-census, conducted in April 2000, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) itself only has 63.5 million members.
While the CCP claims it to be a "cult", the Falun Gong website (www.minghui.ca/) asks for journalists to refer to it rather as a "group", or "practice". We might conventionally understand a cult to be a new religion, often established by a charismatic leader, as opposed to a sect, which is a splinter group of a pre-existent religion. We might also associate sporadic violence and "irrationality" with cults, and suppose that the individual members of a cult subordinate their personalities to a group mindset.
How well does this rough template fit Falun Gong? Well, there is to date no reported instance of a Falun Gong follower using violence in the face of violence, and the image peddled by the propaganda of Falun Gong is nothing more than a globally popular keep-fit programme. And yet, and yet. There is, I think, a definite cultishness to Falun Gong. Bound up with its physical practice is a programme of moral self-improvement (whose apparently admirable central principles are "Truthfulness", "Compassion", and "Tolerance"), which is becoming increasingly underwritten by a doctrinal literature compounded from mainstream Buddhism, Taoism and Christianity. Li Hongzhi, who is in exile in America, is indubitably grooming himself into a Messianic figure. He has cleverly exploited the absenteeism of an exile to assimilate himself to the status of quasi-divinity, issuing remote proclamations to his followers about an imminent "Consummation" or "Fa-rectification" (i.e. apocalypse) that will consume the world, and out of which he will lead them into utopia. Li has also patched together a simplistic though consistent Falun Gong world-view, in which a Manichaean drama of struggle and redemption is played out between the "sinister, old, malicious forces" – whose terrestrial avatars are the CCP and its henchmen – and "Dafa", the benevolent universal force represented by Li Hongzhi and his followers.
I have been watching the changing nature of the content on the Falun Gong website, and it is becoming increasingly "cultish" in accent. A recent proclamation by Li (dated 22/10/00), entitled "Suffocate the Evil", identifies the disciplinary guards in "Masanjia Labour Re-education Camp" as "reincarnated ghosts from hell", a description that is in no way intended as metaphor. The followers who have successfully been re-educated – i.e. who have renounced their belief in Falun Gong – he describes as "hidden malignant tumours", and orders that they "be removed from among disciples". Another, longer homily orders "cultivators" (Li’s own word for his votaries – a curious choice given his allergy to the suggestion that Falun Gong is a "cult") to "eliminate human attachments – including the attachment to their human lives, in order to reach the realms of higher beings". Rhetoric of this sort, with its barely submerged messages of violence, is far from the innocent voice-over to a set of exercises.
It is in many ways the CCP’s policy of persecution that has transformed Falun Gong from a way of behaving into a way of thinking. With something to define itself against, the quality of adherence to Falun Gong has stiffened from following to faith. The official persecution has also unwittingly supplied Falun Gong with the apparatus of a religion. It has, for example, created martyrs throughout China, notably Chen Zixiu, a 58-year-old widow who was tortured for two days by rural police using truncheons and hosepipes. She died in custody, having refused to renounce her belief in Falun Gong. A Chinese friend of mine who is a follower is absolutely committed to her "faith", although she has been arrested on two occasions, stripped naked and tortured, although her husband has had to resign from his job, and although her friend, who was arrested with her, was beaten so badly by the police that his spine was broken in three places. Certainly, for the followers that I met in China, Falun Gong was very much more a faith than a practice. And here is the important distinction – they were prepared to suffer imprisonment and torture for their beliefs rather than for their civil right to believe. In other words, the protesters who are beaten daily in Tiananmen Square are not upholding an abstract libertarian principle of self-determination, they are hoping to exonerate and exalt their own personal brand of faith.
The very public persecution of Falun Gong continued undimmed even during the period of delicate negotiation concerning China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation. It is clear that the CCP is extremely alarmed: the Ministry of Civil Affairs recently identified Falun Gong as "the biggest challenge for China’s ruling party since the founding of the People’s Republic of China". There are, I think, three principal reasons for their alarm. The first is the size of the organisation. Statistically, Falun Gong bespeaks the current malaise in China: the sense that Marxism has become a bankrupt philosophy for all but the party faithful, and that a vacuum of belief has descended upon the country – an environment in which cults and sects proliferate. The second is the extent to which Falun Gong has penetrated all levels of Chinese society, from the vast bedrock labouring class to the upper strata – academics, the armed forces, even the Government itself. An air-force general was recently sentenced to 17 years in a labour camp for practising Falun Gong, and a department chief from the Ministry of Security has also been prosecuted. City Hall, it must seem to the CCP, is being brought down from the inside. The third is the organisation of the organisation. Falun Gong has proved itself to be, despite its numbers, an extremely wieldy body, adept at eluding the traps set for it by the police. Much of the communication between members is done via the internet and mobile phones, proving that the new technologies are unsticking the grip of the CCP over the individual. Falun Gong is an expansive, slick and streamlined operation; the CCP by contrast appears insular, inefficient, and rotted through by corruption.
The CCP claims that Falun Gong is harmful to the health of the Chinese people, and that its persecution is therefore legal, even desirable. Its main contention is that more than 2,500 Chinese have died unnecessarily through failing to seek proper (i.e. Chinese or Western) medical treatment. I recently obtained a copy of Li Hongzhi and His Falun Gong: deceiving the public and ruining lives, a lurid 130-page CCP publication which has been distributed by the Government to overseas Chinese across the world. It contains, aside from statistics and a good deal of anecdotal evidence (including testimonials from doctors indicting Falun Gong), graphic photographs of Falun Gong "victims" who have taken their own lives under its influence. A typical shot shows the body of a man hanging above a bundle of half-burnt incense wands and a photograph of Li Hongzhi: damning evidence on the face of it, but there is nothing to prove that the photographs had not been placed there by a CCP photographer.
It is very easy to cast the persecution of Falun Gong as a morality play, with the Chinese Government personifying evil and oppression, and Falun Gong innocence and goodness, but this reading of the situation is dangerously blunt. The CCP’s method of dealing with what they perceive to be primarily a threat to their organisation, and secondarily a threat to the public health, is abhorrent. But Falun Gong, although it would like to paint itself as a benevolent practice, is actually metamorphosing into something far less ingenuous, with increasing potential for hurt.

What Is Falun Gong? See "Falun Gong 101", by Massimo Introvigne


CESNUR reproduces or quotes documents from the media and different sources on a number of religious issues. Unless otherwise indicated, the opinions expressed are those of the document's author(s), not of CESNUR or its directors

[Home Page] [Cos'è il CESNUR] [Biblioteca del CESNUR] [Testi e documenti] [Libri] [Convegni]

[Home Page] [About CESNUR] [CESNUR Library] [Texts & Documents] [Book Reviews] [Conferences]