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July - 16 - 2010
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Where Did It Go Wrong With the Falun Gong?
In China, the Falun Gong was introduced to the public in 1992. Its teachings embrace spiritual, religious, mystical and metaphysical ideas, and place emphasis on morality and virtue. The practice also promises health benefits to the practitioner. Falun Gong echoes traditional Chinese beliefs that humans are connected to the universe through mind. It attempts to unveil myths of the universe, time-space, and the human body. It places a heavy emphasis on morality in its central tenets – truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance – and its teachings draw on Buddhist and Taoist concepts – and on qi gong, the art and science of using breathing techniques, gentle movement, and meditation to cleanse, strengthen, and circulate the life energy (qi). This eclectic mixture of beliefs has also found room for belief in aliens and extraterrestrials. Whatever the opinions of non-believers might be, Falun Gong has always seen itself as a spiritual, non-political movement like the many other qi gong groups in China. Falun Gong differs from them in having a much wider ranging belief system and no daily rituals of worship or rites of passage, and of course of having fallen foul of the government.

With its emphasis on family ties and community relationships, the Falun Gong movement started to attract a wide range of adherents from all walks of life – including numerous members of the Chinese Communist Party. So far, so innocuous, one might think, but in 1996 critical articles in the Chinese press began to appear and in 1999 the Chinese government banned Falun Gong. It has vigorously pursued and punished the movement ever since. How and why should this persecution have happened?

Students of Chinese history may find a partial explanation in the long-established autocratic tradition in Chinese politics. Its origin can be traced as far back as the unification of China under central political authority by the Qin dynasty in 221 BC. This centralised system has endured for two thousand years. According to Zhengyuan Fu in his book ‘Autocratic Tradition and Chinese Politics’, the communist takeover of 1949 was not so much a revolution as a continuation of the imperial tradition, which places the state as the most important factor in determining socio-economic change.

The Marxist-Leninist doctrine of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and the one-party state was easily accommodated to this tradition. Once the Communist party had assumed power, it launched a series of violent campaigns to consolidate its control. Thus the crackdown on the Falun Gong follows on from the suppression of ‘counter-revolutionaries, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the 1989 destruction of the democracy movement. Because the Communist Party is the sole source of political power and authority, there can be no role for institutions independent of it. They are either banned or allowed only to operate under state licence.

Another reason for persecution is that the militant atheism of Marxist-Leninism is antithetical to all religious belief and any philosophy with a spiritual or mystical content. China’s constitution of 1982 protects freedom of religion but it only officially recognises Buddhism, Taoism, Islam and Christianity (Protestant and Catholic). These religions are at best tolerated and never encouraged. Falun Gong therefore registered not as a religion but as a ‘qi gong’ movement. Paradoxically this made it more attractive to Communist Party members who are not permitted to belong to any religion.

Looking back over the history of Falun Gong, it becomes clear that the more popular the movement became, the greater was the hostility of the Chinese government. One might ask what was so appealing about Falun Gong in the first place. Some have suggested, Communist ideology itself, which emphasises only the economic and material factors in life. It lacks a spiritual dimension, which Falun Gong could supply. Marxism-Leninism itself was in the process of being re-branded by the leadership, but not to meet this need. ‘Free market capitalism with socialist characteristics’ was its new, unmystical name. Falun Gong was therefore a movement waiting to happen and its unlikely founder was a man called Li Hongzhi.

Li Hongzhi, was born in 1952 and spent his childhood in Jilin Province, north-eastern China. On leaving school, he worked on a People’s Liberation Army stud farm. He then worked as a trumpeter in a police band, and as a security guard and grain store clerk among various other jobs. In later years, Li in his autobiography explained how he, an ordinary man, became the spiritual leader of millions. He claimed to have spent the years between the ages of four and eight training in qigong – under a Buddhist master, and then, aged 12, at the hands of a Taoist teacher. In 1992, he founded the Falun Gong movement.

China in the early 1990s did not lack cults and religious groups. As Isabel Hilton explained in the New Statesman in 2003: “The death of Mao Zedong and the retreat from millenarian communism, the disillusionment of the generation that lived through the cultural revolution – all had created a vacuum of belief that was to be filled with everything from Confucianism to a belief in aliens. Li’s philosophy inclines to the aliens end of the spectrum but this did not diminish Falun Gong’s popularity.”

At first, the Chinese government did not oppose the Falun Gong movement – far from it. As a form of qigong, it was seen by the governing elite as part of China’s indigenous cultural tradition and as a politically safe source of national pride. In the wider community it appealed because it advocated righteousness in a country riddled with corruption. It promised good health to the many who had lost access to medical services, and it gave a much needed sense of purpose and well-being. With the events of Tiananmen Square in mind, the government doubtless preferred the Falun Gong belief system to dangerous Western ideas, as a source of popular allegiance. The movement rapidly spread and official Chinese government figures put the membership at 70 million, more than that of the Communist party itself at that time. Li was later to claim a membership of 100 million. These uncomfortable statistics may well have contributed to the government’s growing unease.

From 1992 to 1994 Li toured major cities in China to teach the practice of Falun Gong. He was well received and the movement grew rapidly. The main book on Falun Gong, Zhuan Falun was published and became a best-seller in China. But in mid-1996 articles critical of the movement began to appear in the Chinese press. The Guangming Daily, an influential national newspaper, published an attack on Falun Gong which declared that the history of humanity is a “struggle between science and superstition.” With Zhuan Falun in mind, it called on Chinese publishers not to print “pseudo-scientific books of the swindlers.” The signal having been given, other newspapers piled in and in July the Central Propaganda Department banned all publication of Falun Gong books. Thousands of Falun Gong followers wrote to the Guangming Daily and to the Department to complain. Li stressed the importance of active defence of Falun Gong by true disciples of the movement. Since practitioners had no access to the media, street demonstrations were their only means of self-expression. However, they did have access to the internet, which ever since has helped the movement to organise and disseminate information.

Trouble really began for the Falun Gong in April 1999 when a group of its practitioners was arrested and beaten up by the police in Tianjin, a city about 90 miles south east of Beijing. The group had gathered to protest at an editorial in the magazine of the local university attacking qi gong groups for their practices and superstitions. Initially, the editors agreed to publish a retraction but changed their minds. Within days the number of demonstrators swelled to the thousands. Three hundred riot police tried to disperse the crowd, some of the practitioners were beaten and forty-five arrested. Hundreds then marched to the municipal government to demand their liberation. On 25th of April there was a follow-up protest by over 10,000 Falun Gong in Beijing. They lined the streets near Zhongnanhai in silent protest for 24 hours. The Zhongnanhai is the central headquarters of the Communist Party of China and the Central People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China. It is to China what the White House is to the USA – a symbol of the leadership and governance of the nation. The protesters sent representatives to meet the authorities and requested the release of those imprisoned after the Tianjin demonstration.

The response of the party and the Politburo to the protest and its unprecedented Zhongnanhai location is reported to have been divided. Those who favoured a hard line, including President Jiang Zemin, prevailed and on 20 July 1999, the Chinese government outlawed the Falun Gong. The reasons reported in the People’s Daily were that the organisation “engaged in illegal activities, advocating superstition and spreading fallacies, hoodwinking people, inciting and creating disturbances, and jeopardizing social stability.”

The Xinhua news agency joined in. Its commentary declared: “Learning the political nature of Falun Gong, an illegal organization under the control of Li Hongzhi, will help people understand that the fight against Falun Gong cult is a serious ideological and political struggle”. It added that the organisation was anti-party and anti-government and that it “preaches idealism, theism and feudal superstition. It established stations at all levels to form a highly-organized illegal system, and even penetrated some important Party and government organizations”. The commentary clearly conveyed the fear and paranoia of the authorities: “Li Hongzhi and Falun Gong under his control instigated its practitioners to besiege and attack press organizations and Party and government institutions and organized large-scale illegal gatherings to put pressure on the Party and government, and even gathered more than 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners around the Zhongnanhai compound on April 25, where the headquarters of the Party and government organizations are located. (this was a critical moment because from this time government fear entered the equation). These facts show the political nature of Falun Gong, which is unconstitutional, anti-government and anti-society”.

On 22nd July 1999, the Beijing authorities declared Falun Gong an “evil cult”. Its leader Li Hong Zhi issued a statement that Falun Gong ‘does not have any particular organization, let alone any political objectives”. He added: “We are not against the government now, nor will we be in the future. Other people may treat us badly, but we do not treat others badly, nor do we treat people as enemies. We are calling for all governments, international organizations, and people of goodwill worldwide to extend their support and assistance to us in order to resolve the present crisis that is taking place in China”.

Li had already fled to the US in 1998 where he now lives with his wife and daughter in relative seclusion, apart from occasional lectures to Falun Gong followers in the major US cities. He seldom gives interviews and remains high on China’s ‘most wanted’ list. From 1999 to the present, those less fortunate practitioners of Falun Gong who remained in China have been vigorously persecuted along with other groups deemed “heretical organisations” by the government. The crackdown has taken the form of a media campaign against the group, ‘rehabilitation through labour’ of Falun Gong practitioners, and various forms of violence and abuse.

The ‘evil cult’ label applied to Falun Gong in the Chinese government’s media campaign is an attempt to show that the movement is not just another harmless qi gong sect. Rather the government asserts that like other cults, its superstitious, unscientific practices damage people’s mental and physical health, cheat its followers, separate families and undermine social stability. It is also represented as a threat to progress and modernity and as anti-Chinese and in thrall to the West. This uncompromising demonisation is designed to enlist the support of the widest possible cross-section of Chinese society. The commentary in the Peoples Daily, previewed by Xinhua in February 2001, captures the flavour of the campaign which has continued in the same form until the present. The article follows the attempt by seven people (allegedly Falun Gong) to set themselves ablaze in Tiananmen Square on 23 January 2001, the eve of Chinese New Year. Here are some extracts:

“ The suicidal attempts, which left one dead and four others seriously injured, were a terrible tragedy on the eve of the Chinese New Year ….. “

“Similar to other evil cults worldwide, Falun Gong idolizes its ringleader, Li Hongzhi, who fled to the United States, tortures human life, endangers the whole society and infringes on human rights….”

“Since founding Falun Gong, Li has carried out spiritual worship for himself and disseminated malicious theories of doomsday and sin eradication among practitioners”.

“Li fabricates malicious fallacies and proclaims that the law of Falun is a kind of supernatural science. Under the disguise of pursuing truthfulness, goodness and forbearance, the cult leader advocates fatalism and organizes underground activities in order to subvert the government”.

“The Falun Gong cult attempts to spiritually control its practitioners, many of whom have gone too far and become maniacal”.

“Before the ban on Falun Gong, many of its members beguiled by Li refused to take medicine when ill and some even committed suicide”.

“Official statistics show that in the last couple of years, more than 1,600 Falun Gong practitioners have died unnatural deaths throughout the country, which has affected thousands of families”.

“On April 5, 2000, a Falun Gong practitioner in Jiutaihe City, northeast Jilin Province, burnt himself to death, leaving only a letter to his wife and family”.

“In the suicide incident in Tiananmen Square on January 23, the cult bewitched a 19 year old college student and a 12-year-old girl to set themselves on fire”.

“While Falun Gong believers shed blood in China, Li and his family have led a luxurious life in the United States, with the money they gained through cheating practitioners and other benefactors….”

“The suicide incident on January 23 exposed again the evil nature of the Falun Gong cult, which must be rooted out for the sake of long-term social stability and safety of the people…..”

This attack clearly portrayed Falun Gong as possessing every imaginable human vice without a single redeeming virtue. All conceivable grounds for moral outrage could now be directed at it. Falun Gong had now passed from an innocuous, apolitical qi gong group, to its new role of devil incarnate.

The People’s Daily in 1999 reported the confiscation of one and a half million Falun Gong books and the closure of publishing houses, wholesale and retail businesses involved in distribution.

There were also reports of harassment of foreign journalists who reported the Chinese Government’s crackdown on the Falun Gong. Over the years China’s battle with Falun Gong has also been fought in cyberspace with Falun Gong websites around the world.

Another form of attack on the Falun Gong is the use of forced labour camps modelled on the Soviet Gulag system. It is called ‘re-education (or rehabilitation) through labour’. According to the Ministry of Public Security, it is an administrative measure of reform through compulsory education designed to change offenders into people who “obey law, respect public virtue, love their country, love hard work, and possess certain standards of education and productive skills for the building of socialism. “The system involves detention and punishment administratively imposed on minor offenders who are not legally considered criminals. The sentences are imposed by the police and people are rarely charged or tried before being detained. It was through this procedure that most Falun Gong detainees were processed. Re-education through labour is separate from ‘reform though labour’, a parallel system, to that where offenders are sentenced under the judicial system to prisons, labour camps, and labour farms.

A Human Rights Watch report on re-education through labour details major problems of procedure. The recipient of ‘re-education’ has no right to a hearing, no right to legal representation and no right to a judicial determination of the case.

“What really concerns international rights groups are the often appalling conditions in the camps and the arbitrary way in which people are sent there”, stated BBC reporter Tim Luard in 2005. “Most inmates in the regular prison system have been convicted of what would generally be regarded as crimes in the West. And only a small proportion these days are political prisoners (China denies it holds any at all). But anyone can be held under a form of detention known as “re-education through labour” with no trial or sentencing procedure of any kind. This system allows police to send people to labour camps for up to four years on a variety of vaguely-defined offences without having to present a case to prosecutors or judges. About 300,000 people – the highest number ever – are currently held under this system in some 300 camps”.

Falun Gong members together with unauthorised religious groups and separatist-minded ethnic minorities are sent to these camps, along with drug addicts and prostitutes. Luard reports the claim by Falun Gong that tens of thousands of its followers have been held in these camps, with many subjected to torture, and that more than 1,000 of them have died.

Human rights groups have been unable to confirm those deaths but say there are frequent reports of physical abuse by guards using electric batons and by cell bosses selected to “maintain order” over fellow inmates.

There have been calls for the system to be reformed or replaced. In the past decade, the UN has called on China to allow judicial control over detentions. In 2004, the UN recommended that all forms of administrative detention be abolished. It has called for the establishment of rights to due process and counsel for individuals detained. In 2005 the Special Rapporteur on Torture called for the outright abolition of re-education through labour. In March 2007 the Chinese government did announce that it would abolish the re-education through labour system and replace it with more lenient laws. According to the government proposal, the maximum sentence would be lowered from four years to 18 months, re-education centres would be renamed “correction centres” and their fences and gates removed. Doubts remain internationally as to whether any of these promises have been implemented.

Evidence of physical violence against Falun Gong is plentiful. In 2000, an Amnesty Report called “China: The Crackdown on Falun Gong and Other So-called ‘Heretical Organisations’ ” declared:

“Tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners have been arbitrarily detained by police, some of them repeatedly for short periods, and put under pressure to renounce their beliefs. Many of them are reported to have been tortured or ill-treated in detention. Some practitioners have been detained in psychiatric hospitals. Those who have spoken out publicly about the persecution of practitioners since the ban have suffered harsh reprisals”.

Six years later, the situation had not improved. In 2006 Amnesty highlighted torture and ill-treatment. These include kicking, beating, electric shocks, suspension by the arms, shackling in painful positions, and sleep and food deprivation. A shocking example of a Falun Gong victim was Gao Rongrong, who was tortured by Chinese security forces and died in custody. It was alleged that she had been beaten with electro-shock batons on her face and neck, which caused severe blistering and eyesight problems. Her offence was that having been sent to a forced labour camp, she was caught reading Falun Gong literature.

In March 2010, the US House of Representatives called for an end to the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners in China. The resolution, the most recent of six, also called upon the Chinese regime “to immediately cease and desist from its campaign to persecute, intimidate, imprison, and torture Falun Gong practitioners, to immediately abolish the 6-10 office, an extrajudicial security apparatus given the mandate to ‘eradicate’ Falun Gong.”

Another form of physical abuse is the alleged harvesting of organs belonging to living Falun Gong prisoners. Evidence of such a practice is inconclusive but was referred to recently in a statement by U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. She declared: “The Falun Gong spiritual discipline is based on truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. Yet these innocents are brutally targeted by the Chinese regime, whose heinous tactics include harvesting the organs of Falun Gong practitioners and violently harassing even those practitioners living in the United States.” This refers to claims that many of the Falun Gong who have fled to America have been followed there by the Chinese government which ‘cyber-attacks’ their American web sites, installs agents in their midst, and raises crowds to harass and beat them, as happened in New York in 2009.

Psychiatric abuse of Falun Gong practitioners is another form of abuse. The UN Committee on Torture reaffirmed in 2008 that no-one should involuntarily be placed in a psychiatric institution for reasons other than medical.

Such torture includes the administering of chemical substances that cause damage to the central nervous system.

The US-based Falun Gong Human Rights Working Group this year submitted a detailed compilation of 1,089 incidents of Falun Gong practitioners who were subjected to various forms of psychiatric abuse, causing hallucinations, severe pain, paralysis, and sometimes death. Such abuse occurs not only in hospitals but in ‘re-education through labour’ and prison camps.

The crackdown by the Chinese government on Falun Gong has lasted a decade and shows no sign of diminishing. It has also become a global propaganda war fought out through press, television and the internet. The western media are both bystanders and participants. Their ignorance of the cultural context of this Chinese conflict is often considerable and the reporting of it varies in objectivity. The Chinese regime attracts knee-jerk hostility and suspicion in some quarters. Some media harbour hostility and suspicion towards the Chinese regime. Others are mystified by the quasi-mysticism and oddity of Falun Gong beliefs. In such a maelstrom, it is sometimes difficult to know where the truth lies. However, there exists enough compelling evidence – in particular from reputable international organisations such as the UN, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch – that the Falun Gong has been the victim and not the perpetrator of this conflict. Many of its members have suffered terribly at the hands of a paranoid and cruel regime. It seems they will continue to do so until a more tolerant and accountable system of governance evolves.