Falun Gong, banned and persecuted in China, is described by the authorities as the quintessential xie jiao (“heterodox teaching”). Yet, until 1996, Falun Gong was hailed by the regime as a positive contributor to China’s physical and moral welfare. What happened in the following years?
In a previous weekly feature, Bitter Winter has discussed the notion of xie jiao, an expression wrongly translated in Chinese official documents in English as “evil cults,” but which in fact means “heterodox teachings.” Lists of xie jiao were compiled since the late Ming period, but were revived by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) since 1995. Being active in a xie jiao is a crime in China, and movements classified as such are mercilessly persecuted.
Today, the authorities present the non-Christian Falun Gong, together with The Church of Almighty God, a Christian Chinese new religious movement, as the quintessential xie jiao. However, Falun Gong was not part of the first xie jiao list, published in 1995, until early 1996and indicated as a positive example for its contributions to both physical and moral welfare of the Chinese population. Understanding what happened since requires a quick investigation into the history and teachings of Falun Gong.
Qi gong (气功) is a traditional complex of Chinese health techniques ranging from physical exercises and martial arts to meditation and based on mobilizing the breath energy, qi (气,). China had thousands of small or large movements teaching qi gong, and they were not only tolerated but encouraged by CCP and placed under the aegis of the Chinese Association for Research into Qi gong Science (中国气功科学研究会). As mentioned in studies we published about the “gray market” of religion in China, this tolerance and promotion of qi gong was based on a (perhaps deliberate) misunderstanding. While for Western scholars the religious background of qi gong, which is rooted in both Buddhism and Taoism, is obvious, in China it was presented as an expression of traditional Chinese science and culture rather than religion.
Falun Gong (法轮功), also known as Falun Dafa (法 轮大法), was one among many qi gong groups and movements in China when it was launched by Li Hongzhi (李洪志) in 1992 in Changchun, Jilin. The biography of Li Hongzhi is a subject of controversy, and his story is told in different ways by Falun Gong and the CCP. Even on his birth date in Gongzhuling, Jilin, there is no agreement. Early documents mention the date as July 7, 1952, but Li had it officially corrected to May 13, 1951, claiming the indication of the previous date was due to a clerical mistake. Since in 1951, May 13 corresponded to the birthday of Buddha, the CCP believes that Li changed his date of birth for religious reasons and that the 1952 date is the correct one. May 13 was also the date of Li’s lecture presenting Falun Gong to the world in 1992, and is celebrated by devotees as World Falun Dafa Day (世界法轮大法日). This fateful lecture was followed by many others. Li quickly gained the support of the Chinese Association for Research into Qi gong Science, which in turn was proud of the spectacular growth of Falun Gong. Statistics are another controversial matter, but it is not unbelievable that Falun Gong members grew to tens of millions. Seventy million is a figure often mentioned in both Falun Gong and CCP documents, although lower and higher estimates were also offered.
Falun Gong was successful and popular because, although this was later denied by critics, people found that it did deliver the health benefits it promised. Millions of practitioners could be observed in the early morning gathering and performing Falun Gong’s five fundamental exercises: Buddha Stretching a Thousand Arms (佛展千手法), Falun Standing Stance (法轮椿法), Coursing Between the Two Poles (贯通两极法), the Falun Cosmic Orbit (法轮周天法) and Reinforcing Supernatural Powers (神通加持法). What pleased even more the authorities was Li’s insistence that the exercises would not guarantee the intended results if they were not accompanied by a virtuous moral life, based on truth( 真), compassion (善), and forbearance (忍).
The alliance between Falun Gong and the regime was however, as mentioned earlier, clouded in ambiguity. Why the CCP might pretend to believe that Falun Gong was about health and morality, in fact Li promised much more, i.e. the restoration of human beings into their original divine status they had lost by coming to Earth and entering the cycle of reincarnation. The very name Falun alludes to a (Buddhist) dharma wheel that is said to be mystically inserted in the abdomen of the devotees, hardly a secular concept. Whatever the regime might have decided to call it, Falun Gong was a religion, based on a gnostic narrative (similar to the one prevailing in several Western new religious movements) where humans are deities who have lost their exalted position and are entrapped in a lower world.
Qi gong in general, of course, had a religious base. This was increasingly noticed by the most Marxist CCP intellectuals, who started attacking in the media both qi gong and Falun Gong. Unlike other movements, Falun Gong organized public protests, which were initially successful, with the media publishing correction and apologies, However, in April 1999, a stronger attack against Falun Gong was published by scientist He Zuoxiu (何祚庥) in Youth Science and Technology Outlook (青少年科技博览), a publication of Tianjin Normal University. As usual, Falun Gong devotees gathered to protest, but this time the police arrested them. To protest the arrests, 10,000 Falun Gong members gathered in the Zhongnanhai, the sector of Beijing where many CCP top leaders live, on April 24. The unprecedented protest took the CCP by surprise, scared its leaders, and showed that Falun Gong could no longer be controlled. The CCP offered to negotiate, but secretly prepared a crackdown, which was launched in July with the simultaneous arrest of 150 senior leaders of Falun Gong, not including Li, who from 1998 was living in the United States. On June 10, 1999, Office 610 of the police (name after the date of its foundation, June 10) had been secretly established, to oversee the persecution of Falun Gong and other xie jiao.
Falun Gong was indeed included in the xie jiao list, and a campaign of persecution was started, matched in intensity only by the crackdown of the 1950s against another Chinese new religious movement, Yiguandao, and by the repression since the mid-1990s of The Church of Almighty God. By 2006, some 100,000 members of Falun Gong had been arrested, and many had died in jail because of torture or extra-judicial killings. Falun Gong also denounced the practice of “organ harvesting” (器官摘除), i.e. the removal of organs from living devotees in jail and the killing of some of them to obtain organs for the flourishing international clandestine market. The CCP vehemently denied the practice, and successfully recruited international academics and journalists who insisted that either it never took place or was discontinued after an initial phase, although governments and international organizations did mention organ harvesting in their criticism of China’s abysmal human rights record.
Falun Gong was greatly reduced in number in China, although hundreds of devotees are still identified and arrested every year. However, it became the worst nightmare abroad for Chinese image and public relations. Falun Gong members expatriated in great numbers, created successful communities overseas, and organized daily anti-CCP demonstrations in front of Chinese embassies, consulates, and wherever Chinese dignitaries traveled. Since Falun Gong became quite proficient in promoting cultural activities both presenting traditional Chinese culture and denouncing CCP, including the internationally acclaimed Shen Yun shows, ad in managing an impressive network of newspapers and TV stations, a large audience became familiar with the persecution of the movement in China and its accusations that the CCP performs torture and organ harvesting on its devotees.