China's new spiritual uprising

Is the Falun Gong sect a real threat to the regime or simply a phantom menace?

Topics: China,

April 25 started as a normal Sunday in Beijing. But before the day was out, thousands of ordinary people in drip-dry shirts had mysteriously appeared outside Zhongnanhai, the leadership compound of the Chinese Communist Party near the Forbidden City. Here they formed a mile-long line around its walled perimeter and then finally flooded out onto the Avenue of Eternal Peace, where they calmly sat down with an eerie orderliness in front of the compound’s main gate and peacefully began to meditate. There were no political banners rippling in the wind, no headbands proclaiming freedom and democracy, no bullhorns amplifying provocative slogans as during the student movement of 1989.

Indeed, many of the participants — who quickly grew in number to around 10,000 — were middle-aged women of no particular political inclination. They were, instead, members of the Falun Gong, a rapidly expanding sect that combines traditional Chinese breathing exercises (qigong) and a belief in miracle cures with a mish-mash of Buddhist and Taoist mysticism. Despite the fact demonstrators insisted that they were apolitical — wishing only to protest the detention in nearby Tianjin of fellow believers who had taken up the cause against a magazine that had editorially attacked the sect — party leaders were deeply disturbed by their appearance in the capital, and set up a special task force within the Central Committee to look into the group. It was a measure of how seriously this task force took the sect’s challenge that this week, after accusing Falun Gong of wanting “to provoke those who do not know the truth to stage massive gatherings, inciting trouble and chaos in a bid to violate social stability,” police moved to detain thousands of sect followers in more than 30 Chinese cities.

The mass detention of the followers of Falun Gong that have been carried out in China this past week are a dangerous panic response that has added fuel to the most widespread movement of organized protest since 1989. They also highlight an unexpected threat to Chinese Communist Party rule that could, if not handled prudently, be far more menacing to stability in China than any student protest movements that have preceded it.

What makes this crypto Buddhist-Taoist sect so potent is not only its broad-based support but its inchoateness, which renders it extremely difficult to control. But what is perhaps even more threatening to established power is the fact that this mass cult turned protest movement is led by a traditionalistic leader whose sudden state of charismatic rebelliousness evokes for many Chinese a deeply ingrained sense of historical memory of how many past ruling dynasties fell after they were challenged by just such internal cultic upheaval.

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What Falun Gong adherents seem to want is to be left alone, something that the party has never been able to countenance of an independent organization, especially one with such a vast and growing following. But by turning on the sect, the party risks transforming what was basically an apolitical religious group into a potentially volatile and extremely destabilizing opposition movement.

There are several reasons why the Falung Gong must now be viewed as a more ominous threat to party hegemony than any of the protest movements that have preceded it, even the student movements of the 1980s. First, because it has such deeply traditional and nativist roots, its message cannot be branded as an imported and inappropriate foreign ideology for China the way notions of Western democracy have been dismissed by nationalists and xenophobes.

Second, because the destruction of traditional Confucian values during the revolution and then the implosion of Marxist ideology as a belief system during Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms have left China bereft of any coherent belief system, Chinese are susceptible to any group that seems to offer basic answers to questions about the meaning of life.

Third, unlike student protesters, who were basically rationalists and usually had clearly delineated demands to which the party could have responded if it wished, there is no quick and easy response for Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi’s critique of contemporary life as having fallen into a morass of immorality and venality.

Fourth, this curiously diffuse but mass-based sect has managed to communicate with its members by word of mouth and over the Internet rather than by conventional means, making it virtually impossible for the party to disrupt its nerve center. In this sense it is a paradox — the first traditionalistic but cyber-savvy Chinese protest movement to confront the party.

But what may be the most ominous aspect of this sudden upwelling of nativistic superstitiousness that has so suddenly and enigmatically managed to knit itself together into a movement is not simply its demands to be left alone, but its symbolic significance. For Chinese, such a millennarian movement evokes an indelible association with the idea of dynastic decay and collapse. There is hardly a Chinese citizen alive who does not know the legends and stories from history that have been passed down in novels, operas, plays, films, comic books and even TV series of how the Han Dynasty’s (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) end was presaged by the mystical Yellow Turban Rebellion or how the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), China’s last, ran afoul of the equally mystically inclined White Lotus and Boxer rebellions.

Such cult-animated uprisings against unjust authority — with which Falun Gong will now be unalterably identified — have always been viewed by Chinese as portents that the legitimacy — or the “mandate of heaven” — of a ruling dynasty has been withdrawn. And for a government such as the one that presently rules China, which does not derive its legitimacy from the will of the people, the deeply rooted cultural presumption of ordinary people that the cosmic forces of heaven no longer shines kindly on it could deal it a potentially devastating psychological blow. Nothing in China ever happens quite the way “the experts” predict. Virtually no expert foresaw the events of 1989, and no expert I know imagined that China’s next wave of destabilizing protest might come from a mass movement of middle-aged, middle-class citizens dedicated to recycled notions of Buddhist and Taoist clean living, health through meditation and breathing exercises.

But by detaining thousands of sect followers, which has sent tens of thousands more into the streets in protest all across China, the party may have unalterably transformed a spiritual movement into a dangerous political force. And when people take to the streets in China, it raises the specter of another tragedy like Tiananmen Square. “Take another look: Isn’t the act of imperiously pushing 100 million good people into opposition producing another ‘June 4th’ incident?” the sect’s Web site has recently warned. “The authorities should quickly sober up to avoid an even more severe consequence.”

Orville Schell, author of numerous books and articles on China, is dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.

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