Who's afraid of Falun Gong?

Journalist Danny Schechter says the peculiar spiritual movement isn't a cult, but explains why China is cracking down on it so forcefully.

Published February 2, 2001 9:00AM (EST)

Five alleged practitioners of China's banned Falun Gong movement set themselves on fire on Jan. 23, in the middle of Tiananmen Square. Before police could put out the flames, one woman was dead and four others seriously injured, including the 36-year-old woman's daughter, who was only 12.

The event was a public relations disaster for both Beijing and Falun Gong. Beijing authorities immediately seized on the incident to launch a propaganda campaign against the spiritual movement, decrying the self-burnings as "suicidal blazes." That move might not have seemed so cynical had authorities not detained CNN reporters who were on the scene. Police seized their videos of the immolations before broadcasting their own official tapes of the event days later.

To Western observers, it was a horrific event connected to a peculiar religious group -- followed by the latest strike in a repressive campaign by the Chinese government, a campaign that has been in full force since the government banned Falun Gong in 1999. The movement practices a hybrid of exercise, mysticism and Buddhist and Taoist elements.

Falun Gong leaders sought to distance themselves from the immolations. A statement from Falun Gong's New York office, where the group's exiled spiritual leader Li Hongzhi is based, denounced the act. "This so-called suicide attempt on Tiananmen Square has nothing to do with Falun Gong practitioners because the teachings of Falun Gong prohibit any form of killing," the statement said, adding that Li Hongzhi has explicitly stated that "suicide is a sin."

In a meeting with China's ambassador in Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell criticized the Chinese government for its ongoing war against followers of the peaceful spiritual movement. The State Department has called on Beijing to be more tolerant of Falun Gong and to release its jailed practitioners.

Powell met with a rebuke from Zhu Bangzao, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman. "China demands the U.S. government respect the stand of the Chinese government on the Falun Gong issue and stop interfering in China's internal affairs," he told the official Xinhua News Agency. On Thursday, even freedom-friendly Hong Kong announced that it too would monitor the activity of Falun Gong mediators. Hong Kong Security Secretary Regina Ip told Reuters Thursday, "We have noticed that Falun Gong has become increasingly high-profile and is a very organized group. Their spearhead is targeted at our central government."

Many observers believe that Falun Gong represents the biggest protest movement in China since the massive student-led protests and subsequent massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The government's crackdown has intensified since April 1999 when incendiary editorials in the state media prompted embarrassing mass demonstrations. The Wall Street Journal has estimated that at least 77 of the movement's followers have been killed in Chinese prisons.

The Chinese government has compared Falun Gong to the Branch Davidians in Texas and the sarin-gas volleying Aum Shinri Kyo doomsday cult of Tokyo. The New York Times has routinely used the term "sect" to describe the spiritual meditation movement. But on the surface, Falun Gong members bear little if any resemblance to members of brainwashing cults or mysterious sects. Instead, they're most often depicted as health-conscious, sneaker-clad Chinese pensioners who are seeking a better life through the exercises, meditation and spiritual awakening that the Falun Gong espouses. And they tend to practice out in the open, in public parks or meeting places.

So is Falun Gong a dangerous sect or a positive spiritual movement? And why is China so afraid of it?

Journalist Danny Schechter offers a spirited defense of the movement in his recent book "Falun Gong's Challenge to China." He portrays it as a benign, loose-knit religious group that has offered a welcome haven for disaffected Chinese -- many of whom have suffered under the cutbacks in the health system that have been an inevitable side effect of China's economic reforms.

In a recent interview with Salon, Schechter explained the beliefs of Falun Gong's followers and traced the origins of the movement and the Beijing-ordered ban crackdown.

Your book offers a sympathetic portrait of the Falun Gong movement. How did you first become interested in it?

The publicist of my book "The More You Watch, the Less You Know" was a Falun Gong practitioner. I didn't know much about it. I just thought it was a New Age-y type group.

Like many people, I was startled by the size and intensity of the event that took place in Beijing in April 1999. They suddenly appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. The press at the time compared the protest to Tiananmen Square. I had done a film on Tiananmen and was interested in human rights in China, so I began to look into Falun Gong and realized that this was not a classical political movement or pro-democracy force. It was something uniquely Chinese.

When the practice was banned by the Chinese government and denounced as an evil cult in July 1999, I got a call from my former publicist, who asked me what to do. "Danny," she said, "I've gotten 2,000 phone calls from every media outlet in the world. I don't know what to do." I suggested that she create an electronic press kit. I arranged an interview with Li Hongzhi.

I had certain expectations going into it. Our company had earlier done a film on Rev. [Sun Myung] Moon, and I had been relying on media accounts about Li Hongzhi. The Chinese government was calling Falun Gong a "cult" and a "sect." And the American press was adopting the same media frame and using the same term. Maybe "cult" and "sect" are great headline terms, but it sort of reinforced an impression of a kind of group of people who were basically being manipulated by a powerful and charismatic figure.

What struck me upon interviewing [Falun Gong founder] Li Hongzhi, was that this didn't seem to be true. A lot of what was being written about Falun Gong was wrong, and it was a much more nuanced story than it appeared to be. For example, the American media positioned it as being anti-government protest and an anti-Communist movement. In fact, many of the practitioners were members of the [Communist] party and supportive of the government.

What are the origins of the Falun Gong movement?

Falun Gong, which means "the practice of the wheel of law," only started in 1992. But by 1999, the Chinese government in its own survey estimated there were 70 to 100 million practitioners. Li had lectured in China, but only for two-and-a-half years, from 1992 to the middle of 1994. People mostly got involved through word of mouth.

It's obviously assumed that the major political dimensions of the crackdown have tainted Jiang Zemin's prestige and power against Falun Gong. The Falun Gong followers criticize him as the oppressor in this. But there's an even bigger dispute that may be behind this whole thing.

Qigong, the traditional Chinese exercise, was very popular with the Chinese. In the 1950s, Communist Party leaders practiced it. Then it was looked on with disfavor because as the party became more politically correct and the Cultural Revolution principles of Mao took hold. But it [qigong] thrived nevertheless.

The idea of the "qi" is that we have energy sources within ourselves. We know it in the U.S. mostly through karate and other martial arts. Like the martial arts, qi is also an exercise system that has different schools, and each has a different master. It's an exercise-based approach to healthy and good living that goes back 6,000 years.

What Li did was to build his version of this on the basis of bringing together a spiritual dimension to the exercise system. And that was essentially bringing into this meditation a mix of Buddhist and Taoist principles. There are three qi ideas in Falun Gong: compassion, truthfulness and forbearance. It's a self-improvement system, and the deeper you get into it, you can achieve a higher consciousness.

Starting in the late 1970s, there was a change in China between a government system and a more market-driven system. In this transition to the market system, a lot of traditions within China began to change. For the first time, inequalities were introduced. There was a conspicuously wealthy class. Corruption became a lot more pervasive and public facilities began to get privatized and defunded. All this happened under Deng Xiaoping.

At that time, the government reintroduced and sanctioned qigong. Since the government likes to control everything, it created an official qigong federation. Essentially, this federation was run like a state enterprise; it was a business. All these masters charged people to learn their practices. What happened was that Falun Gong began to get increasingly popular. There began to be jealousies between the other masters who wanted to know why all were going to [Falun Gong's] Li.

He's somewhat of a marketing genius, and he said he would make the practices free. You could download his books for free if you had Internet access, and you could practice Falun Gong for free. He'd also go to a park where people were practicing. With defunding of public health facilities at the time, the hospitals began to decline. At the time, people were growing older and retiring earlier, as early as their 40s, in order to create jobs for young people. All these older people began doing these exercises as a way to take responsibility for their own health. Falun Gong began to grow dramatically because it was free and people thought it had health benefits.

The reaction within the federation was outrage that Li had cut his prices -- other members saw this as unfair competition and they asked the government to take action. The consequence was that these other practitioners forced Li to raise his prices. So he quit the federation.

In other words, a business dispute is part of what fueled the original cleavages and the crackdown. These other groups started lobbying the government to do something.

Which aspects of Falun Gong bother China's Communist government so much? What prompted Beijing to go to such draconian lengths to eliminate them?

As the government began to discover how many people were involved in it, it seemed to be a threat. There were more people practicing Falun Gong than there were in the party. Then the people began to practice together and formed networks outside of the official, sanctioned structure. Many members of the army and intelligence community were also doing Falun Gong. It wasn't just happening in society, but also in the important institutions, and this made Beijing nervous.

The Chinese government is completely overreacting -- just as people often do when there's something they don't understand or want to understand. We know this from our own history -- like when the police in Chicago got more repressive and the anti-war movement grew. This type of approach doesn't work. And it reveals the weakness of Jiang's approach.

A lot of people in the Beijing government are speaking out in small ways about Falun Gong. The South China Morning Post has reported that there is a big debate about it. Many in the Chinese government think this approach is counterproductive. The Asian Wall Street Journal has carried interviews with unnamed high officials who were worried about the consequences [of the crackdown]. Look at the "Tiananmen Papers:" Ten years later, we're just getting to those aspects of the story. The media role in all of this and the role of the U.N. and U.S. government is shameful.

The Falun Gong's spiritual leader, Li Hongzhi, lives in New York. How, then, does the group organize?

It's a very decentralized thing. There are practice centers and groups in 104 cities and towns in the United States. At first, they practiced in parks and got together to discuss Li's books. It was probably similar in China, where people also met in the parks and practice Falun Gong before they go to work. A lot of these people were in government structures and weren't against it in a way the kids in Tiananmen Square turned against the government.

Now what's happening is that there's a resistance and the movement is adopting the language of human rights. When the crackdown started, most people who knew anything about China thought it would be wiped out in 30 days. Liu Binyan, one of the most thoughtful writers about China, recently said: "We all thought this thing wouldn't last a week with the power of government against it. We were wrong. We were astonished by how deeply rooted it is."

Falun Gong has been banned; it doesn't have an official presence. But it's not as orchestrated or coordinated as the Chinese government would like you to believe. The government thinks of everything different as a plot -- nobody, it thinks, does anything without someone pulling strings. That's how the Chinese government organizes and how it thinks everyone else does, too.

Less than two weeks ago, five Falun Gong members self-immolated in Tiananmen Square. Falun Gong has long been known as a peaceful group, but are they starting to take more drastic measures because of the government crackdown?

Falun Gong is against suicide -- that's in Li's teachings. There was no independent investigation of who these people are or what they're about. It's not clear there was an order from Queens for them to burn themselves in Tiananmen Square.

But there is a history of self-immolations that have happened historically. From the Buddhist monks who outraged the world in Vietnam in early 1960s -- to the man who immolated himself in front of the Pentagon in protest of the Vietnam War. There has been a history of martyrdom by various movements. But this case neatly comes to the public attention after the Chinese have launched a massive media campaign against Falun Gong.

To me, it's very suspicious. When a mother asks a fifth-grade student to set fire to herself, that's just abuse. I think this incident needs a lot more investigation.

You've stated before that an article in a government publication for teens that was critical of Falun Gong helped spark the protests. In many ways, this was similar to a government editorial that embittered and emboldened the student movement prior to the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

A derogatory article about Falun Gong appeared in a magazine for teenagers in Tianjin. The Falun Gong people wanted to meet with the editor, but he refused. They felt the article was very one-sided. It was written by a guy who had been a member of the National Academy of Sciences in China but who had been a hard-liner and had attacked Falun Gong quite a bit -- reportedly because two of his assistants had become practitioners. He had a personal thing against them.

Police were called in and beat and arrested the practitioners who had come to see the editor. As a consequence, the Falun Gong practitioners were outraged. They didn't feel they were doing anything wrong. They were just trying to get fair coverage.

In China, there's a practice called "fair appealing." If you feel you're being mistreated by the government, you can appeal. Somebody listens to you and then tries to solve the problem. The Falun Gong practitioners wanted to protest what they considered to be the outrageous conduct of the police and the editor. But Tianjin officials said: If you want to protest this, go to Beijing. Thus, they went to the appeals office of the national leadership. They were both protesting and also appealing for official recognition.

The event wasn't against the government. It was against improper treatment from the government and police. And the Falun Gong drew a huge crowd because they sent out word through their Web, beepers and cellphone network.

The Wall Street Journal reported in December that at least 77 Falun Dafa or Falun Gong members have died in custody nationwide. 15 percent of those were in the city of Weifang, where Chinese officials ordered the local government to crack down -- even imposing fines on local authorities if Weifang Falun Dafa members were found protesting in Beijing. The Journal theorized that the deaths were the result of ancient imperial rule tactics, which pressure local governments to implement central rule.

Falun Gong is claiming there have been well over a hundred deaths. There have been reports that if you're the policeman in a small village and someone from your village comes to Beijing to appeal, then you are held responsible. A lot of pressure is put on local officials to wipe out the Falun Gong in their areas. Oppression is one of the ways they do that.

The Chinese government stamped out the student uprising of 1989 in close to two months. Meanwhile, the Falun Gong protests have gone on nearly two years since the religious group was banned. What is it about Falun Gong that makes it such a resilient group?

How has it survived? It's an interesting question. People really believe in it. They're committed to it in the same way as when I was in civil rights movement and police beat and killed civil rights leaders. They didn't stop the movement -- the abuse only served to strengthen it. Nowadays, there's more outrage and willingness to remain engaged in China against the government. A lot of people don't support the government, and a lot of people in the party don't support Jiang Zemin, who's been using the crackdown to mobilize his support.

This is the longest sustained resistance in the 50-year history of the People's Republic of China. People really believe they're being wronged, that they're being mistreated. Fifty thousand have been detained. Thousand have been put in mental hospitals, and many others in labor camps. The trials some of them have had have been a joke -- they've been given long sentences with no right to defend themselves in violation of the Chinese constitution and the [U.N.'s] Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Most American media people see the Falun Gong as a manipulative cult, and they seem to want to expose the manipulative angle more than the human rights violations the group faces -- with the exception of the Wall Street Journal, which has done a great job.

All of this is happening at a time when our trade with China is becoming more important. And the media is probably looking the other way because there are a lot of people in corporations who would like this whole thing to go away. There's been a lot of rhetoric but not much government action on Falun Gong.

The New York Times called my book a "rose-colored" view. But what I tried to do was explain the Falun Gong rather than condemn it; and that makes people uncomfortable. I'm not a practitioner, but I'm fascinated by it. Often it's the smallest things that cause big changes in society. Ideas have powerful consequences, and often religious and spiritual ideas drive social change -- look at Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa or Martin Luther King Jr., for example. These movements had religious components, but they weren't initially seen as political movements. That came later.

What do you believe the main draw is in Falun Gong? And why does it draw so many tennis-shoe clad retirees?

I see Falun Gong as a reaction against materialism, not against communism. Falun Gong's values of compassion, forbearance and the goal of becoming a better person is attractive to people. It also dovetailed with the spiritual void in China after the Cultural Revolution backfired. People don't believe as much in Communism, and Falun Gong gives them a way to express solidarity with other people without having to be dependent on the party structures. They are also attracted to the mystical and quasi-religious aspects, which provide them with the possibility of connecting to a mythic past.

As a protest movement, how do the Falun Gong demonstrators stack up to the 1989 student movement?

There are several characteristics to this that are quite different. First, Falun Gong is more deeply rooted in every class of China. But more importantly, there seem to be more people involved in Falun Gong than there were in the student movement. It also has a capacity of resistance and the courage to sustain resistance that we didn't see in the student movement.

By Daryl Lindsey

Daryl Lindsey is associate editor of Salon News and an Arthur Burns fellow. He currently lives in Berlin and writes for Salon and Die Welt.

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