Part One

Introductory remarks

     For over three years now, the Falun Gong (the Practice of the Wheel of the Dharma) movement has been in the forefront of the international news. After its large scale demonstration for freedom of practice at the residential area of the Chinese Communist Party elite at Zhongnanhai (Beijing) on 25 April 1999, an increasingly severe crackdown has followed, with more severe legal measures specifically introduced to deal with  this phenomenon. This crackdown includes the exertion of considerable pressure on Western media in China not to pay too much attention to the suppression of the Falun Gong and Western authorities to prevent overly visible Falun Gong protest during state visits of Chinese leaders (this would influence coverage at home, as they would have to cut references to the Falun Gong out of all reports). It also includes removing Falun Gong adherents without trial to psychiatric institutions, pressurizing them through their jobs and personal networks, unannounced searches of private homes, hotels and any places where Falun Gong followers might be staying, and so forth. People arrested are be put under severe pressure and are maltreated (to the extent that even force-feeding during hungerstrikes takes place very clumsily with obvious results), which has already frequently led to permanent physical & psychological damage, deaths and suicides. Essentially, all means are considered legitimate in dealing with the movement.

    The communist  regime perceives of the Falun Gong movement as an "incident"  and as a subspecies of the traditional category of  "crooked teachings" (xiejiao, the Chinese pejorative pendant to the Western labels "cult" - Northern American - and "sect" - Western European).  As someone working on new religious groups in recent Chinese history, I see the movement as an important religious phenomenon in its own right, arising out of the specific urban circumstances of post-1949 China, but responding to social, ethical and emotional needs that are quite traditional. The way in which the communist Chinese state has misunderstood this movement, and is labelling and persecuting it bears strong resemblances to the way in which the imperial Chinese state saw similar phenomena in the past.

Associated with the issue of labels such as "cult" or "sect" is the notion of organization and the aim of making money. As far as the latter aim is concerned, it is usually only ascribed to groups of which one disapproves or otherwise all organized religion would have to be considered labelled in this way. The question to what extent the Falun Gong is organized has been answered very differently by varying observers. There can be no question that this is a network with a strong one-directional bond, from the teacher in the center down to each follower. What organization there was in China was either in order to allow for the distribution of the teachings downward or as a result of having been a formally recognized Qigong-movement for a few years. Other than that, the simply fact that the security apparatus has not been able to persecute the movement systematically on the basis of membership lists already indicates the absence of centralized institutions. There is virtually no horizontal structure of the type one would expect in a normal organization. Protests were organized each time on an ad hoc basis.

The persecution by the Chinese state

    One cannot but keep wondering, like the Chinese state itself, at the persistance of Falun Gong protest inside the PRC itself. As time goes by, the ongoing resistance of Falun Gong adherents (even granting that they may be few in absolute numbers) despite quite brutal repression has become a relevant fact in itself that needs to be understood. However, we should be careful in elevating the Falun Gong case out of its proper context. Other religious groups and figures are also persecuted from time to time, often also with considerable force and explicit dead sentences. Ethnic minorities, especially islamic ones today, can be persecuted equally violently, if the Chinese state feels a necessity to do so. Extensive violence is an integral part of the Chinese judicial and political system as a whole, much as it is in the American and many other systems as well. Once the enemy has been demonized sufficiently in such systems, there is ample legitimacy for quite violent action. Similar violence is used against criminals as much as against other kinds of dissidence, be it religious and/or political. The only added dimension is that "ordinary" criminals are used in order to supervise and further repress (psychologically and physically) religious and political prisoners. Western observers therefore do well to keep in mind that violence is not in itself a problem, but only the selection of its object. Those Chinese who agree that the Falun Gong is wrong or even dangerous may well have less problems with the persecution, than Western observers might sometimes suspect.

    The scale and brutality of the persecution of the Falun Gong since July 1999 has been amply documented by recognized independent organizations such as Human Rights Watch (DANGEROUS MEDITATION: China's Campaign Against Falungong, January 2002) and Amnesty International (The Crackdown on Falun Gong and other "heretical organizations", 23 March 2000), Western journalists like Ian Johnson (Wall Street Journal; 2001 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting, published also by the WSJ as A Portrait of the Unreformed Side of China: The Falun Dafa Protests), and many others.

    Robin Munro published an important and worrying article on the political abuse in China of psychiatry to get rid of  religious and political dissidents (as defined by the people in power). Falun Gong adherents are among its primary victims, but the method is not new as such. From the state's perspective this method serves a very useful purpose, since it not only cheaply removes them from any position of influence, but in the Chinese cultural context also taints them as mentally suspect for the rest of their lives. In addition, in the eyes of many people this kind of punishment "proves" one of the major accusations by the state against the Falun Gong, namely its evil influence on people's mental stability. Thus, this kind of punishment is much more definitive than merely placing people in labour camps or prisons, where they might convert people or show the power of their practices and convictions to others not yet "tainted" by Falun Gong. Also, they have to be set free eventually and may then return to their original beliefs (as has happened already in a number of cases).

    As of July 22 2002, there do not appear to be any active split offs, as so often occur when new religious or spiritual movements come into being. One reason may be the ongoing persecution in China itself, which binds followers together. In Hong Kong, there was one Falun group which did split off for a while, maintaining that they represented a new stage of the tradition. They maintain(ed?) their own website, which did not distinguish itself fundamentally from the ordinary Falun websites, except for the addition of a new layer of interpretation and revelations (my information here derives from a cursory inspection of this site, which is not terribly informative on what is really new). Apparently, the group's  leader Peng Shanshan (Belinda Pang in her own way of writing, originally from Beijing, but living in Hong Kong since the early 1990s) had started making its own claims independent of Li Hongzhi, including the assertion that she was now the movement's real dharma body. Judging from their website, this is no longer an active group. I am not aware of any other splits at this moment.

The response of the Falun Gong

The response by the Falun Gong to the persecution has been a remarkable series of public protests and international campaigning. When still more or less legal, Falun Gong followers already protested against what they perceived as unfair and incorrect reporting on their beliefs and practices. The 25 April 1999 demonstration at Zhongnanhai was organized for this reason as well. Human Rights issues, such as the freedoms of protest and beliefs, have only come to the fore after the prohibition of the movement in July 1999 and with the increased influence of America-based Chinese followers. In China, the policy of public protest by indigenous Chinese people was at first continued, despite thet fact that everybody participating was arrested and many of them severely maltreated, even to the effect of dying. After the suicide-incident on 23 January 2001, this approach was relinquished and the focus came on Western or Japanese followers who would go to China in order to protest. Since the security apparatus now has extensive files on who is a likely protester, this approach no longe rhelps. In fact, these data have recently been used succesfully to pressurize Western governments not to allow these people protesting within the view of Chinese government visitors. During the first half of 2002 several succesful highjackings of public televion broadcasting time were carried out, by tapping into cable television networks in several northeastern cities and Chongqing (early 2002) or even by sending a signal to a nationwide satellite (late June 2002). These are feats of resistance that are unheard of in post-1949 China. Local propaganda efforts involving leaflets and the like also seem to continue, depending on the personal initiative of individual followers.

    On January 23 2001 (CNN website link) five (in later versions seven) persons attempted to immolate themselves through burning, on Tianmen Square in Beijing. The timing is clearly connected to the New Year's celebrations according to the Chinese lunar calender. The incident  was witnessed by an CCN television team. Their video was confiscated and manipulated video-images have since been used by the state in its campaign against the movement as further evidence of the dangers it poses to public health. The authorities claim that these were Falun Gong protesters, whereas the American-based Falun Info.Net and followers elsewhere in the world deny any link to their movement. According to them, suicide does not fit into the Falun Gong teachings, with its focus on "forbearance". At present I am not in a position to evaluate the validity of these claims.

However, the act of suicide does fit in a pattern of ongoing Falun Gong protest against their prohibition in the PRC and suicide is widespread in China today, out of protest and/or desperation. Even more interestingly, there is a respectable Buddhist tradition of self-immolation as a sacrifice to the Buddha, whether of the complete body through burning or parts of the body by cutting them off. This tradition was taken up by Buddhist monks in Vietnam protesting against the war in the 1960s and 1970s, but has century-old Chinese roots. We know that lay Buddhist believers have also joined the Falun Gong and have taken part of their original religious culture with them. Furthermore, the practice is clearly described in the Lotus Sutra and could even have been taken directly from there by adherents of the Falun Gong, who might have read or heard about it. Whether this interpretation also fits the present incident depends on the motivations of the people involved, quite independent of what the Chinese state of the Falun Gong itself feels about it. The fact that the PRC state takes up this incident as evidence of their own position on the dangers posed by the Falun Gong to public health does not mean that these people could not have acted from a respectable and age-old Buddhist tradition. I find it hard to believe that the entire incident was orchestrated in advance, since the state was quite angry at the Western media for publishing it as evidence of Falun Gong martyrdom. Rather, I believe that they have tried to exploit it in response to the broad exposure of this event in Western media. Part of this exploitation was fabricating a video of their own, of which the clumsiness has been convincingly demonstrated by the Falun Gong. However, the Falun Gong countervideo only analyzes the propaganda video and not the entire event.

Asylum and migration issues

     There can be little doubt that the situation on the mainland has gone out of hand in view of the scale and duration of the persecution and one wonders how the Chinese state is going to reestablish some form of normality again in the mid-term future. This kind of persecution costs an enormous amount of scarce resources in China itself, which are needed for instance for organizing the Olympic Games in 2008 and other more useful purposes. In addition, some Falun Gong followers have succeeded in reaching the West or were already staying there as students of otherwise. They now apply for political asylum on the basis of their Falun Gong background. Given the vague criteria of Falun Gong "membership" it is difficult to assess the trustworthiness of each and every application, the more so since human trafficking networks that start from southern China's traditional emigration regions have also discovered the Falun Gong as a possible basis for asylum claims for their customers. The real Falun Gong followers that apply for asylum are usually not ordinary peasants belonging to a large pool of underemployed people from poorer regions, but rather well-educated people with foreign experience and language capabilities who are needed in China itself. This is a kind of brain-drain that China cannot really afford. A good assessment of the migration and asylum issues can be found in the UK Immigration and Nationality Directorate's Country Assessment on China, Falun Gong section see Revolution of the Wheel , with the author's permission you find a Word version of the entire Assessment", Revolution of the Wheel and a relevant Bulletin here).

'Falun Gong: Who is the menace?' Context and evaluation

    Given the history of new religious groups in traditional China, including their ongoing stigmatization and persecution, there is little reason to be surprised about the present events. After its take-over of power in 1949, the new communist regime carried out a large scale persecution of all kinds of new religious groups, including the Unity Teachings (yiguandao).  Different publications by Human Rights Watch, have drawn attention to the ongoing persecutions of religiously inspired individuals,  groups and institutions in China.  Against this background, the present campaign  to suppress and blacken the Falun Gong is remarkable in its scope and intensity, but not in its basic contents of violent suppression of religious otherness. Equally remarkable is the courage and perseverance of Falun Gong adherents/practitioners in the People's Republic of China itself, despite the enormous pressure that is being exerted against the movement.

    Traditionally, relatively simple meditation techniques occupy an important place in the practices of new religious groups, especially in northern China. These techniques were believed to bring good health. The teachers might place these techniques in a passive messianic context, but more often than not the followers were unaware of (and uninterested in) this context and the messianic message was not activated anyhow.

     It is my impression that the post 1976 popularity of Qigong practices to a certain extent fills the gap that has been left by the prohibition on such meditational traditions. Like Taijiquan, these Qigong practices were seen as a non religious and more or less purely gymnastic discipline, and therefore not "superstitious." When we look at Falun Gong, for instance as represented by its founder Li Hongzhi's book Zhuan Falun (Turning the Dharma Wheel), we find the combination of a religious life style  and meditational practices. A cursory reading of this book suggest clear Buddhist inspiration, but no debt to traditional Chinese new religious groups.

    Another question is whether Li Hongzhi's knowledge of Buddhist teachings and practices stems from living Buddhist tradition or from his reading in Buddhist texts. The absence, to my knowledge, of traditional Buddhist ritual practices and the recourse to essentially Daoist inspired Qigong practices suggest that Li Hongzhi has combined book knowledge of Buddhist doctrine with actual experience in Qigong practices. In the writings that I have seen until now,  he is none too complimentary about traditional Buddhist institutions (including monks with whom he evidently has had contact). This issue must remain open until more detailed historical research has been carried out. Whether all of its practitioners would see themselves as religious practitioners is unclear to me, although the term "the Wheel of the Dharma" would probably be understood by many as a Buddhist reference.  Whether "Buddhism" itself is a religious tradition or not is an old discussion, to which different answers are possible on the basis of owns own religious point of view and one's theoretical perspective.

    Essentially,  Falun Gong is a way of living that includes an elaborate moral and cosmological system and not "merely" Qigong practice. Nonetheless, it is quite possible that many  feel drawn to it first of all for its practices, rather than its values and beliefs. Published accounts of their experience of the significance of Falun Gong for their own lives by practitioners stress its positive effects for their health. Given the growing expense of the health system to many people and faltering mutual support networks, the positive effects of Qigong practice and the support networks resulting from membership will have been supportive for the spread of the Falun Gong.  However, new religious groups have always drawn in people searching  healing, and this is not a modern phenomenon  at all.  One suspects that Falun Gong means different things to different people. Judging from some of the questions put before Li Hongzhi on his lecture tours in China  before 1998, some of  the practitioners  were traditional lay Buddhists shifting over to the Falun Gong. They ask, for instance, whether they should burn incense or whether they can use Li's portrait to ''open up" their statues (kaiguang).

     It would seem that the Falun Gong in terms of what Li Hongzhi wants it to be has changed over time, since early writings (as well as the unofficially published accounts by practitioners and the present propaganda campaign) suggest that healing and being healed was an important element of Li Hongzhi's early activities, whereas this element is underplayed in the later writings. There the moral philosophy of zhen (Truth), shan (Goodness) and ren(Forbearance) (these words also function as adjectives) is increasingly developed. Surveys of people's motivations for joining the movement also indicate that this moral philosophy is a crucial element in joining, since it provides them with a weapon against their own weaknesses (drinking, bad marriages, theft, etc.) or insecurities (diseases etc.). One suspects that the different social environment in  which the Falun Gong now operates abroad may also contribute to further changes, since its older following on the mainland is either forced underground. It is left to its own devices to a certain extent, partly imprisoned and banished, or simply changing over to another religious or more strictly Qigong movement.

It would appear that the make-up of the Falun Gong following on the mainland itself was fairly broad, but certainly included many older people and retired workers. Nonetheless, surveys of several hundreds of Beijing followers indicate that older and having retired did not necessarily having been without a succesful career. The number of people with high (college) or medium (partial or complete high school) education is surprisingly high. Furthermore, the movement's followers predominantly came from the north and northeast of China (down to Sichuan, but far less represented in the Yangzi regions or further south). They come from larger and smaller cities, with pesants being quite rare among them. Abroad, the following of the Falun Gong will either consist of overseas students and other better educated people, as well as middle class Westerners. Such an audience can be expected to "lead" Li Hongzhi in yet other directions, of which the increasingly effective use of the Internet and newspapers outside China is one sign. Nonetheless, practice of the Falun Gong exercises has remained central in all stages.

    Like many religious teachers, Li Hongzhi sees his own practice and accompanying teachings as the highest level of practice, a form of practice which already existed since times immemorial to be recovered by him (rather than discovered or invented). Nonetheless, and despite his own claims, I would submit that it is clearly rooted in older traditions, albeit through the intermediary of written texts (probably secondary works on Buddhism, Daoism and otherwise), rather than any intense personal contact with practitioners before his creation of the Falun Gong teachings. Characteristically, the Wheel of the Dharma is represented by a circle with the  wan character at the center, surrounded by a band containing  four other wan characters and four signs of the Great Ultimate (taiji , or a circle filled with the Yin and Yang symbols). Together this symbolizes the universe and its powers. Meditational and moral practice are said to make this wheel turn around, allowing the practitioner to draw on the powers of the universe for his or her own benefit. He or she reproduces the macrocosm of the entire universe in the microcosm of his or her own body. As such, the Falun Gong stands in a long tradition of inner cultivation. Taijiquan ("shadow boxing") tradition, widely popular in the West  among people with varying social and educational backgrounds, also stands in this tradition, being an attempt to separate the meditational practice from its religious context.  One of the many interesting aspects of the Falun Gong is its use of modern media for spreading its message, such as Internet, videos and printing in general, although he himself seems to prefer giving talks to writing essays or books (his "writings" are essentially published lectures or question and answer sessions with his followers).

    To Western and Chinese intellectuals Li Hongzhi's claims of possessing supreme truth and his self-presentation as a living Buddha may sound presumptuous and exaggerated, but this is obviously a matter of perspective. In recent Chinese history such claims have often enough been made by "political" leaders and the history of new religious groups is full of examples. Indeed, a number of such groups that I have encountered in the course of my work on the so-called White Lotus Teachings and the Triads were founded or led by people calling themselves Living Buddhas. Similarly, there is a long tradition of quite respectable religious teachers who have claimed at a historically fixed date to have re(rather than: dis)-covered the ultimate truth as it had always existed (to wit the historical Buddha himself and the first teachers of several Daoist traditions). This claim is then proven in the rhetorical language current during the teacher's own lifetime (in the case of the Falun Gong this is the language of historical, archaeological and natural sciences, as well as UFO-logy. Incidentally, to return to the issue of the Falun Gong being a religious phenomenon or not, the claim of possessing absolute truth is in itself not unique to  religious groups (to wit the Chinese Communist Party itself or Western assumptions about the superiority of democratic and capitalist systems- usually country specific as well).

     However we wish to define "religious", there can be little doubt that at least in terms of its intentions and among part of the practitioners, Falun Gong functions like a religious organization. Quite in line with PRC approaches (and not surprising given Li Hongzhi's background as an army musician at one point of time) to religious and ideological traditions/culture, but also similar to other non Chinese religious groups, it legitimates itself in scientific (more precisely: kexue, both natural and historical sciences) terms. From this perspective, the propaganda efforts by the PRC state to commit character murder and decry its unscientificness and danger to public health make eminent sense. These efforts may also well be convincing to part of the intended audiences, since for instance more educated people are quite sensitive to the properly scientific nature of their worldview.

    As a Western and outsider scholar I would therefore propose to analyze the Falun Gong as a religious phenomenon, and leave out all considerations about whether they are right or wrong (much as we do in the case of Buddhist, Christian or Islam traditions, with similar claims to truth that non followers might want to question). Instead, we can analyze the claims by Li Hongzhi in terms of his (suspected) sources and in terms of Chinese ideological and religious traditions, as well as - separately from him and his own claims and intentions  -  the way in which his teachings and practices are received by his followers as well as his different types of opponents (that is to say, both the PRC state and independent others, ranging from other religious groups to university intellectuals).

     We do well to recognize that apart from Falun Gong's  obvious ability to mobilize supporters and its claims of a huge following (frequently found among new religious groups), we do not have any reliable information on the size of its following. In fact, if my research experience with new religious groups in general is anything to go by, this may be the wrong approach to begin with. This is not a heavily institutionalized church, but first and foremost a network for transmitting information and practices, in which people may dip on an incidental basis or more regularly. In exchange for the information they may pay contributions or make donations, but this does not necessarily yield a permanent relationship. As a result, there are probably many different types of supporters. We find a similar phenomenon as well in our own Christian churches and denominations, despite their much higher level of institutionalization and concomitant attempts at centralized doctrinal as well as ritual control.

    The continued perseverance of Falun Gong  adherents/practitioners even inside the People's Republic of China in publicly expressing their resistance to the prohibition and persecution of their movement is remarkable, and easily (mis-)understood as fanaticism. I reject this term as a pejorative label and because I would not know how to measure "fanaticism" independent of our own a priori conceptions. In China today, we find a similar perseverance among different types of Christian groups (especially those not linked to the official churches) and new religious groups, as well as among Buddhist and Taoist traditions, and the followers of local temple cults. Is the wish to believe "fanaticism" or does the label apply only when someone's else beliefs are involved? The public expression of Falun Gong protest reflects the urban and text based nature of the movement, which more or less prescribes this form of visible resistance through demonstrations, sit-ins, banners, Internet, telephone bombardments (mobile phone numbers of people involved in the persecution are placed on the Internet!), or even the highjacking of broadcasting time.


- The wan character should not be confused with the Germanic swastika, which turns in the other direction. Back

Last update: July 2002