Part Two

State perceptions

    Given the Falun Gong's ability to mobilize its supporters and its alternative claims to a higher truth and legitimacy, it is not surprising that the communist rulership perceives of the Falun Gong something of a threat. Furthermore, they would probably interpret the Falun Gong as a socio-religious movement in a century old tradition of religiously inspired rebellions, which the communist regime has always depicted as (potentially) revolutionary on the one hand, but also as a threat now that the true messianic teachings of communism (more precisely Marxism-Leninism in the Chinese interpretation) are being realized (on the level of ideological self-legitimation this kind of old hat is still relevant in the PRC).

   In addition, the communist rulership may well be thinking back of the so-called Boxers of 1900. Although modern Western scholarship tends to stress the unorganized, decentered and rumor like spread of this phenomenon from Shandong province to Beijing, the Beijing rulers probably still subscribe to the Boxers as a much more organized religious phenomenon, anti-Western, anti-Christian and pro-Qing dynasty at that time, but an uncontrollable movement nonetheless. In their anti Falun Gong propaganda sites, detailed comparisons to Ming and Qing "heterodox" groups are also included.

   Thus, the communist rulership response to the Falun Gong movement should probably be seen in contemporary terms (the communist state's fear of Falun Gong as an organizational structure and alternative claimant to politico-religious legitimacy), as well as against the background of a specific interpretation of the none too distant past. Among educated groups, such as medical specialists of Western and Chinese school medicine (the latter is commonly referred to as Traditional Chinese Medicine or TCM), there may also be considerable unease about the Falun Gong paradigm of the origin of disease in karmic offense (which has clear Buddhist roots).

     Interestingly, the communist rulership's response itself fits in perfectly in a centuries old tradition. In this tradition, a religious phenomenon that is usually only marginally understood is perceived as dangerous for whatever reason and then stigmatized as rebellious, violent, deluding the people, and so forth. The present accusations that the Falun Gong is responsible for the deaths of so many people and so forth sadly fit in an old pattern of labeling and stigmatizing religious phenomena. as White Lotus Teachings or otherwise. This accusation may even at times be true, but similar accusations can be made against political systems with restricted access to health care in general (including the USA, to give but one example, where health care is directly linked to wealth and from there to a specific ideological system that limits health care for poorer and older people).

     What is dangerous for Western observers is to start taking these accusations seriously, of which traces can be found in the popular media, which takes over pejorative terminology such as the word "sect" and uncritically reiterates the PRC accusations. The use of the word "sect" has serious implications, because in most European countries (including Germany) and certainly among a lay public "sects" are still seen as dangerous groups out to get our children and/or our money. Although we may not persecute such groups, the gut response of many a politician and many lay people would be to assume that if the Falun Gong is a "sect" than the PRC may be right after all. Here we should not forget, that the PRC treats Christian groups on the same level and with the same labels as other "sects" (and from their perspective for good reasons, since Christian groups are "sects" or new religious groups in the same way in Chinese culture, as in our own culture[s] are  for instance the Tibetan Buddhism represented so impressively by the Dalai Lama, as well as a host of other new religious groups).

     We have to be careful to assimilate the Falun Gong in the traditional pejorative discourse of so-called "sects", even when we simply mention the Falun Gong as a new religious phenomenon and then go on to discuss other (not necessarily similar) religious phenomena such as past rebellions and so forth. Even though the author of such an analysis may (and at least should) be aware of the fact that new religious groups and part religious phenomena labeled as "heretic" (xie) or "demonic" (yao) are not necessarily the same, the reader of such essays will probably assimilate such information in a much simpler way. Whatever we write, our audience will incorporate in established models of perceiving of religious otherness as "sects".
A question that automatically arises is whether our own Western pejorative discourse also influences the degree to which the persecution of the Falun Gong can remain a public issue (to be discussed in the different media). It is my impression, for instance, that this is more the case in the Netherlands (relatively tolerant of new and/or different religious phenomena) than in Germany.

    China has a long tradition of labeling all kinds of religious phenomena and building categories out of them which in now way correspond to the actual phenomena or to Western scholarly  analytical categories. The result of taking over labeling and pejorative categories is not merely applying the false negative terminology, but also applying the characteristics of one phenomenon supposedly belonging in a pejorative category and ascribing these characteristics to another phenomena supposedly also belonging in this category.  We can find an example of this type of logic in the otherwise very illuminating article  by Stephan Bumbacher (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 17.11.1999,   Seite 52), where he analyzes the Falun Gong as part of a long tradition of millenarian and messianic movements and rebellions  (using the common label "White Lotus Teachings" and its associated historiography).  Not only  is the Falun Gong not messianic or millenarian (its certainly quite prominent notion of a violent  end to time is no different than similar statements in ordinary Buddhist tradition, since it lacks the - to my mind essential - expectation that this end of time is dated and really imminent), but  most of the groups commonly labeled as "White Lotus Teachings" do not form part of the same religious tradition  and are not messianic or millenarian. Furthermore, when Li Hongzhi speaks of the end of times, he uses this notion in the way that Buddhist preachers have always strated that their own ages are charaterized by moral decay in need of a reform, of the type that they themselves are proposing. Modern scholarship has made it clear that the Boxers (an anti Western and anti missionary movement in 1900, at first supported more or less by the Manchu court in Beijing, but eventually violently suppressed) were  neither messianic or millenarian, not even a religious group and certainly not part of the White Lotus Teachings.

    Even Western states, public opinion(s) and established religious traditions have considerable problems in finding the right way to approach new and somehow different (in the sense of newly formed, and/or coming from elsewhere, and/or small, etc.) religious teacher- pupil networks or more institutionalized groups. They tend to throw them into one and the same basket of "sects" or "cults", or even psychogroups. A good example of this kind of soul-searching in combination with (even scholarly) preconceptions is the recent German report on "new religious and ideological communities and psychogroups", by a commission of the Bundestag (the German parliament).

Possible reasons for the persecution

    From a Western perspective it is, as so often, hard to fathom the motives of the Chinese communist leadership to invest so much face (=symbolic capital) in the persecution of the Falun Gong and its eventual success. Pressure from the outside (mainly Western) world  to stop with this persecution is also increasing, but it is virtually impossible for the Chinese leadership to stop now, given the amount of face which has been invested. Hence the question: why this perseverance in this day and age? I see several possible answers:
    Given the Chinese leadership's investment of so much face in the succesful persecution of the movement, this raises the question of how they might get out of this quandary. Public Western pressure might even be counterproductive here, since it increases the weight of the face invested! Possible developments could be a change of leadership (it might even become an issue in a contest for power) or a claim that persecution has been succesful to some extent and in some way (for instance by claiming that the Falun Gong has now corrected some of its purported faults), but also increasing isolation in the short and middle term. Given the lack of information on internal party debates, it is difficult to guess what will actually happen.

The issue of continuities

    Li Hongzhi and his Falun Gong are a PRC phenomenon and should not be mistaken for a new religious group ("sect") of the traditional type. The Falun Gong emphatically denies being a religion, cult or sect, although it does present a cosmology, moral system and practices that intends to fit human life into the overall cosmic process in a way that we normally call religious. The reason for this, and this is typically modern and PRC, is Li Hongzhi's and his adherents' feeling that the Falun Gong teachings and practices are grounded in reality, more specifically that they are a historical and scientific truth, as well as a higher Truth. This concern is expressed in terms that recall similar claims to being scientific (kexuede) in post May Fourth (as well as communist) tradition. Religion is superstitious, sects and cults are dangerous, hence the Falun Gong cannot be that.  Interestingly, the communist regime is quite glad to take them on their word, since this preempts objections to suppressing the Falun Gong on the basis of the legal right of freedom of religion.

     One difference between the Falun Gong and traditional groups is the absence of rituals of daily worship or rites of passage (such as funerary rituals and initiations), apart of course from the practice of exercises to set and then keep the Wheel of the Dharma turning.  Striking differences are also the degree of self-consciousness about outside critics already preceding the persecutions from April 1999 onwards (which is in fact what initially led to the Zhongnanhai and other demonstrations), the centrality of writing ànd reading (both recitation and reading for contents), the use of modern technology, the unusual fusion of essentially Daoist inspired Qigong with a Buddhist cosmology derived from books (apparently not from canonical Buddhist scriptures). There are no references, however, to Buddhist divine figures in any central position, nor is any mention made of the Eternal Mother cosmology that is so central to a number of new religious groups and traditions of the late imperial period.  Li Hongzhi  is explicitly against the Yiguandao (Unity Teachings) in  his Zhuan falun II, pp. 86-91, although I do not get the impression that he is very familiar with this or other traditional Chinese new religious groups'  actual teachings and practices. Commonalties are the focus on healing (at least in the early phase) and moral behavior as an explanatory paradigm for all kinds of personal and societal problems. On the other hand, we find a similar stress in pre 1976 PRC (Maoist) propaganda and political campaigns, which is when Li Hongzhi was culturally and ideologically formed (including a stint as an army musician).

     A striking commonality with traditional religious culture is the conscious (and clearly retrospective) modeling of Li Hongzhi's biography on traditional religious biographies, including his birth on the Buddha's birthday, namely the 8th day of the 4th month in the traditional moon-calender, his precocious moral and religious faculties,  his religious teachers, his visit to Mount Changbai (a major religious mountain in Manchu tradition, which may be relevant since Li Hongzhi is from the former Manchu territory of the Northeast).

    An indirect continuity with the past, and probably more of a coincidence, is Li Hongzhi's name. Li §õ is not merely one of the most common family names, but also the family name of messianic saviors and of Laozi. More significantly, the element Hong ¬x is common in a whole range of saviors since the Han dynasties and was also adopted in communist lore. It means, amongst other things, "vast" and his personal name Hongzhi  ¬x §Ó can therefore be translated as "vast ambition." Since he was born in 1952 (according to PRC propaganda) or 1951 (according to the Falun Gong), this name makes eminent sense in the light of the newly founded communist state (in 1949).  I therefore suspect that his name was inspired by the then quite recent communist revolution of 1949, rather than  messianic or millenarian traditions. Even if his personal name Hongzhi is a conscious invention, I see no reason to assume any intended links with past messianic traditions (references). Potentially, the Falun Gong could decide to exploit the religious feel of this name, but to my knowledge they have not done so to date. It is also questionable that city people below 50-60 years of age would be aware of these traditional connotations (countryside people might, though).

My personal view

    My own view of  new religious groups or traditions or networks is that whatever we may want to think of them personally is that they should be allowed as religious phenomena (leaving aside the tricky question whether we or the groups concerned see them[selves] as "religious").  I am against any general prohibitions of any such group by name (whether the Falun Gong or Scientology or otherwise). If there should be criminal acts (as there are carried out by  people with all kinds of backgrounds), these can be dealt with perfectly well on an ad hoc basis within the existing legal systems of the various countries. When we are worried by a group's views on healing, as well we might in the case of quite a few Christian groups (including several Protestant groups in my native Holland) as well as the Falun Gong and many other groups, we should only deal with this through our own propaganda (which, understandably, we then prefer to call education!). I see no legal necessity, nor any moral need, to create specific laws against this or that religious group. On a pragmatic level  I also hold that extreme tolerance is the best means of protection against potential religious or ideological adversaries that a democratic system has available.  This latter remark, however, should not be read the other way around as implying that I hold the Falun Gong or any other new religious group to be actually dangerous, right or wrong, or criminal in any way.


- On the different words hong in messianic contexts, and its relevance in a communist context, see my "China's Inner Demons: The Political Impact of the  Demonological Paradigm," China Information, Volume XI, nos 2/3 (1996-1997) 54-88 and  The Ritual and Mythology of the Chinese Triads: Creating an Identity (Leiden: Brill, 1998). Back

Last update: July 2002