by Charlotte Tan
edited by Tiffany Dai
The religious system in China is closely monitored and regulated by the Communist Party of China (CPC), which attempts to exert tremendous control over all social organizations in the country, so as to quell any potential political uprisings from such groups. The case of Falun Gong in China presents a compelling story of how a seemingly innocuous quasi-religious group that was initially supported by the Chinese government came to be seen by the CPC as “the most serious threat to stability in 50 years of [Chinese] communist history,” and how the government’s violent persecution of the sect transformed it into a well-mobilized diasporic political movement. [i]
Since the CPC first came into power in 1949, the Chinese government has consistently employed assertive secularism in its policies that have wavered between attempts to control religious organizations and efforts to expunge the country of religion. [ii] As a “comprehensive doctrine” that strives to eradicate religion from the public domain, assertive secularism often arises as a result of contention between secular and religious groups regarding the appropriate role of religion in the public sphere, and is thus typically “incompatible” with any religious group that “has public claims”.[iii]
Early party leadership viewed religion as “a direct threat to Communist ideals of self-determinative Chinese sovereignty and undivided loyalty to Communism” due to connections with foreign influences .[iv] In 1966, Mao Zedong, determined to expunge capitalist and traditional components from Chinese society in favour of Mao’s communist ideology, set the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution into motion.[v] During the Cultural Revolution, hordes of Red Guards, members of a mass student-led semi-militarized social organization guided by Mao, set out to eradicate the Four Olds (old culture, customs, habits, and ideas) that were seen as capitalist and traditionalist elements of Chinese society that impeded the country’s ability to become a “true” communist society.[vi] Religion became one of the Red Guards’ first targets, and they swiftly shut down every religious center in China; “scriptures were burned, relics were destroyed, and believers were forced to endure public accusation sessions and torture”.[vii] Several religious leaders and adherents were imprisoned, tortured, or executed, and all religious activity in the country was forced to go underground.[viii]
After Mao’s death in 1976, his successor Deng Xiaoping introduced reforms centered around transitioning China’s centrally planned economy to a free-market economy.[ix] These reforms included a more tolerant approach to religious practice and the establishment of multiple executive agencies responsible for monitoring and regulating religion in China.[x] These executive agencies have jurisdiction over all religious organizations hoping to obtain legal entity status in China.[xi] The Chinese government currently recognizes only five religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism and Islam.[xii] Through its executive agencies, the CPC exerts a great deal of control over these religions in China; the agencies appoint leaders for each organization, disperse policy and doctrinal statements that leaders are expected to adhere to, require the leaders to attend training sessions to “learn about the confluence of their religion and Communist doctrine”, and require leaders to take a written exam, which – if they fail – will result in their removal from their position.[xiii] Through this system, the CPC is able to acutely oversee and regulate religious organizations in the country.
Falun Gong was established in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, a former minor provincial government official.[xiv] The practice is described by adherents as “an advanced system of cultivation” based on traditional Chinese qigong techniques, Taoism, and Buddhism.[xv] Falun Gong is centered around its three core tenets of truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance, and combines physical movements with meditation, moral values, spiritual values, and faith in an effort to “deliver” adherents from “modern society’s ‘materialism’ and ‘moral degeneration’.”[xvi] Practitioners believe that through practicing Falun Gong, they may attain “physical well-being, emotional tranquility, moral virtue, an understanding of the cosmos, and a higher level of existence or salvation.”[xvii] By the mid-1990s, Falun Gong had amassed a large and diverse following, with estimates ranging from 3 to 70 million adherents.[xviii] The sect’s swift expansion was facilitated by the simplicity of its physical exercises, positive impact on health, its lack of membership fees and promise of “health and salvation.”[xix] The practice’s alleged healing powers made Falun Gong particularly attractive as many citizens had lost medical benefits and services due to economic reforms.[xx] Until the practice was banned in July 1999, Falun Gong adherents could be found in nearly every park and on almost every street corner in the country.[xxi] Beijing alone had over 2,000 “practice stations” comprised of tens to several hundreds of practitioners – one particular station in Western Beijing attracted thousands of devotees to line up in neat rows every Sunday morning to perform their exercises together.[xxii]
Falun Gong initially received legal support from the state, but by 1996, the sect had “fallen into disfavor” with the state due to its adoption of “increasingly religious overtones” and rapid growth in popularity.[xxiii] In 1992, Falun Gong was recognized by the China Qigong Research Society and the CPC’s Ministry of Civil Affairs as a legal entity.[xxiv] As long as the sect “conformed to the limits against religious practice,” Falun Gong would retain its legal status as a registered qigong organization.[xxv] However, the practice began to take on increasingly religious connotations as it grew in popularity.[xxvi] The sect’s religious directive eventually became too open for the China Qigong Research and the Ministry of Civil Affairs to dismiss, and in 1996, the sect’s legal-entity status was rescinded.[xxvii] Despite the repeal of its legal status, the sect continued to exist without legal rights, and continued to function with little interference from the CPC.[xxviii] In 1996, almost one million copies of Li Hongzi’s book, Rotating the Law Wheel, were sold, which both “alerted and alarmed” the CPC leadership to the great popularity of Falun Gong and qigong groups in general.[xxix] Fearful that such associations might transform into political groups, the CPC began to see “the potential for rebellion”[xxx] in the sect’s popularity.
Once aware of Falun Gong’s extensive following, government authorities began to take measures to combat further growth in the practice’s popularity.[xxxi] On July 24, 1996, the CPC outlawed the sale of Falun Gong publications.[xxxii] The following October, the party-state hardened its policy toward all qigong groups; associations certified by the state as social organizations would be “more intensely monitored and supervised,” and unregistered organizations would be “hunted down and suppressed.”[xxxiii] The party-state intensified its anti-Falun Gong and qigong campaign when a small magazine aimed at teenagers, Science and Technology for Youth, published an article by a Chinese Science Academy physicist named He Zuoxiu.[xxxiv] In the article, titled “I’m Opposed to Qigong Practise by Teenagers,” He censured qigong and Falun Gong in particular for their “unscientific claims,” and advised young people against practicing Falun Gong.[xxxv] In response to He’s critical article, Falun Gong adherents wrote “a letter of protest” to the magazine, demanding an apology from the author for “distorting the truth” and “damaging the sect’s reputation.”[xxxvi] After the magazine refused to issue an apology, ten Falun Gong enthusiasts demonstrated before the magazine’s editorial office in Tianjin.[xxxvii] Over the course of the following three days, approximately 6,000 Falun Gong practitioners flocked to Tianjin to join the protest.[xxxviii] On April 23, the peaceful demonstration ended in violence when police “forcibly removed” a protestor.[xxxix] The following day, fellow protestors voiced their objection to the act before the municipal government, but were reportedly beaten by police, who arrested ten of the demonstrators.[xl] This would serve as the impetus for the enormous demonstration in Beijing two days later, notably just a few weeks before the tenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Incident, which saw thousands of civilians at a pro-democracy student-led demonstration killed at the hands of Chinese troops.[xli]
On April 25, 1999, an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 Falun Gong devotees gathered in Beijing to lay siege to the CPC leadership compound, Zhongnanhai.[xlii] Falun Gong adherents assembled in Beijing to demand legal recognition of the sect, a lift on the ban of the sect’s publications, the release of their colleagues who had been arrested for demonstrating in Tianjin, and their constitutional rights to free speech, press, and assembly.[xliii] The demonstrators, who were “well behaved and respectable looking” and composed of women and men, young and old, sat in silent protest from daybreak until late evening.[xliv] The demonstration was cited as “the largest and most protracted public demonstrations in China since the democracy movement of a decade earlier”.[xlv]
The CPC was shocked and unnerved that thousands of Chinese citizens had been able to evade the government’s vigilant security services to orchestrate and congregate en masse in as politically sensitive a setting as the party-state’s headquarters.[xlvi] The demonstration was more than just a worry for authorities – it was also an embarrassment for China’s security services.[xlvii] Chinese police later learned that the demonstration was largely organized by email, and that the sect had a virtual organization that supposedly connected “39 provincial branches with 1,900 lower-level ‘guidance stations’ and 23,000 practice sites.”[xlviii] At this time, Falun Gong was officially estimated to have 30 million followers; the sect itself, however, claimed the actual number of adherents to be at 70 million.[xlix] If the sect’s estimate was correct, Falun Gong would have been the biggest voluntary organization in China, with a membership “rivaling that of the Communist Party”.[l] Moreover, intellectuals, government officials, and even members of the Communist Party were among the sect’s demonstrators.[li]. The CPC feared that Falun Gong could transform into a political organization, as has happened with numerous other sects in Chinese history – perhaps most notably during the nineteenth century Taiping Rebellion, when a martial-arts cult provoked the bloodiest civil war in history. Although the majority of Falun Gong members had joined the sect “out of curiosity, for health benefits, or for socialization” and had “no intention to participate in social disruption,” the group’s large following, adeptness at mobilizing, and facility of modern tools of communication served as justification for the CPC to fear the group’s potential to morph into a political challenge that could threaten the party’s rule.[liii] On July 22, 1999, the government banned Falun Gong, on account that the sect was “injurious to the well-being of people and society” because it had ‘‘seriously disturbed the normal order of society, confused the people’s moral and ethical concepts, deceived many innocent people and inflicted enormous harm on their physical and mental health.”[liv] Although Li Hongzi had asserted that by establishing Falun Gong, all he wanted was to ‘‘to teach people to be good’’ and ‘‘not to be involved in politics,” the sect was effectively politicized when thousands of demonstrators assembled in front of the CPC headquarters in 1999.[lv]
On July 22, 1999, the Chinese party-state began its heavy-handed persecution of Falun Gong and its adherents, officially outlawing the sect and all Falun Gong activities.[lvi] In a well-orchestrated nation-wide abolition, in scenes “reminiscent of the feverish Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution,” police rounded up tens of thousands of Falun Gong adherents – including Party cadres – and brought them to sports stadiums where they were interrogated at times for hours” and forced to sign papers which had them renounce Falun Gong.[lvii] Police stormed their way into adherents’ homes and destroyed over two million Falun Gong-related books and instructional cassette tapes.[lviii] Thousands of the sect’s devotees were sent to “Re-education through Labor” camps or imprisoned for years.[lix] Human rights organizations estimate that “several hundred to a few thousand” Falun Gong adherents have died in custody from abuse, torture, and neglect.[lx] In conjunction with the nation-wide persecution of Falun Gong, the CPC began a propaganda operation aimed at discrediting the sect by renouncing it for “evil thinking” and “threatening social stability” in order to gain public support for the anti-Falun Gong campaign.[lxi] Between July 1999 and October 2000, many Falun Gong devotees continued to stage large protests despite the government’s campaign against them.[lxii] In response, the CPC crackdown took on a greater sense of urgency, and authorities “employed a traditional method of threats and incentives toward lower authorities” to “prevent public displays of Falun Gong”.[lxiii] CPC leadership “turned a blind eye” to local methods of suppression against unrepentant practitioners, including the use of torture.[lxiv]
Although Falun Gong was originally an apolitical sect, the CPC’s violent campaign against the practice shaped the sect into the very political movement the government was hoping to prevent.[lxv] Falun Gong in China has been forced underground, but the sect has thrived in overseas Chinese communities,[lxvi] with several thousand practitioners estimated in the United States, Canada, and other countries with large populations of ethnically Chinese citizens.[lxvii] Practitioners in foreign countries have mobilized to routinely stage demonstrations, disseminate brochures, and sponsor cultural events. Furthermore, these Falun Gong adherents are affiliated with multiple mass media outlets, including several web-based publications, such as The Epoch Times, a newspaper distributed in eight languages and thirty countries, New Dang Dynasty Television, a Chinese language station based in New York with correspondents located in over fifty cities across the globe, and Sound of Hope, a California radio station founded by Falun Gong members.[lxix] Spurred on by the Chinese government’s cruel and violent persecution of Falun Gong, these media outlets constantly publish reports on such human rights abuses by the CPC.[lxx]
The main interest of the CPC is to maintain social stability in order to ensure that the party stays in power.[lxxi] It is a sign of the party-state’s deep insecurity that it came to see an apolitical religious sect like Falun Gong as a major threat to its rule.[lxxii] As in keeping with its established approach to religion in China, the CPC used assertive secularism to forcefully eradicate Falun Gong from the public domain. Although Falun Gong was indeed quite adept at mobilizing its adherents, it was originally not the political movement the CPC feared it to be. However, following the Chinese government’s heavy-handed persecution, Falun Gong became a highly politicized movement, with members around the world assembling to demonstrate against the persecution of the practice and its devotees. In denying adherents their right to practice Falun Gong, the CPC inadvertently politicized the movement, and the government’s heavy-handed persecution of the initially innocuous quasi-religious sect provided Falun Gong practitioners a reason to mobilize and protest the government’s violent campaign against them.
Charlotte Tan is a recent graduate of McGill University, with a B.A. in East Asian Studies and Psychology. Her research interests include East Asian media, aesthetics, and consumption practices. She credits her professors, classmates, and the tasty ramen restaurants in the city for making her time at McGill truly special.
[i] Maria Hsia Chang, Falun Gong: The End of Days. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012), 59.
[ii] Ahmet T. Kuru, “Passive and Assertive Secularism: Historical Conditions, Ideological Struggles, and State Policies toward Religion.” World Politics 59, no. 4 (2007): 571.
[iii] Ibid., 583.
[iv] Carl Hollan, “A Broken System: Failures of the Religious Regulatory System in the People’s Republic of China.” Brigham Young University Law Review 2014, no. 3 (2015): 734.
[v] Ibid., 743.
[vi] Ibid., 743.
[vii] Ibid., 743.
[viii] Ibid., 743.
[ix] John Wong, “The Mystery of Falun Gong: Its Rise and Fall in China” In The Mystery of China’s Falun Gong: Its Rise and Its Sociological Implications (East Asian Institute Contemporary China Series, 1999), 12.
[x] Hollan, “A Broken System,” 752-3.
[xi] Ibid., 752.
[xii] Ibid., 753.
[xiii] Ibid., 760.
[xiv] Chang, Falun Gong: The End of Days, 3.
[xv] Wong, “The Mystery of Falun Gong,” 9.
[xvi] Thomas Lum, “China and Falun Gong.” Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade (2006): 3.
[xvii] Ibid., 3.
[xviii] Ibid., 3.
[xix] Chang, Falun Gong: The End of Days, 4.
[xx] Lum, “China and Falun Gong,” 2.
[xxi] Chang, Falun Gong: The End of Days, 5.
[xxii] Ibid., 5.
[xxiii] Ibid., 7; Hollan, “A Broken System,” 763.
[xxiv] Hollan, “A Broken System,” 763.
[xxv] Ibid., 763.
[xxvi] Ibid., 763.
[xxvii] Ibid., 763.
[xxviii] Ibid., 764.
[xxix] Chang, Falun Gong: The End of Days, 6.
[xxx] Ibid., 6.
[xxxi] Ibid., 6.
[xxxii] Ibid., 6.
[xxxiii] Ibid., 6-7.
[xxxiv] Ibid., 7.
[xxxv] Wong, “The Mystery of Falun Gong,” 13.
[xxxvi] Chang, Falun Gong: The End of Days, 8.
[xxxvii] Ibid., 8.
[xxxviii] Ibid., 8.
[xxxix] Ibid., 8.
[xl] Ibid., 8.
[xli] Ibid., 8.
[xlii] Wong, “The Mystery of Falun Gong,” 13.
[xliii] Lum, “China and Falun Gong,” 2.
[xliv] Chang, Falun Gong: The End of Days, 1.
[xlv] Lum, “China and Falun Gong,” 1.
[xlvi] Terry McCarthy, and Mia Turner. “Inside the Falun Gong.” Time (1999): 48.
[xlvii] Ibid., 48.
[xlviii] Ibid., 48.
[xlix] Chang, Falun Gong: The End of Days, 2.
[l] Ibid., 2.
[li] Ibid., 2.
[lii] McCarthy and Turner, “Inside the Falun Gong,” 48.
[liii] Chang, Falun Gong: The End of Days, 141.
[liv] Ibid., 96.
[lv] Ibid., 8.
[lvi] Wong, “The Mystery of Falun Gong,” 7.
[lvii] Ibid., 8.
[lviii] Chang, Falun Gong: The End of Days, 10.
[lix] Benjamin Penny, The Religion of Falun Gong. (Chicago, U.S.: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 3.
[lx] Lum, “China and Falun Gong,” 2.
[lxi] Wong, “The Mystery of Falun Gong,” 8.
[lxii] Lum, “China and Falun Gong,” 5.
[lxiii] Ibid., 5.
[lxiv] Ibid., 5.
[lxv] Chang, Falun Gong: The End of Days, 21.
[lxvi] Lum, “China and Falun Gong,” 5.
[lxvii] Ibid., 8.
[lxviii] Ibid., 8.
[lxix] Ibid., 8.
[lxx] Ibid., 8.
[lxxi] Hollan, “A Broken System,” 766.
[lxxii] Chang, Falun Gong: The End of Days, 124.
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