July 25, 1999

The Sect That Became an Enemy of the State


The scale and tenacity of Falun Gong, the faith-healing sect led by a Chinese guru now living in New York City, has taken everyone by surprise, even the Chinese Government. In April, 10,000 Falun Gong members suddenly turned up in Beijing for a silent demonstration outside the Forbidden City, where the Communist leaders live, and just as suddenly they were gone. That takes some organization. Now that the Chinese Government has banned the sect, it has taken on a formidable enemy.

From a historical perspective, Falun Gong looks very familiar. Secret societies, religious movements and faith-healing sects, based on a mishmash of Buddhism, Taoism and millenarian folk beliefs, have been part of the Chinese scene for thousands of years. They tend to grow -- and grow violent in times of crisis and transition.

When the Han Dynasty was tottering in the second century A.D., a Taoist sect named the Yellow Turbans staged a revolt that helped to bring the Government down. Their slogan was "Taiping, Great Peace." After the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century, a failed scholar named Hong Xiuquan claimed to be Christ's younger brother and founded a sect named Great Peace, in hommage to the Yellow Turbans. His Great Peace rebellion cost millions of lives but hastened the downfall of the Qing Dynasty. Barely 50 years later, another faith-healing society, the Boxers, revolted. They claimed to have supernatural powers, which made them impervious to bullets. They were not, and died in great numbers, but not before taking many others with them.

Falun Gong, then, with its Buddhist-Taoist beliefs in building superior virtue through faith-healing techniques, belongs to a folk tradition that has always frightened the powers that be. The group's very existence challenges the orthodoxy that underpins the right of Chinese Governments to rule. The orthodoxy used to be Confucianism, which imposed a social hierarchy as a kind of cosmic order, with the divine emperor at its pinnacle. Today it is Marxism-Leninism. And therein lies a great difficulty for the current Chinese regime. Few Chinese, even inside the Communist Party, really believe in the Marxist dogmas anymore. To continue justifying its rule, the Government has had to turn more and more to a resentful form of nationalism, the idea that China is constantly being harassed by hostile foreign powers. A century of humiliating defeats at the hands of foreign enemies, from the Opium Wars until the Japanese invasions in the 1930's, has made most Chinese extremely receptive to this kind of nationalism.

It worked very well in the case of the Chinese Embassy bombing in Belgrade. But it cannot possibly work against Falun Gong. To be sure, the fact that the group's guru, Li Hongzhi, lives in New York is being used by the Government to portray his followers as dupes of foreign manipulation. But since Falun Gong is so obviously part of a long Chinese tradition, this slur is hardly convincing.

Admonishments in the Chinese press to work harder to study Marxism, scientific socialism, atheism and dialectical materialism look even more absurd, not only because few people believe in these slogans, but also because this approach exposes what Chinese Marxists would call a contradiction in party propaganda. The Chinese Government is fighting a purely indigenous cult by resorting to outdated clichés borrowed from the West. There are no nationalist points to be scored there.

The latest rash of Falun Gong protests -- 30,000 people rallying in cities all over China -- are said to be the biggest challenge to the Communist Party since the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square 10 years ago. The potential challenge might be even bigger. The sect is said to have about 70 million members, which would make it larger than the Communist Party, which has 60 million. Furthermore, many of those 70 million are said to be party members as well.

This is not so suprising. Political reforms have been blocked since the 1980's, and many people, including Communists, have become disillusioned with politics as a way of solving China's problems. So they retreat into themselves, meditating to reach higher spheres and cure their frustrations. Or they might hope that supernatural intervention and divine virtues will help China where politics have failed. All this, and more, is promised by Falun Gong.

So far, Falun Gong has not been overtly political. Indeed, the guru in New York preaches detachment from wordly affairs. Many Chinese secret societies and meditation sects have started off that way. Even Hong Xiuquan, or Christ's younger brother, began his work to establish heaven on earth, with entirely peaceful intentions. But nothing turns religious groups into political ones more effectively than persecution. It would have been wiser, therefore, if the Chinese Government had left Falun Gong alone and tolerated its heterodox practices. Only a few weeks ago, Prime Minister Zhu Rongji still advocated such a course. But tolerance of heterodoxy is as alien to the Communists as it was to the imperial governments before them.

By cracking down so hard, the Government has made an enemy where there once was just a sect. And the career of Zhu Rongji, already weakened by his offering trade concessions to foreigners who went on to bomb an embassy, should be watched with particular interest.

Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of "Anglomania."

Copyright 1999 The New York Times

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