No. 35, May - June 2001, p. 4



Focus - Falun Gong
Looking at China Through the Mirror of Falun Gong

Benoît Vermander

During the three-month period between the rally on April 25th 1999 and the launch of the repression on July 22nd, I attempted, in this journal, to give a sketch of an overall interpretation of the "Falun Gong phenomenon."(1) At that time I saw the April demonstration in Tiananmen Square as having "thrown a totally new light on China at the very close of the twentieth century". Clearly, the confrontation that has persisted throughout these past two years has intensified still further the brilliance of that light. The aim of this article is to re-examine my ideas of two years ago with the benefit of all the information accumulated during the intervening period. Accordingly, after recalling the essential developments between April 1999 and April 2001, I will address a few recurring questions; Who are the adherents of Falun Gong? What are Falun Gong's structures? What role does the movement's founder play, and what is his true significance? How does the current confrontation illustrate the evolution of relations between the state and civil society? What does Falun Gong show us about the aspirations and the tensions affecting contemporary Chinese culture? From this point of view, as its title indicates, the article is concerned with Falun Gong to the extent that the movement gives us access to a socio-cultural transformation, and helps us to define and interpret it.

Two years of confrontation

We should begin with a reminder of some of the key events of these past two years.(2) On April 25th 1999, more than ten thousand people (some sources put the figure as high as fifteen thousand) gather in front of Zhongnanhai, the seat of political power in Peking, for almost a whole day; they protest silently against attacks to which the movement, they say, has been subjected; and they demand a guaranteed right to practise publicly the exercises they promote.(3) On April 27th, the authorities say they are ready to listen to Falun Gong's grievances, while issuing a warning against any attempt to destabilise society. On May 3rd, the group's founder, Li Hongzhi, speaking from exile in the United States, calls upon the government to start a dialogue. On June 6th, more than a hundred demonstrators who have resumed a silent protest in Peking are taken in for questioning.

The Chinese authorities' reaction begins in earnest on July 20th and 22nd in the same year, with the arrest of thousands of the movement's adherents across the whole country. On July 22nd, Falun Gong is declared an illegal organisation: the "Falun Dafa Research Society" (falun dafa yanjiuhui) and similar organisations have never been registered with the Ministry of Civil Affairs.(4) A press campaign is launched accusing the movement of being directly responsible for around fifteen hundred deaths: the reasons cited are that the movement is opposed to standard medical care and that it encourages extreme and suicidal behaviour. On July 28th, China issues an international warrant for the arrest of Li Hongzhi. Then begins a widescale campaign of repression against Falun Gong.

By the end of 1999, according to official figures, 35,000 adherents had been arrested in Peking when they tried to hold demonstrations.(5) The first instances of Falun Gong members dying in police custody are reported outside China on October 7th.(6)

Eleven of the movement's leaders are arrested on October 21st. The week from October 25th to November 1st sees successive waves of adherents protesting in Tiananmen Square while at the same time the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress passes a resolution banning and punishing the activities of "perverse cults" (xiejiao). On November 12th, the first trials reach their conclusion: four adherents receive prison terms ranging from two to twelve years, while several hundred others are sentenced to three-year terms in camps for re-education through labour. On December 26th, four of the group's leaders (Li Chang, Wang Zhiwen, Ji Liewu et Yao Jie), all party members and holding responsible positions within the party or the state apparatus, are jailed for between seven and eighteen years for "opposing the application of the law" and for complicity in deaths caused by engaging in illegal sectarian activities.

The Chinese New Year celebrations (February 5th 2000) see several dozen adherents demonstrating in Tiananmen Square. In February and March, the death in custody of 15 members are reported in the news. While in detention, several members begin hunger strikes. On April 19th, the Xinhua news agency reports a total of 84 members having been sentenced to terms in prison. On April 25th, at least one hundred adherents demonstrate in Tiananmen Square to mark the first anniversary of the movement's mass rally, though tight security was in evidence. On May 11th, Li Hongzhi's birthday is "celebrated" by another demonstration in the same place, attended by about 200 people. On July 22nd, public repression becomes more brutal: Falun Gong members are given a bloody beating in Tiananmen Square.

The confrontation is becoming fiercer. On October 1st 2000, the police arrest more than one hundred demonstrators--or more than three hundred and fifty according to some sources--during clashes that seriously disturb the National Day celebrations. On December 10th (the 52nd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), the police again arrest more than two dozen demonstrators. That same month, the Xinhua agency announces that a semi-official "anti-sect" association has been formed. On December 20th, Amnesty International publishes a list of 77 adherents who have died in detention, among them 42 women, with 17 deaths reported in Shandong and 14 in Heilongjiang. Amnesty and other sources put at 450 the number of Falun Gong members who have been sentenced to jail terms, at over six hundred the number of those sent to psychiatric hospitals, at about two thousand those placed in camps for re-education through labour and at twenty thousand those who have been temporarily detained. At about this time, official figures are published reporting that 242 individuals belonging to Falun Gong have been punished for illegal activities.(7)

January 2001 opens with a new demonstration in Tiananmen Square; and once again hundreds are arrested (seven hundred according to Agence France Presse, AFP) amid scenes of police violence. Xinhua accuses the organisers of such demonstrators of having connections with pro-democratic groups or groups supporting independence for Taiwan, and with foreign forces. On the same day, a message from Li Hongzhi posted from New York onto his website suggests that adherents of the movement should not go beyond the limits of their "endurance" (ren) in withstanding the persecution inflicted upon them. "If the evil has already reached [the point of no return], then different measures at different levels may be used to stop it and eradicate it."(8) The movement's website publishes a detailed analysis of this message, in response to the reactions it has provoked, assuring readers that the Master is not calling for violent action. Further announcements by Li Hongzhi appear during the same period, focusing on the "elimination of the forces of evil."(9)

On January 23rd, on the eve of the Chinese New Year, five people attempt to set fire to themselves in Tiananmen Square.(10) One of them dies on the spot and a little girl dies a few weeks later. The Chinese government identifies them as members of Falun Gong and redoubles its campaign against the damage the movement is causing. The images that are shown (and in particular the photo of the young Liu Siying) touch people's imaginations, and in Chinese public opinion the tragedy seems to strike a significant blow in Falun Gong's favour. Abroad, representatives of the movement deny that the five people were adherents.(11)

This development strengthens the Chinese government's repressive action and its anti-sect propaganda. On February 26th this year, during an official ceremony, the government gives awards to 1,600 anti-Falun Gong "combatants", a good number of whom belong or have belonged to the army and the police. On March 1st, a Peking court sentences 37 Falun Gong members to jail terms of up to ten years on the pretext that they are said to have circulated documents downloaded from the Internet. On March 13th, a Tianjin court sends down 13 adherents for periods up to six years. On March 17th and 18th, an anti-Falun Gong exhibition (officially organised by the Wenhuibao newspaper) is opened in Hong Kong amid strident publicity, illustrating the Chinese government's efforts to restrain Falun Gong's freedom of action across the country. At the same time, news is piling up of repressive action that many observers consider is becoming increasingly violent, particularly inside certain psychiatric hospitals.(12)

Towards the middle of April, Falun Gong intensifies its protest campaign in several big cities, beginning with Hong Kong, demanding that the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva should condemn China. On April 18th, a United States motion to open discussion of a resolution to that effect is outvoted by 23 to 17. On the same date, Falun Gong puts at 183 the number of its members who have died as a direct consequence of the repression, with a drastic growth in numbers from December 2000 onwards.

On April 25th, the groups of adherents demonstrating in Tiananmen are rather thinly scattered, and the police proceed to arrest about thirty of them. The following points are noted in the international press: Falun Gong's capacity for mobilisation has sharply diminished; those adherents arrested seem increasingly to come from the margins of society (the obstinate resistance of some of them may have contributed to their being marginalised); Falun Gong has modified its techniques and is attaching greater importance to the clandestine distribution of pamphlets, which leaves open the possibility of a revival of the movement's activism in new forms; the internationalisation of the movement partly compensates for its weakness in China, even though the gatherings mobilised in Hong Kong or Tokyo, among other cities, are still very modest.

A perverse cult or the way to salvation?

In the Chinese government's view, Falun Gong is thus a "perverse cult" or a "sectarian (heterodox) organisation" (xiejiao zuzhi). This last expression is that used by the legislation, in official announcements and the media, to designate a whole range of religious groups and followers of spiritual beliefs that are denied official authorisation. The term is not legally defined. In a "teaching booklet for the use of young people" put out after the drama of January 23rd and entitled Saying no to perverse cults, the writers explain:

The jiao in xiejiao does not refer to the same jiao as in zongjiao (religion). It refers to an alleged religion, a perverse or evil force. A sectarian organisation is not the equivalent of a normal religious organisation: it is an illegal organisation disguised under the name of religion or qigong or any other name, using, creating or propagating perverse and superstitious beliefs or using other means to confuse the human spirit, to increase the number of its followers and to control them, and to put society at risk.(13)
One may find in a more concise form a roughly equivalent definition in the latest editions of Xinhua Cidian for example. Four elements are always present: the "perverse cults" are: a) illegal organisations; b) wrongfully using the term religion; c) to confuse people's minds; and d) undermine society. The booklet just quoted analyses the Falun Gong movement in the light of notorious sectarian movements that have made headline news in recent years (Aum Shinrikyô in Japan, Branch Davidians in the US, the collective suicide of the Jim Jones sect in Guyana in 1978, and so on). The text lays stress upon the universal character of the phenomenon of sectarianism, fully confirmed, it says, in the case of Falun Gong.

In a way, and despite all the ambiguities of the term, a real semantic effort is being made here, so numerous are the connotations of xiejiao or xiedao in Chinese.(14) The character xie itself denotes all that is perverse, unbalanced, heterodox or pernicious. Interestingly enough, in Chinese medical parlance, it denotes pathogenic agents, mainly exogenous ones.(15) Even though the various schools often exchanged the compliment, xiedao and xiejiao are epithets that the Confucians reserved first for the Buddhists and then, from the seventeenth century onwards, for the Christian religion: these were roughly the equivalent "heterodoxy" to the subversion of the intellectual tradition and the political status quo. For Richard Madsen, popular Catholicism still displays today the essential features of what the Chinese tradition calls a "heterodox cult".(16) We have seen that the government takes great care to distinguish the xiejiao from officially recognised religions. Even so, the repression of Falun Gong seems to have been accompanied by greater surveillance and indeed repression of all "deviant" religious or para-religious phenomena or those not officially authorised. The qigong associations have been the main victims, but Taoist and Christian pilgrimages and celebrations have equally been targeted.(17) For the Chinese state, Falun Gong epitomises the subversive potential of any religious, para-religious or spiritual movement once it escapes from the legal or ideological framework--once it breaches the dyke, one might say--that this same state erects to prevent the organisation from contributing in any "positive" way to the country's material or spiritual development.

One supplementary point is the significance that is attached in the official discourse to the outside help that Falun Gong is presumed to benefit from: such discourse reminds us of that directed at the spring 1989 demonstrations. Li Hongzhi's exile in the United States, the role that the movement's adherents play outside China, the appeals from humanitarian organisations, press reports(18) or interventions--even indirect--by foreign governments are all read as indications of active support for a destabilisation plot fomented by Falun Gong against the government and society.

On the other hand, how does Falun Gong define itself? To reply is far from easy. To a certain extent, it is evolving with time: the name Falun Gong refers to a gong, to a physical effort, that of the five exercises promoted by the movement; at first sight, the exercises connect it with one of the qigong schools, even though no stress is placed on the effort of "breathing" (qi) that defines that discipline. At the same time, and especially since the start of the repression, it is not so much the series of exercises that is being promoted, as its spiritual and soteriological significance. In this regard, it would doubtless be better to abandon the current name, Falun Gong--though it is still popularised by the movement itself--and use the official title, Falun Dafa, that heads the movement's publications. All the same, it seems that among the many groupings that have sprung up in China over the past decade and that use the term gong (Xianggong, Zhonggong, Yuanjigong, Guogong, Putigong, Chanmigong and so on) similar phenomena have appeared. These movements whose names end in gong have become the accepted equivalents of groupings to which, in another socio-political context, one would append the suffix -jiao. The peculiar character of Falun Gong arises perhaps, on the one hand, from the very ambitious and all-enveloping style of Li Hongzhi's teachings and, on the other, from the scale of its success.

Ever since the movement was founded, Li Hongzhi has stressed the requirement that its practice was to be public and that this public and uninhibited approach to the exercise sessions was an integral part of their effectiveness and their meaning, helping both to raise adherents' spiritual awareness and to propagate and improve dharma(19) (hongfa, zhengfa) throughout the universe. From July 26th 1998 onwards, addressing followers in the city of Changchun, he emphasised that practice did not consist in staying at home but, for example, in joining the peaceful demonstration that had been organised shortly before around the central Peking TV station. Such events, he said, were the best opportunity for making spiritual progress. Those preferring to practise in private were seeking excuses for their lack of firmness or courage. Submitting to the test of public practice and protestation was necessary to salvation.(20)

I shall return to this point while analysing the relations between master and disciples. But we should establish from now on that the ordeals of the past two years have shown us that Falun Dafa is much more than a mere qigong group. It is rooted in an exercise routine, but it promises a faith; and this aspect has been all the more strengthened by persecution. Only this aspect of the matter can enable us to appreciate the endurance shown by many followers since the start of the repression. Even before July 1999, Li Hongzhi had dwelled upon the salutary effect of public practice, which he likened to a confession of faith or a redemptive ritual that would guarantee the "rectification of the Law". The repression, once it began, enhanced still further the redemptive effect of the affirmation of faith and, in this regard, public protests take on a ritual character--in the present case the glorification of Falun Dafa and cosmic salvation--not forgetting that a ritual has a performative effectiveness, in other words it realises what it proclaims. Thus, on March 9th this year, Li Hongzhi declared:

This perfidious "test", or alleged as such, [has been] arranged by the ancient forces dependent upon evil, [but] however perverse they may be these forces will in the end be eliminated through correction by the Law. As followers of the Great Law, what you do today is resist the persecution of the Great Law and its followers. Clarifying the truth is uncovering perversity and at the same time containing perversity, diminishing persecution; at the same time as one uncovers perversity one cleans and eliminates the poison of rumours and lying images created by the perversity in people's minds, [and that] is saving mankind. That is the greatest compassion. Because in the future millions of people will attain the Law, if in people's heads there [still] remain thoughts of resistance to the Great Law, [then] once this appearance of perversity has passed, a great elimination will begin for humanity, which will mean perhaps that people, [although] possessing the necessary karma to attain the Law, or even an even greater number of innocent people will be eliminated, which is why everything we do at present is grandiose, compassionate; it all consists in fully achieving the end of your own journey. [] It is sacred, it is grandiose, it is--faced with real perversity--the ancient forces--the establishment of the majestic and grandiose virtue of the awakened being.(21)

The absence of any formal rituals and organisation would make it impossible to consider Falun Gong precisely as a religion. Where rituals are concerned, however, it seems to us that one must consider the communal practice of exercises, alternated with peaceful protests, as the movement's own ritual arsenal.(22) Another important indicator is the fact that Li Hongzhi's words, in a very oral form, are treated as Scriptures, quoted and used with the force associated with any canonical text.

Falun Dafa is thus a community of practice (xiulian) founded upon a body of revelations and "knowledge" in perpetual evolution as the Master's Scriptures are circulated, a community committed (explicitly since the start of the repression) to a redemptive struggle against the forces of evil. While Falun Dafa is not a religion, it is at the very least a path to salvation, and even the only possible path to salvation. It is asserted in many places that religion is no longer effective and that practice alone, the gateway to "attaining Dharma" (defa), offers a way out.(23)

The frontal nature of the conflict that has arisen between the Chinese government and Falun Dafa is thus understandable. If one had to reverse the main criteria according to which the Chinese state defines a perverse cult, one would say that Falun Dafa defines itself as: a) a benevolent organisation and even one with a mission of salvation; b) that goes beyond and replaces traditional religions; c) to correct people's behaviour and mentality; and d) to bring benefits of all kinds to human society. The term that the Chinese state applies to Falun Gong is thus highly pejorative but is not without relevance as to the dimensions of the movement as it identifies them. It goes without saying that this observation in no way justifies the repressive measures that have been taken against the movement nor the particularly brutal way in which they have been applied. Moreover, the specific accusations that have been made, notably the charge that Falun Gong has directly caused the death of 1,600 people, are not backed up convincingly--and indeed this is an inevitable function of how the repression is carried out.

Organisation and resistance

When they are arrested, the adherents of Falun Gong are generally required to write one or more of what are called the "three letters": a letter of guarantee (that they will not practise any more), a letter of separation from the organisation, and a letter of repentance. Falun Gong's Chinese language website now has among its main functions the publication of what one might call "counter-letters", the nominal testimony of members declaring that they have signed these letters under pressure, and repudiating them. The struggle, then, is about "repentance", pursued by each side in parallel style, and partly reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese state and Falun Gong are both aiming to assert their rectitude, their rightness. The demonstrators' slogan is very simple and, in fact, very evocative: Falun Dafa hao, Falun Dafa and its adherents are good, not bad (huai) as the Chinese state maintains. It is the oppressors who are bad. This struggle to secure the moral high ground and, at the same time, to cast the enemy into outer darkness gives the antagonists a powerful existential motivation. I have met people who were imprisoned, re-educated or beaten during the Cultural Revolution who, when speaking of what had made them hold out, said simply that they knew in their hearts that they were "good people" (hao ren)--this at a time when their whole world was striving to persuade them that they were intrinsically bad. To "hold out", to assert one's rightness along with one's right to live, at such a time these amount to one and the same operation, an expression of Spinoza's conatus (the basic propensity to go on living). In this respect, and whatever may be the ambiguities of Falun Gong as already noted, the organisation's resistance does throw light on the residual totalitarianism (even though the term has gone out of fashion) of the Chinese regime: it shows itself in the attempt to see all members of society define themselves in the same terms as those by which the system determines what it is and must be. This is "functionalised" totalitarianism; and classic weapons are being re-used for this specific purpose by a regime that is in deep ideological and moral confusion.

Who then are these adherents, some of whom have shown such a remarkable capacity for resistance? As to that, much remains unclear, including the real number of followers before the repression began. Quite simply, and this point is clear from Li Hongzhi's declarations, the nature, the degree and the reasons for belonging varied widely; there were the curious, the occasional visitors; there were those seeking in the movement a network of support or a physical cure; and finally there were those for whom Falun Dafa had become a community not only of practice but of faith, a "church". The city from which Li Hongzhi had launched his teaching, Changchun, had remained one of the most important centres, the radius of membership extending towards Tianjin and the surrounding region. Various indications, among them the number of arrests made, show strong penetration of Shandong, and also numerous groups of adherents in Guangdong. The significant numbers of Falun Gong adherents in Sichuan may be explained doubtless by the similarity of its economic conditions to those in the northeast, namely the progressive dismantling of the great state enterprises and the concomitant search for new networks of belonging.(24) On the other hand, the movement's penetration of the countryside was astonishingly advanced, as is attested also by the origins of those arrested and by the "improving" talks broadcast by Xinhua. One finds among the talks and the personal accounts a significant percentage of followers aged about fifty or a little older, an age group hit by early retirement and the closure of the great state enterprises, a category much spoken of at the time of the first public appearances of the movement. Clearly, however, all age groups and all professional categories are involved. It is the polymorphous, catch-all nature of Falun Dafa that this data (incomplete though it is) tends to highlight.

It seems certain that Falun Gong enjoyed great popularity in some sections of the army and the police. Slogans and banners were found on air force and police premises in the Haidian district. An internal report is understood to have counted four to five thousand Falun Gong sympathisers among the 200,000 members of the air force.(25) Several of the movement's leaders appear to have been recruited from the same background. Perhaps this may partly explain the movement's remarkable organisational structure, or at least that part of it that we can make out. Under Li Hongzhi there was a group of "researchers" at the head of the "Falun Dafa Research Society", which seems to have been a kind of leadership centre. Central bureaus were established in the provincial capitals, and sub-bureaus in the less important centres. At the level of direct contact with the public, "practice stations" were linked into a network of "monitors" teaching newcomers the basics of practice. The extent to which Falun Gong penetrated the higher levels of the Party remains a subject for speculation. A point frequently raised, and one beyond question, is that the flexibility and hierarchical structure of the movement mirrors the organisation of the Chinese Communist Party before it came to power. The systematic use of fax, mobile telephones and the Internet show Falun Gong to be a formidable operator in the field of communication media, a real "urban guerrilla" structure, even though one must always emphasise that its shows of strength have always remained peaceful. Since the repression, the propaganda war is also being waged with consummate skill, reinforcing the impression that the Chinese Communist Party has encountered its toughest adversary since taking power, an adversary that knows all there is to know about the Party.(26)

This organisation was put into service spreading the practices and the doctrine developed by Li Hongzhi. At first it promoted itself as something along the lines of qigong; but at the same time, as we have seen, it functioned as a quasi-religion. The mass rallies took place early in the movement's history; and they were not, as was believed at first, examples of a defence system when the organisation started to be troubled by the authorities. The public nature--sometimes overwhelmingly so--of the practice sessions was also an instrument of conversion and even, in the discourse of Li Hongzhi, a means to salvation, for the initiated and also for all humankind. For all that, was the organisation "subversive"? Did it aim, in any way, at seizing power? There is nothing to suggest it. It certainly tried to become an agent of influence, to win support both official and public that would have helped it to spread its doctrine very widely. The exile of Li Hongzhi to America in 1998 was undoubtedly the moment when Falun Dafa became aware that the movement had little chance of winning the sympathy of a majority of leading figures in the Party, despite some very real support within it. It is possible that, in the eyes of some influential disciples, Li Hongzhi's departure was seen as a provisional strategy, pending better times. The harsh words directed by Li Hongzhi towards unnamed disciples who were "seeking to promote themselves" allow us to believe that the Master's exile might not displease some people. It is possible that, for Li Hongzhi and some of those close to him, this exile was seen as the departure point for a conscious progression towards confrontation: while the confrontation was definitely unavoidable, then it was better no doubt that the movement should in some way take the initiative, should dictate the terms of the conflict. Moreover, the confrontation in China and the internationalisation of the movement can be seen as the two sides of the same strategy. Li Hongzhi had proclaimed very early on his ambition to build Falun Gong into an international movement.

Founder and disciples

The idea that, for Li Hongzhi, confrontation quite soon became inevitable, seems to stem from purely internal causes: his own words show clearly that his main fear has always been that some of his disciples might gradually acquire autonomy in relation to himself, and that he might find himself marginalised.(27) To the extent that his departure was a preparation for confrontation, the latter would enable him to make a selection between those followers who really deserved the Master's trust and the troublemakers. Besides, according to his own account, that is how the test worked:

The Masanjia Centre for Re-education through Labour is a dark den of perverse forces, the absolute majority of re-educators in there are little devils reincarnated from hell,(28) as a matter of fact the self-styled converted people [i.e. "re-educated"] are predestined in history to trample on and persecute the Law. Never mind whether they behaved well in the past [] all of them are getting ready to leap onto the stage today to trample and persecute the Law and to confuse the members [] I have deliberately taken action to unmask them, to make them clearly identifiable to everyone, to eliminate these hidden tumours among our adherents.(29)
Li Hongzhi's announcement entitled "Proposal" (jianyi), dated April 10th this year, tells us much about the prevailing tensions and attests to a certain confusion that has arisen within the organisation after the counter-publicity generated since the immolation by fire on January 23rd. Many disciples, he said, had benefited by his teachings and by the practice associated with them, whether by prolonging their life expectancy, bringing them into contact with new friends or improving their health. But those who practised in order to gain an advantage thereby were bad disciples. Members should continue practising in the present circumstances to ensure the propagation of the Law and universal salvation. Those who had given in to evil, he said, those who had "repented" and were now making accusations about loyal disciples, were the most contemptible "forms of life". Others had sought excuses for themselves, saying for example that they had reached an adequate level and did not need to practice any more. Others had claimed that the real Master was not here on earth, which Li Hongzhi strenuously denied: there was only one Master, he said, and that was himself; and even though his Dharma-bodies (fashen) enabled him to be present in several worlds at the same time, he was there with them. Raising the disciple's personal standing was inseparable from defending and spreading the Law; and those who did not adhere to Li Hongzhi's mission of salvation were rejected by him, which is why he proposed that all those who were now suffering persecution should seek in return to excite repentance in their tormentors by passing on the teachings to them.

One adherent sums up perfectly the all-embracing nature of the salvation offered by Li Hongzhi: he helps the faithful to escape the karma created during earlier lives, to avoid sickness and to dispel bad thoughts. Having come from another world, Li Hongzhi helps disciples to return to the origins of life.(30) Such a conception goes hand in hand with his growing tendency to proclaim a form of millenarianism, especially since the start of the repression. Even though the terms are ambiguous, even though the discourse undergoes numerous variations, the Master's announcements, like the comments by his followers on the movement's website, present repression as the ultimate test through which the "rectification of the Law" (zhengfa) can be effective in ridding us permanently of Evil and all its perpetrators, and in bringing the Good to perfection. Moreover, Li Hongzhi's words are literally Manichean, in that they imply the existence of good and evil in equal quantities: where one finds human beings one finds spirits; where one finds Buddhas one finds demons; where there are believers there are unbelievers; if an individual, a group or a nation should wish to do good, he or they will encounter an equal quantity of negative resistance.(31)

All the same, ultimate salvation is no less certain for those who do not doubt: one militant who was arrested by the police in the presence of a foreign journalist shouted at him, "Don't worry, it's as though we were actors in a film. Nothing bad can happen to us, because our Master will take care of us."(32) The reference to the cinema is not without significance: reading Li Hongzhi is like watching the science fiction films of recent years. It is possible that his discourse confirms, in adherents' eyes, the effective existence of the inter-planetary myths disseminated by the film industry and by electronic games, a mythology here re-expressed through a vocabulary (rather than concepts in the strict sense) borrowed from Buddhism and, more distantly, from Taoism.

Falun Gong bears witness to a culture in which deference to authority, or to the Master's demands from his followers, and also the manipulation of people's thinking,(33) are manifest. At the same time, one may wonder whether the internationalisation of the movement might have lessened these features, and might do so even more in future. The necessity of maintaining a consistent discourse towards the media ends up by influencing the discourse within. Li Hongzhi's words lose their impact in the cumulative process of translation; and the effect is to purge the doctrine of some of its more bizarre elements; and, as overseas Chinese and foreigners join the organisation, they may also contribute to a cultural mutation. It would not be the first time that a new Chinese "religion" had evolved gradually towards a compromise position, a body of doctrine and behaviour that was acceptable to most people. In another historical context, and over a fairly long period, this was the case with Yiguandao, from mainland China of the 1930s to present-day Taiwan. That remains a prognostication, all the more so as a different evolution is possible. The repression by the authorities could turn out in the end to be effective; and those adherents still loyal might radicalise their actions still further as they become marginalised. So far, Li Hongzhi's interventions have been pushing them further along that path. But he has shown himself capable of significantly softening his stance according to circumstances.

Moreover, the paradox here is that even though Falun Dafa has some of the characteristics of an authoritarian culture, it plays in fact an active role in condemning blatant abuses of China's policing system and its system of repression. One may reasonably consider that many of the cases that it brings to our attention are based in fact, and its contacts with the humanitarian organisations bring the movement into alignment with the discourse and the preoccupations of human rights defenders. Viewed from this angle, it also espouses, or perhaps initiates, some of the socio-cultural evolution that is at work in China.

Beliefs, the state and society

Summing up the teachings that our observations during the past two years suggest, some theses may be set out that have less to do with Falun Gong itself as with the evolution that it reflects:

Falun Gong is the extreme case of an overall phenomenon: legally recognised and culturally acceptable practices such as traditional fitness exercises have become the vehicle for powerful religious and soteriological aspirations and even a certain potential for millenarianism.

These practices and aspirations have slipped into the cultural mould of contemporary China, which is marked in particular by the linked cults of science and authority, but also by the "resourcefulness" that helps adherents to use networks of communication and solidarity that are closed to the state.

It has also shown that many of the traumas of the Cultural Revolution are still latent, both in the state and in civil society. And it has shown that, as soon as a crisis looms, a "regression" takes place. This turns the ideological struggle and the remorseless quest for moral superiority into powerful motors for escalating conflicts, with no clear mechanisms for negotiation or conciliation.

The movement has in particular brought to light a latent demand for salvation, including physical and moral health within this definition, a demand for salvation that, in Falun Gong's discourse, takes on cosmic, epic, ideal dimensions extending to a fascination with extra-terrestrials and para-scientific cosmological speculation.

Despite these cultural features, the resistance being put up by many Falun Dafa followers is part of a wider struggle to transform the legal framework and civil society, and manifests a progressive assertion by Chinese citizens of their right to freedom of conscience and religious freedom. The movement's international dimension together with the networks it mobilises abroad place its discourse still more firmly within this perspective.

In other words, the affirmation of civil society in China is passing through a stage in which non "civilian" groups are emerging, rather than associations formed in the light of Western theories about civil society. Moreover, in the process of affirmation, and also with the support that they receive from abroad (in addition to Falun Gong, one thinks of the Christian churches), such groups often become progressively more sophisticated and more "civilised."

A virtual ideological frame of reference--inseparable from some forms of practice--is thus taking shape in China. It embraces the experiences of recent decades (the reference to science, the unfamiliarity with and re-invention of traditional religions, the cult of authority, and the use of Manichean rhetoric), combining them all with a reformulation of ancient practices and beliefs, and lastly with the importing of values (freedom of conscience), myths (extra-terrestrials) and discursive practices (international campaigns, using the Internet) that are typical of the era of globalisation. This ideological framework can be described as virtual in two senses: firstly, because it exists in latent form, unable to deploy all its effects in public, and then because it is deployed most effectively in the field of virtual reality, often blurring the line between the real and the ideal. These are the contours of what we described, two years ago, as "post-modernism for the people."(34)

This virtual ideological frame of reference exactly replaces what communist leaders call "spiritual socialist civilisation", which they have tried to define and promote since the start of the 1980s and particularly at the beginning of the 1990s.(35)

Lastly, if during the months ahead the internal repression of Falun Gong confirms relative success, while the internationalisation of the movement continues, the government's tendency to define any element of ideological dispute as a basically exogenous pathogenic agent will only be reinforced, making any progressive opening up of Chinese society still more difficult.

It remains to be seen whether the story told here is coming to an end, or whether some unexpected developments lie ahead. In any case, it will have left a mark upon Chinese society, at this turn of the millennium, that the April 1999 rally hardly allowed us to expect. Chinese society and culture are undergoing a fundamental transformation; but the winding path of these changes follows none of the courses that one might have plotted up to now.

Translated from the French original by Philip Liddell


1. "The Law and the Wheel: The Sudden Emergence of the Falungong, Prophets of 'Spiritual Civilisation'", China Perspectives, No. 24, July-August 1999, pp. 14-21.

2. The sources on which this section is based are multiple, beginning with a reading of the news agencies (in particular, AFP, Reuters and Xinhua) over the period in question. Further information may be found, above all, on the movement's websites (site in Chinese or on the website of Barend ter Haar, Heidelberg University,

3. My chronology goes back in detail only to the date of April 25th 1999. I recall, however, a certain number of landmarks: according to Falun Gong, the movement's first workshop was held in Changchun in May 1992. During the early years, the emphasis was laid on Falun Gong being accredited, among others, as a qigong movement. Li Hongzhi's best seller, Zhuan Falun, was published in January 1995. An article criticising Falun Gong was published by Guangming ribao in June 1996. A researcher specialising in "para-science", He Zuoxiu, presents Falun Gong as a cult spreading wrongful theories and practices, in an interview broadcast on Peking television, May 1998. Faced with the ensuing protests, the station retracts and broadcasts a favourable report on the movement. Several enquiries followed in quick succession. Falun Gong maintains that at least one of these enquiries was carried out by a leadership group including Qiao Shi himself, and that these various enquiries were favourable to the movement. The same He Zuoxiu published another article, on April 11th 1999, in an obscure university newspaper in Tianjin. Groups of Falun Gong adherents held protests at various locations in Tianjin, which led to arrests. These arrests themselves were what specifically prompted the Peking rally.

4. In addition to the Declaration of July 22nd by the Ministry of Civil Affairs making Falun Gong and any similar organisation illegal, a decree was promulgated on the same day by the Ministry of Public Security, founded on the preceding declaration, giving details of the ban.

5. Press conference by Qian Xiaoqian, Director General of the Information Bureau of the State Council talking of 35,792 people who, between the end of June and the end of October, had attempted to demonstrate in Peking and who had been either arrested or required to disperse.

6. For an analysis of the policy of repression adopted by the Chinese authorities from then on, Cf. Amnesty International, "PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF CHINA : The Crackdown on Falun Gong and Other So-Called 'Heretical Organizations'"

7. Article 300 of the Chinese penal code lays out the penalties applied to people who form secret societies or manipulate superstitious beliefs to certain purposes. Most of the cases referred to carry prison terms of between three and seven years.

8. Message from Li Hongzhi on January 1st 2001, posted on

9. For example, the declaration on March 19th 2001. See also those on December 20th and 23rd 2000, all of them posted onto the movement's website.

10. A week later, Xinhua was speaking of seven people.

11. Reports on the movement's website went as far as incriminating the provincial government of Henan, suspected of wanting to distract attention after a self-immolation in Luoyang. Independent press reports report that eyewitnesses clearly identified the Falun Gong sign being made by those who had set fire to themselves. Even if that is so, no sure conclusion can be reached as to the direct responsibility taken by the organisation.

12. On this point, cf. Robin Munro, "Judicial Psychiatry in China and its Political Abuses", Colombia Journal of Asian Law, Vol. 14, No. 1, 2001.

13. Under the direction of Guo Zhengyi, Jujue xiejiao, shaonian jiaoyu duben (Denouncing perverse cults, education handbook for young people), Peking, Chinese Press for Children and Young People, 2001, p. 39.

14. The two terms are used jointly in Jujue xiejiao, op. cit., p. 40 et al.

15. Dictionnaire Ricci de caractères chinois, character n. 4361.

16. "Beyond Orthodoxy: Catholicism as Chinese Folk Religion", in Stepen Uhalley Jr and Xiaoxin Wu, eds, China and Christianity - Burdened Past, Hopeful Future, New York, M.E. Sharpe, 2001, pp. 233-249.

17. To stay within the limits of this article, I shall not document here this aspect of the matter.

18. After the immolation by fire on January 23rd, the Chinese authorities accused AFP, AP and CNN of inciting Falun Gong members to commit such actions. Items about the confrontation between the media and the Chinese government over the coverage given to Falun Gong may be found on the website of Reporters Sans Frontières: See also the story about the Associated Press Television News journalist Beatrice Turpin, which can be found on

19. Fa: this term is not given here its strict Buddhist sense, keeping in mind the fact that Li Hongzhi redefines the terms he borrows to suit his own purposes.

20. This text and others like it are copiously cited and analysed in Zixian Deng and Shi-min Fang, The Two Tales of Falun Gong; Radicalism in a Traditional Form, revised on May 31st 2000,

21. Declaration posted on

22. There still remains, nevertheless, the absence of rites associated with birth and death, for example. Falun Gong is perhaps typical of a society that has been religiously "de-ritualised"; and it may see its ritual system enriched and transformed with time.

23. See, among so many other testimonies, the declaration by one follower available on, "In our time, all religions have lost their effectiveness (ci shidai yiqie zongjiao quan shixiao)."

24. One indication among others is provided by the fatalities count published on the website On April 18th 2000, according to information posted there, the regions where the greatest number had been killed in the repression were Shandong (38), Heilongjiang (23), Jilin (20), Liaoning (20), Sichuan (8, 12 including Chongqing), Hebei (7), Peking (6). Figures for men and women killed are broadly the same; and nearly 60% of those killed were aged between 30 and 59.

25. Far Eastern Economic Review, February 15th 2001, p. 24.

26. We must recall that Falun Gong's discourse, even though it does condemn the repressive character of the regime, is not organised into a thorough critique of the CCP. There are indications that the movement has not given up hope that the Party's verdict upon it might be overturned. In accounts of events published on the movement's websites, there appear favourable notices about such personalities as Qiao Shi and Zhu Rongji. On the other hand, Jiang Zemin is the favoured, almost the only, target. He is seen, quite literally, as the incarnation of the forces of evil that are opposed to Li Hongzhi's message of salvation.

27. Within the organisation, at least one competing leader has emerged, a woman living in Hong Kong, named Peng Shanshan. Cf. The emphasis placed on this website on the great Buddha of Lantau is similar to the "incorrect" opinions, criticised elsewhere on the movement's websites, of followers intending to bring Falun Gong into line with orthodox forms of Buddhism.

28. The presence on earth of devils and/or extra-terrestrials trying to prevent mankind from attaining a higher stage of existence is a recurring theme of Li Hongzhi's predictions.

29. Speech given by Li Hongzhi in San Francisco, October 22nd 2000.

30. Quoted in "Spiritual CULTivation", New Times Los Angeles Online, Joel P. Engardio, March 23rd 2000,

31. A theme developed in particular in part four of the "Lessons of Singapore", available on the movement's websites.

32. Asian Wall Street Journal, January 1st 2000, p. 1.

33. In the article cited above, Zixian Deng and Shi-min Fang examine minutely the variations within Li Hongzhi's discourse and the way in which he justifies them. A study of variations in the discourse, from another perspective, and for the whole of the movement, by Patsy Rahn, "The Falun Gong: Beyond the Headlines", a paper presented at the annual conference of the "American Family Foundation", April 28th 2000. Among other places, this article is available on Barend ter Haar's website,

34. Ibid., p. 20.

35. A reminder of the principal documents defining the aims and the outlines of "socialist, spiritual civilisation" in Daniel C. Lynch, After the Propaganda State, Media, Politics and 'Thought Work' in Reformed China, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1999, pp. 219-223.