H-ASIA:   H-Net list for Asian History and Culture [H-ASIA@H-NET.MSU.EDU]
February 27, 2000

From: "Murray A. Rubinstein" [maruby1@ix.netcom.com]
Subject: Religious Practice in the PRC -- Falun gong

I have been following the discussion on religion in the PRC and have found it exciting and enlightening. I will here play the Devil's Advocate (and wish I did have Al Pacino's talents) and say that on Falonggong, I do see the point of the PRC leadership. They know their history and think they are looking at the Taiping Tianguo in a early stage. Their actions are as practical (as they see the world) as were those of the FBI at Waco. I think that the relative opening toward relgion has been, with some exceptions, a sincere and real one since the 1980s and Ken Dean among others has detailed this process. I have seen the opening and the revival of popular religion in Fujian and have traced the process of the revival of pilgrimage in some recent papers and articles. All interesting in receiving these can contact me. One must remember that the ROC has only opened up to religion completely in the last decade and a half and, as some of you may know, I have detailed the ROC's treatment of various churches and religious bodies in the 1970s and 1980s. I see the PRC as following this process of gradual opening up.

I also think that much of the anti-PRC feeling has been stirred up by the Religious Right in this country so that their missionaries have greater access to the "unformed souls" of the Chinese. Yet as a host of scholars have shown us, Christianity has grown strong without the missionaries and in the face of severe persecution. And Catholicism (but without Rome) has also developed, much to the dismay of the Vatican. That fact has been forgotten by Jerry Falwell and Abe Rosenthal of the Times, as well as that great friend of George W. Bush, Pat Robertson. The PRC regime has made drastic mistakes over the decades, as the new biographies of Mao and the magisterial books of Prof McFarquar have shown us, but in the case of Falonggong, they may well be taking the prudent approach. And lest anyone forget--it is their country to run and their society to define, not ours in the sometimes all too open, small, liberal, and culture-bound West. It is my gut feeling that the smell of Orientalism sometimes pervades all of our discussions of these hot-button issues.

Murray A. Rubinstein

March 1, 2000

From: barend ter haar
Subject: Religious Practice in the PRC

Whether we are Chinese or not, whether I will now be accused of holding Orientalist views or not, I would submit that many Chinese, many if not most the practitioners of the Falun Gong to begin with, and probably also many if not all members of similar Qigong and/or healing and/or new religious groups ("sects") do NOT hold themselves to be latter day Taiping tianguo adherents/believers or whatever. Thus, we have a right and in my opinion duty to defend them. This does not mean that one has to agree with them. I can put this differently: if I do not and/or should not defend Falun Gong, do I then not also loose the right to defend other alternative/new religious groups elsewhere. For example, given European culture and its attitudes to for instance "Mormons" or "Jeohava's" witnesses, (relatively) new American religious groups like these? Leave alone even less "popular" groups like scientology (which I personally do not like at all, nonetheless do not wish to prohibit)?

Apart from whether Falun Gong should be prohibited at all, there is the additional question about the kind of means with which any state should do this. I do not think that the means used justify the perceived threat at this stage.

We also have a duty, since this is rather difficult to do in the PRC at this moment, certainly in public, to carry through open public debate(s) on the consistency in the present and when comparing state claims about the Falun Gong "threat" to its own record on issues of health etc.

Furthermore, it would seem that the PRC state links the Falun Gong more to the so-called Boxers of Boxer Uprising fame (which was not really an uprising and where Western responses and Chinese state repression as always were much worse "medicine" than the "diseases" they set out to "cure", see Joseph W. Esherick, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987] and Paul Cohen's recent book) and to what they describe with rather traditional terms as "heretic teachings" (xiejiao). On their website they describe xiejiao in terms of the Ming Qing so/called "xiejiao" and modern American "cults" (="sects"), using the complete arsenal of labels and stereotypes that has been created over centuries of negative perceptions of what Chinese regimes think of as dangerous and strange. The ease with which such links are made, and accepted even in the West, once alternative or new religious groups are concerned (and I for one think of the Falun Gong as a religious group, notwithstanding their own position on this) does not stop surprising me.

Barend ter Haar (Heidelberg University)
(for more see my website: http://sun.sino.uni-heidelberg.de/staff/bth/falun.htm)

March 2, 2000

From: Patsy Rahn [prahn@worldnet.att.net]
Subject: Falun Gong

I understand Barend ter Haar's desire to defend the right of the FLG, or any group, or anyone, to have freedom of belief, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly. I'm also not sure how much a comparison of the FLG to historical groups, such as the Taiping tianguo or the Boxers, is really helpful at this point.

I'd like to suggest that it is important to try and understand the FLG event from a wider perspective, and I'll make several suggestions for doing this. The first perspective is human rights, and it has been the main focus of attention in the press and in discussions in general. It is emphasized in part by the current political climate in the US, and by new technologies such as the internet, cell phones, and fax machines which pass on information instantaneously.

Another perspective, and one which has been given little consideration to date, is an understanding of the FLG itself, both its teachings and its structure, particularly its use of the internet and its political role both in China and in the US. Re: Li Hong Zhi's teachings, whether you wish to agree with them or not, one can be a civil libertarian and still believe that information is important in order to make informed judgements and decisions, and there has been very little information on the teachings of Li Hong Zhi made available outside of the information provided by the FLG.

The western press has been remarkably uncritical of the FLG. Most reports refer to the FLG as a cultivation, or spiritual movement that combines "traditional meditation and slow-motion exercises with ideas drawn from Buddhism and Taoism." Few reports use the term cult or even sect, and rarely are the more "irrational" teachings of Li Hong Zhi ever mentioned (ie. the moon is hollow and was created by pre-historical humans). About 90% of the press reports on the FLG come from two sources: one is the FLG in New York via the Rachlin Management and Media Group (Gail Rachlin is a FLG practitioner), and the other is the Information Center on Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China, often referred to in the press as "a human rights group in Hong Kong." The Information Center is in Hong Kong but it is not a group, it is a single person named Lu si qing. The New York Times, when quoting information from the Hong Kong Information Center has begun to add that "this information cannot be independently verified". And therein lies the word of caution. With the internet and other fast-communicating technologies, and with the 24 hour need for news, and with the quickest news being the freshest news being the news, it is time to take a deep breath. Regards.

Patsy Rahn

March 6, 2000

From: barend ter haar
Subject: Re: Falun Gong

Response to Patsy Rahn (Hi, over there)

"The western press has been remarkably uncritical of the FLG. Most reports refer to the FLG as a cultivation, or spiritual movement that combines "traditional meditation and slow-motion exercises with ideas drawn from Buddhism and Taoism." Few reports use the term cult or even sect, and rarely are the more "irrational" teachings of Li Hong Zhi ever mentioned (ie. the moon is hollow and was created by pre-historical humans)."
I could not agree more with Patsy over the need on our part to find out more about the FLG , but whether or not they have beliefs that are in our or my mind strange, irrational or whatever, does not seem to me to be relevant to the issue of prohibiting them. We do not prohibit any Christian groups for their views on the Creation of the world, nor do we even take them seriously most of the time (though Americans directly concerned by this phenomenon in the schools of their children may feel differently). The contents of the Bible in its different versions or the Koran or whatever holy text rarely enters into our considerations of the right of a religious group to exist, and, yet, if we consider the contents of FLG beliefs in the version of its founding patriarch/teacher as relevant in any way to the PRC response, then we should do the same at our different homes (which is probably easier in practical political and religious terms for a Dutch - me - than for an American scholar). Therefore any judgements upon or discussions of PRC policy towards religious groups (including the FLG) and the study of the FLG and similar/other religious phenomena have to be rigorously kept apart as two fundamentally different issues.

Otherwise I could not agree more with PR's remarks and I have been bemused a lot by Li Hongzhi's claims. However, just start comparing them with general Buddhist beliefs - or rather different versions thereof - on the origin of things (remember the much-admired Dalai Lama, and admired for good reasons, is also a Buddhist and may have more in common with Li Hongzhi than we would care to think), or those of other famous teachers and religious texts... !

barend ter haar [bth@gw.sino.uni-heidelberg.de]

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