July 31, 1999
Why the Exercisers Exercise China's Party
[Beijing:] AMONG the Chinese there used to be a doctrine of faith, if you can call it that. It was faith in the Communist Party, led by its demigod Mao Zedong. What alarms China's leaders now about the seemingly sudden emergence of the Falun Gong sect is that it may answer a need no longer answered by the party. On July 22nd, the government banned the sect. Since then it has detained some 5,000 of its members and vilified its leader, Li Hongzhi, who has the good fortune to live in the United States. Whether banning the sect will end its hold on millions of people remains to be tested.
The Maoist cult took shape when the Communists were fighting for power in the 1930s and 1940s. After they won in 1949, Maoism inspired the sort of fervour in China associated with religion. But from the late 1950s to the end of the 1970s, as Mao and the party showed increasing brutality, such fervour survived in few Chinese. The corruption and hypocrisy that have been on display in the subsequent two decades of fast-paced economic reform have meanwhile chipped away at any sense of grudging respect the party still commanded.
Many Chinese people have turned to religion. And the party has eased its controls on religious practice. Millions are now members of state-sanctioned Buddhist, Muslim and Christian organisations, and millions more belong to underground groups. The unofficial sects are still harassed, but it is nevertheless far less dangerous now for Chinese to go down on their knees in prayer than at any time in the past 50 years.
With his blend of ancient, well-established traditions, Mr Li has brought an attractive product to a hungry market. Falun Gong was created ("concocted" says the People's Daily) by Mr Li in 1992. It mixes elements from the meditative traditions of Buddhism and Taoism with the breathing techniques and shadow-boxing routines of traditional Chinese martial-arts disciplines.
Mr Li claims to be able to insert into the abdomens of his followers a spinning "wheel of law" which, it is said, enables them to achieve better states of physical and spiritual fitness. Mr Li also claims supernatural healing powers, as well as a gift of prophecy. He has expounded at length on the demise of many previous civilisations, and on the impending doom of China's current one at the hands of evil modern science and rampant immorality. "Truth, benevolence and forbearance" are what matter.
According to the government, 2m Chinese have been "tricked" into following Mr Li. He claims, however, to have brought truth and benevolence to some 70m people in China, and to another 30m elsewhere. That figure is no doubt exaggerated, but the government's estimate strikes many, even some of the harshest critics of the group, as low. The magnitude of the government's counter-attack suggests the following is indeed much larger. Worse, some of the cult's practitioners are assumed to be members of the army and of the party itself.
Equally important to the authorities is the group's method of organisation. Mr Li is the undisputed leader, but he and his followers deny it has any other form of hierarchy or structure. Not so, says the government, which claims to have found a huge underground organisation consisting of 39 "general teaching centres", 1,900 "instruction stations" and 28,000 "exercise spots" across the country.
Since April 25th, the authorities have anyway had all the evidence they needed that this group has been alarmingly well-organised. Early that day, more than 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners, many of them seemingly untroublesome middle-aged women, appeared at the red-walled Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Beijing, demanding to see China's top rulers and to get better treatment for the group.
That action was branded "completely wrong" by the People's Daily. Last week, as an outright ban on the cult was announced, the newspaper upgraded the April event to "the most serious political incident" since 1989, when the army was called in to quash pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. The party said that Falun Gong was not only organised, but, despite its denials, intent on wreaking political havoc.
That, if true, would not be without precedent. According to John Schrecker, professor of Chinese history at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, Buddhist and Taoist religious movements and health-related martial-arts disciplines have long played a role in Chinese rebellions. Although the 1899-1900 Boxer rebellion is the best known example, the link dates back at least to the Han dynasty (206BC-220AD) and can still be seen today in kung-fu movies set in old China, where heroes take on corrupt officials.
Being a hero in modern China is not easy. Though the more ardent practitioners of Falun Gong say they will keep their faith and not be cowed by the ban, the government's crackdown appears in these early days to be succeeding. Members of the sect have been taken to schools and football stadiums for brief stints of "ideological education", while those regarded as leaders are being held in jail for possible prosecution. The sect's teaching materials, books, posters, audio cassettes and videotapes, have been destroyed. Followers no longer dare to practise publicly at dawn in the parks of Beijing. Sit-in demonstrations, which in the days leading up to the ban had involved tens of thousands of followers in dozens of cities, have subsided. Everyone in China has been put on notice that they face a choice: abandon Falun Gong or face the wrath of the party and the law.
Copyright The Economist © 1999