H-ASIA:   H-Net list for Asian History and Culture [H-ASIA@H-NET.MSU.EDU]
Dec. 17, 1999

From:   Josephine Khu <jkhu@iohk.com>
Subject:   Hong Kong Diary #43

Falungong in Hong Kong

The second international Falungong conference was held in Hong Kong last weekend. There were approximately 900 participants, of which about 600 came from overseas. Falungong, practitioners of a certain form of qigong, has been branded a dangerous sect by the Chinese government, and has been banned on the mainland since last July. The conference participants were warned publicly by Hong Kong's Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa not to act against China's interests, and by both Xinhua (New China News Agency) director Jiang Enzhu and Chinese Foreign Ministry Commissioner Ma Yuzhen not to make Hong Kong a base for anti-China activities.

Since the banning of Falungong, some Hong Kong businesses, perhaps fearing adverse consequences for their mainland business operations and relationships, have taken pre-emptive action to obstruct the activities of Falungong practitioners here. Some bookstores in Hong Kong are said to have pulled books about Falungong from their shelves. And the mainland-based operators of one of Hong Kong's largest paging companies have refused to transmit messages about Falungong-related activities from Hong Kong subscribers, despite the fact that some of the messages appear to have been intended for transmission only within Hong Kong.

But the Hong Kong government itself has, thus far, done nothing to obstruct the activities of Falungong believers. Adherents of Falungong can still practice freely here, and the conference participants received government permission to hold demonstrations outside the Chinese Foreign Ministry office and the Xinhua headquarters in Hong Kong. In addition, the Hong Kong government reprimanded the above-mentioned paging company for censoring the Falungong-related messages of customers whose services were restricted to Hong Kong, although it agreed with the company that cross-border censorship of such messages was permissible. And, certainly, no one has been arrested in Hong Kong for participating in Falungong-related activities -- in stark contrast with the situation on the mainland. It may seem striking that a group so reviled by the Chinese government was permitted to hold high-profile protests here. Some people have pointed to this as an example of the continued strength of Hong Kong's autonomy and freedoms after the handover -- and the viability of the arrangement of "one country, two systems".

Prior to last weekend's conference, local practitioners held other demonstrations in Hong Kong as well, most of them in front of the Xinhua headquarters. The largest of the demonstrations seems to have involved about 80 or so, and took place on Victoria Peak. Perhaps more interesting than the fact that Falungong practitioners have been allowed to demonstrate here is the fact that there do not actually appear to be all that many local adherents of Falungong. In a population of about 6.5 million, only about 500 are estimated to practice Falungong. Despite a few weeks now of questioning everyone I have met, I have not encountered a single Falungong believer in Hong Kong -- or know of anyone who has. By contrast, friends living on the mainland have mentioned meeting people who are Falungong practitioners, without having gone out of their way to do so. All this may, of course, very possibly indicate nothing except the narrowness of my own range of activities and social circle.

But when I lived in mainland China in the early-mid nineties, with the same general social tendencies and preferences, I recall repeatedly meeting many people who were enthusiastic adherents of qigong, including some who were very highly educated indeed. I had not, at the time, heard of Falungong, and therefore had no cause to enquire about it. However, the subject of qigong would not infrequently crop up in casual conversations, and there did seem to be a very strong general belief in the efficacy of qigong for controlling stress and for promoting general well-being. These beliefs did not at all seem to be confined to the elderly, who are sometimes said to be the principal adherents of Falungong.

This is not to say that qigong isn't popular in Hong Kong and does not have many practitioners. Elderly people engaged in qigong exercises are not an unusual sight in Hong Kong parks in the mornings. The two or three people I am acquainted with who practice qigong assure me that there are quite a number of people in Hong Kong interested in qigong. But, after some years of living here, I have come to the conclusion that there is not nearly the same level of passion for qigong in Hong Kong as on the mainland. One Hong Kong person in his twenties that I spoke to even declared that, in his opinion, the only people in Hong Kong really interested in qigong were those who were "old or terminally ill".

China has been undergoing a period of great changes -- economic, social, political, environmental -- particularly in the past ten years. Many of these changes have been positive: there is a much greater level of freedom of expression and action than in the past, for example, and society as a whole is wealthier. But many other developments have been less satisfactory. Corruption has become pervasive, and the gap between rich and poor more pronounced. Many people have been laid off from their jobs with state-owned enterprises, as such companies restructure or close down.

As many have pointed out, the popularity of Falungong on the mainland has much to do with the fact that, in a society that is changing so quickly that many feel helpless, disoriented and fearful, Falungong appears to offer answers to the one thing that people do have the power to control: themselves. In particular, Falungong is said to be filling an ideological vacuum in China left by discrediting of socialism, and to offer an alternative form of health practice for people left with limited treatment options with the collapse of free public health care services on the mainland.

Hong Kong, too, has changed tremendously in the past ten years, but one can surely say that if any one particular idea ever dominated Hong Kong, it was that of the desirability of becoming as conspicuously rich and successful as possible -- and as quickly as possible. This ideal is under no serious threat at present, leaving, it would seem, no particular vacuum to be filled in the ideological realm (unless, of course, one considers such an ideal itself evidence of the existence of a vacuum). In addition, despite a public health care system that is under strain and widely acknowledged as being in need of reform, there is still general access to free or low-cost health care in Hong Kong. A Hong Kong doctor I spoke to also expressed the belief that the Westernized background of Hong Kongers has contributed to the greater prestige that Western medicine enjoys here in comparison with such Chinese health practices as qigong.

In Hong Kong, with the exception of the last couple of years of economic crisis, the changes in society have, I believe, contributed to the feeling among large segments of the population that they have a greater number of choices in their lives than before, not fewer -- and that they have greater control over their lives than before -- rather than otherwise. Great disparities in income do exist in Hong Kong, but these have been mitigated to some extent by greater investment in social and public services over the past ten years. Moreover, in Hong Kong, the economic growth of the past decade did not come accompanied by an increase in official corruption -- if anything, quite the opposite. Hong Kong's civil service is widely regarded as one of the cleanest in the whole of Asia.

There is indeed a difference between Hong Kong and China, but in the case of Falungong, the distinction perhaps lies not so much in the administrative distinctions of "one country, two systems", but in far more fundamental differences in the way the two societies have evolved. The general appeal of Falungong here -- and thus the perception of the threat it poses to the authorities -- bears no comparison with situation on the mainland. For this reason, there is perhaps no need to be particularly impressed by the relative tolerance the Hong Kong authorities have demonstrated towards Falungong activities here. There have been, and will continue be, many major challenges to the concept of "one country, two systems," but Falungong is not likely to be one of them.

Josephine Khu
Visiting Scholar
Centre of Asian Studies
Hong Kong University

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