The woman is a practitioner of Falun Gong, or Falun Dafa, an exercise, meditation, and "moral cultivation" movement that started in northeast China in 1992 and now claims 100 million followers worldwide. Freighted with an oddly apocalyptic metaphysics that rejects evolution, says we live in "the period of Last Havoc," and pushes moral guidelines that warn followers against such "degenerate" influences as rock and roll, television, computers, homosexuality, and modern medical care, Falun Gong has been an easy target for critics. It has also been targeted for an unusually harsh Chinese government crackdown.
That crackdown was sparked by the extraordinary gathering in Beijing on April 25, 1999, of some 10,000 practitioners for a sit-down protest at the compound of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. The vigil, which fell around the 10th anniversary of the largest of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, was called because of the arrest of fellow practitioners in coastal Tianjin (these, in turn, had protested publication of an anti-Falun Gong article in a local journal). Li Hongzhi, the movement's controversial and charismatic founder, claimed the demonstration was spontaneous, apolitical, and held while he was out of the country (this final claim was proven false by Chinese immigration records).
Peaceful as it was, the size and suddenness of the protest rocked leaders and public alike.
Since then, thousands of followers have been arrested, and Falun Gong leaders say those who refuse to recant are being tortured (there have been numerous reports of members dying while in police custody). Twelve-hundred-plus government officials have been detained and forced to write confessions and self-criticism for Falun activities. Some 1.5-million Falun Gong tracts have been burned in televised bonfires that evoked the thought-control campaigns of Chairman Mao or his model, the harsh ancient emperor Qin.
A barrage of anti-Falun Gong articles and books have been churned out. Police have ransacked homes, confiscating books, tapes, and videos. Notices have gone up banning practice in parks. In July 1999, Falun Gong was banned entirely. Practice has been banned even in private, and taking part in protests is grounds for an instant and harsh prison sentence.
Beijing also has declared Li Hongzhi a criminal and sought support from the United States and Interpol to bring him back to the People's Republic of China (PRC). This request was in all likelihood pro forma, since the U.S. has no extradition treaty with the People's Republic. Interpol duly refused. But the attempt reveals some kind of desperation among the Chinese leadership. What is the movement1s appeal, and what about it has the Chinese government so upset?
Li Hongzhi is a 48-year-old former clerk who is referred to by his followers as "Master Li" or simply "the Master." Li's system of breathing exercises draws on China's traditional qigong (CHEE-gung) practice (which enjoyed a popularity craze in the early 1990s), Buddhism, and Taoism. It also includes beliefs that seem drawn variously from creationist fundamentalism, Scientology, pop science, Christian Science, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
While the content of the sect's official website, the Master's lectures ("Falun Buddhist Law," Falun Fo Fa Publishing), and the movement1s "bible," the "Zhuan Falun," can be contradictory, the recurring themes are simplicity and nostalgia for a purer day.
"Falun Gong is really three systems in one," explains Gail Rachlin, owner of a public-relations consultant firm and one of the movement's four "unofficial contact persons" in New York. "It1s an exercise practice, a meditation practice, and a system of moral guidance." While the exercises are straightforward, the metaphysics of the movement have drawn criticism from nonbelievers.
In an interview with William Dowell of Time (which Rachlin claims was taken out of context; Dowell says the quotes were "absolutely accurate"), Li Hongzhi said the biggest cause of decline in society "is that people no longer believe in orthodox religion. They go to church but they no longer believe.... The second reason is that since the beginning of this century, aliens have begun to invade the human mind." These aliens, Li said, "have corrupted mankind... The aliens have introduced modern machinery like computers and airplanes. They started by teaching mankind about modern science, so people believe more and more science, and spiritually, they are controlled. Everyone thinks that scientists invent on their own when in fact their inspiration is manipulated by the aliens." He concluded the alien goal is wholesale takeover of humanity, via cloning.
Li's published works describe the Falun, or "wheel of law," as a constantly spinning miniature universe that Li "installs" in followers' bellies via telekinesis. The Zhuan Falun also describes a presence called Fashen, a set of "mind and thoughts controlled by the [practitioner]" which is "also a complete, independent and realistic individual life" brought into being through exercise and spiritual practice. The Master's Fashen, of course, is most powerful, due to what he calls "my extraordinary divine superpower." Li promises followers: "You have the protection of my Fashen, and you will not run into any danger"; and "those who practice at the exercise sites will have my Fashen to cure their illnesses" (though interestingly, he forbids followers from attempting to cure illness with their Fashen).
Falun Gong also offers moral guidance, based on the triple concept zhen-shan-ren ("truthfulness-compassion/ benevolence-forbearance/acceptance-endurance"), which, Li writes, "is the sole criteria to judge good and bad people." Many of Li's other directives take a leaf from fundamentalist movements. He denounces drugs, modern music, sloppy clothes, funny hairdos, sex out of marriage, homosexuality, and "sexual liberation" in any form. "Advocacy of women's liberation," he writes, "appears only after the degeneration of the human race." In ancient times, "men knew how to treat their wives, be loving and take care of their wives; and wives in turn knew how to be loving to their husbands" (unlike today, when in the wake of women's liberation "all kinds of social problems appear, such as divorce, fighting, children being abandoned, etc.").
More ambiguously still, Li exhorts followers to avoid "attachments" (to money, things, ideas, even people) which distract from their own cultivation. This concept is not taken to the extremes of some groups; followers are encouraged to hold jobs, marry, have families, and lead normal lives. There's a degree of play in the system. Moderate meat-eating, for instance, is allowed so long as followers aren't "attached" to meat, while alcohol and tobacco are forbidden as inherently "attaching."
But the dedication to avoiding attachments has serious implications for the role practitioners see for themselves in society. While dedicated to zhen-shan-ren in their own lives, followers will not, Rachlin told me, seek this in others, because that means being "attached to the idea of improving them." At best this seems to eliminate the spur to proactive "goodness" inherent in concepts like Christian charity or Judaism's tikkun olam, or directive for working for social justice. A Falun Gung practitioner might choose to volunteer with the poor, or in a hospital or school, Rachlin said, but "that's his business; it has nothing to do with his status as a practitioner."
Would a practitioner, for instance, seek to educate a neo-Nazi known to have defaced a synagogue? "Why?" Rachlin asked in return. "Why should I attach myself to changing him?" Would a practitioner seek to stop a murder in progress? "Maybe, maybe not," she said. "It would have to be case by case. Because it might also be that person's karma to die, and then it would be wrong for me to interfere."
In fact, it seems the only attachment followers are encouraged to make is to Li Hongzhi himself. He speaks in public about his status as an ordinary man and his desire for quiet. But the round-faced, smooth-voiced Master, who looks and dresses more like a businessman than an unattached ascetic, speaks to followers of his mystical powers in ways that encourage close identification. Rachlin and others spoke of him in tones that can only be called rapturous. In the meantime, the only voluntarism Li fosters as part of zhen-shan-ren is dedicating time, money, and energy to spreading Falun Gong.
'What was so appealing about this group that so many people were recruited/seduced into joining it voluntarily?' We want to know also, 'What needs was this group fulfilling that were not being met by traditional society?'"
In contemporary China, the answers are fairly obvious. With Marxism-Maoism debunked and the market economy roller-coastering, economic uncertainty and fear for the future grip the vast middle class, which grew up expecting cradle-to-grave security in a state-owned enterprise. At the same time, the vast amount of new information delivered by the rapidly opening media is confusing to a population that had few emotional mainstays because of earlier official attacks on traditional culture. This confusion and imploding faith in the state has provided fertile ground for a variety of belief systems.
Falun Gong followers have the right to believe what they like, under every international covenant China has signed, so long as their actual activities are legal. This means Beijing had the right to stop the protests (under PRC laws banning assembly without a permit), but not to crack down wholesale on the movement that spawned them.
There are legitimate concerns about Falun Gong1s shadowy organization, mysterious finances, potentially apocalyptic tendencies, and unclear political aims. But nothing in law, morality, or wisdom allows banning a movement because of negative potential. Indeed, the chief result of the ban so far seems to have been rapid mobilization and politicization of followers. Li seems to be rapidly collecting friends in high places. Meanwhile, Rachlin speaks of arrested followers being tortured, then released, only to spread Falun practice and be captured again. "They accept the torture as their karma," Rachlin said. "They will not give up."
At this rate, the party that legitimized its own rule partly by establishing a series of parks throughout China dedicated to the martyrs it lost in the revolution may be on the way to creating a new generation of martyrs for the future believers of Falun Gong. Sort of the ultimate in self-fulfilling prophecies; it's hard to see what else could have so focused movement attention and international growth.