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"China is nervous because there are now more Falun Going practitioners than there are members of the Chinese Communist Party"
—Li Hongzhi, founder of Falun Gong.
In one of the most bizarre cases of political repression in modern history, the People's Republic of China has banned a spiritual practice built around traditional exercises and meditation. They say that Falun Gong has become a dangerous threat to the largest nation on Earth. In a return to the dark days of the Cultural Revolution, they have burned thousands of Falun Gong books and literature. They have beaten and detained thousands of practitioners. They have issued an arrest warrant for Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi. They are sentencing some practitioners to long periods of incarceration at show trials. World leaders and human rights groups are speaking out.
Why is this happening? Is it because Falun Gong has attracted an estimated l00 million practitioners? What is Falun Gong's appeal? What is it that China fears?
This is their story. Largely Unheard. Until Now.
This timely non-fiction book presents the inside story of China's crackdown on Falun Gong, taking a stand against the most blatant and pervasive political book burning since the days of Hitler's rise to power. By offering Falun Gong's story in the context of the current crisis in China, it provides an important look at a dramatic underreported and unfolding story. In China, their point of view has been banned. It deserves to be heard worldwide.
Veteran journalist Danny Schechter executive produced "China Now" for Channel 13 in 1991. He has written about Chinese issues for Newsday and Z Magazine. He is the author of The More You Watch, The Less You Know (Seven Stories Press) and is the executive producer of Globalvision and executive editor of the Media Channel.
"The picture doesn't add up. What I see here with these people and what they're doing, they seem very normal people. They're from all walks of life; and then on the other side you've got this picture that the Chinese government is painting, and the two just don't match."-Adam Montanaro, Falun Gong practitioner (USA)
On October 1, 1999, in the symbolic center of China at the vast square in Beijing called Tiananmen, with the Great Hall of the People on the west side, and the Gate of Heavenly Peace fronting the Forbidden City on the north, the People’s Republic threw itself the mother of all parties to celebrate its fiftieth birthday.
Some half a million people turned out to dance, prance, and gawk at a massive four-mile-long parade of awesome military equipment. The subtext of this unprecedented ninety-float procession of marching soldiers in formation, jet fighters, ballistic missiles, and shiny tanks was an unspoken but hardly subliminal message: "We are strong: DON’T MESS WITH US!" Watching over the lavish and theatrical display of patriotic showboating was a color portrait, now on permanent display and still adored by millions: the image of the guerrilla fighter turned Great Helmsman and Chairman of the Chinese revolution, the late Mao Zedong. Fireworks cascading overhead were given names like "Chanting the Eulogy of the Motherland."
Tiananmen Square was an armed encampment that day, circled by army and police units and patrolled closely by squadrons of internal security forces on alert for possible disturbances. There had been fears that Muslim extremists from the northwest might throw bombs into the crowd. There were worries that the remnants of the protesters who had turned the same square into a worldwide symbol of shame and repression a decade earlier might resurface to embarrass the regime and spoil the party.
However, in 1999, there was a new and perhaps even more immediate danger, an insidious internal enemy, according to the Chinese Communist Party: Meditators !
Yes, meditators—people who practice distinctive-looking slow-motion physical exercises and proclaim loyalty to a movement reportedly larger than the Party itself. It is hard to believe that an unarmed, non-violent spiritual practice has been perceived as a grave threat to one of the world’s most powerful nations. In the very month of China’s greatest celebration, the government was engaging in a nationwide crackdown against a movement that is almost Gandhian in its breadth and historic in its proportions. It is ironic, because for decades China itself was viewed in the West as dangerous, a red menace and evil empire. Today, even as fears of Chinese aggression resurface in the United States, China is obsessed with an internal menace of its own, also deemed evil, an "evil cult." (Also ironic is China’s charge that Falun Gong "brainwashes" adherents; this from a country that itself was accused of brainwashing captured US soldiers during the Korean war.) This development has perplexed China-watchers, foreign policy wonks, and journalists. "Has it come to this?" asked the New York Times front page in early November 1999, "That the Chinese Communist Party is terrified of retirees in tennis shoes who follow a spiritual master in Queens?"
But it is true. Commissars versus "cultists" has become a new fault-line in the fight for purity in the "New China." In truth, what the Central Committee is up against is not some fringe cult or marginal sect, but one of the fastest growing spiritual practices in the world. It is known as Falun Gong, or Falun Dafa (throughout the text of this book, these two terms are used interchangeably). Most worrisome for those in power is its claim of tens of millions of followers.
Unease about Falun Gong had been preoccupying the Chinese government, headed by President Jiang Zemin, in the period leading up to the fiftieth-anniversary spectacle. Two months earlier, President Jiang banned Falun Gong, ordering it "smashed." He demanded that its founder, Mr. Li Hongzhi, known honorifically by his followers as "Master Li," be returned from exile in the United States, arrested, and put on trial immediately. Every Chinese embassy, mission, and media outlet was enlisted in pursuing a crusade ordered at the very top of the power structure.
According to Time magazine, the seventy-two-year-old Jiang "has reportedly become obsessed with the sect and its ability to organize its activities in cyberspace." Jiang supposedly told aides at the time of the April 25 demonstration that he was impressed by the discipline of the vigil and by Falun Gong’s capacity to mobilize so many so quickly. He personally was driven, according to press reports, hiding in a car with tinted windows, to watch Falun Gong in action. Upon reading about this covert mission, I was reminded of a baffling nocturnal visit by another seemingly paranoid president, the United States’ own Richard Nixon—who slipped out of the White House in the middle of the morning to visit anti-war protesters camped on the Washington Mall. Like Nixon, Jiang was not content with secondhand reports by advisors. (Curiously, the South China Morning Post would later report that Jiang himself has, since 1992, consulted with the master of another qigong movement, Zhong Gong, to cure his arthritis and back problems. In February 2000, Zhong Gong was also banned. There was no report on the status of the President’s maladies.)
And just in case anyone in China missed President Jiang’s hard-line message, Beijing unleashed a vitriolic media campaign to demonize Falun Gong and turn the country against it. It was a saturation-propaganda offensive, reminiscent in its intensity to the strident sloganeering of the Cultural Revolution, in which millions were punished for being of the wrong class or consciousness. China’s state-owned media went into overdrive. Newscasts were lengthened from thirty minutes to an hour, in order to make more time for a steady drumbeat of reports on the fight against this new threat. The leadership ordered the imprisonment of Falun Gong practitioners, while those who resisted harsh government-enforced "re-education" were tortured or worse. The New York Times quoted one Beijing citizen as saying, "It is as if we are reliving a bad dream."
Despite the severe crackdown by a powerful state apparatus, there was still anxiety in high places after intelligence agencies uncovered Falun Gong practitioners continuing to defy government orders and not going quietly into the night. Trains into Beijing were searched because police suspected that practitioners were on their way to file complaints with the government. In one bizarre incident, Beijing police raided a conceptual art exhibit because of a neighbor’s tip that Falun Gong would be there. They seized the artwork, including a display of repainted lobsters, on suspicion that it was somehow linked. The artists, who had nothing to with Falun Gong, were shocked. It took them a long time to get their lobsters back.
Meanwhile, in the days leading up to the October 1 national celebration, Tiananmen Square and the surrounding areas were sealed off from traffic and the public. Residents nearby were instructed to stay in their homes for three days. In security parlance, this is called "freezing" a zone, but this one wasn’t frozen for long. Two days before a massive display of colorful fireworks would ignite the skies over Beijing, and just hours before 100,000 singers and dancers would flood the capital, a handful of Falun Gong practitioners managed to slip into the well-guarded square to commit what is now considered a serious crime against the government: a silent display of physical exercises beginning with the raising of arms above the head in a graceful gesture known as "Buddha showing a thousand hands." It is intended to open up the energy channels and increase circulation in the body by stretching gradually and relaxing suddenly. It usually takes three minutes.
In less time than they were able to finish a cycle of five exercises, a swarm of security men surrounded them as they stood at the epicenter of official China. Some reporters compared it to an incident years earlier when a young German managed to fly a small plane through the Soviet Union’s prodigious air radar system and land in the center of Moscow’s Red Square, right next door to the Kremlin.
As one press account had it, "four or five people in their twenties or thirties sat down cross-legged together on the pavement in a meditation pose typical of the Falun Gong group. When the protesters refused to stand, police dragged them away. About two hours later, a man in his twenties . . . began doing Falun Gong–type meditation exercises on the square. He also was escorted away by police."
The event, reported by the wire services, was a small item on a busy news day, and went largely unnoticed. Yet it was, in its own way, an act of bravery comparable to that heroic, unknown Chinese citizen who put himself in front of a line of tanks then crushing the protests of 1989. That image was broadcast the world over as a representation of the lone individual standing up against the brutal state. It became a universal symbol of freedom.
But what differentiated these two gestures was much more than a decade. The students in 1989 were originally campaigning to reform the government and renew the Party (not overthrow it, as was erroneously thought by many abroad). They soon became international human rights martyrs as their protests were bathed in worldwide media attention. The Falun Gong practitioners, on the other hand, are non-political. They just want the government to leave them alone. The former student protesters became dissidents fighting for political freedom, while the Falun Gong practitioners, many of whom are loyal to the ruling Communist Party, are standing up for their personal beliefs and the right to practice Falun Gong. Yet in China a seemingly personal act can quickly become political, or be perceived that way by nervous officials. Unlike the 1989 protests, Falun Gong’s efforts have been followed only episodically in the world press. The international responses to these two movements have been quite different, and it is that difference which this book explores.
What is Falun Gong?
Why are as many as 100 million people drawn to it?
Why is China marshaling all of its resources to crush non-violent and non-political spiritual practitioners?
Is it a dangerous cult, as its detractors insist, or a beneficial practice promising health benefits and spiritual growth?
How is this practice able to communicate its message and belief system so widely in a country where the government controls communications? What role does the Internet play in the spread of Falun Gong, both within China and across the world?
Who is Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi, a man whom some Chinese newspapers are even denouncing as a reincarnation of Adolf Hitler? Does he have political aspirations, or is he simply a charismatic figure whose ideas happen to have mass evangelical appeal?
The Chinese government is insisting it will prosecute the so-called Falun Gong "leaders" even though Falun Gong says it has no leaders. (They consider the exiled founder, Li Hongzhi, their "teacher.") Most of those prosecuted are not permitted a legal defense. Many are now in prison, while others have been brutalized and even reportedly killed as a result of prison torture or hunger strikes.
How is it that resistance continues despite predictions by "experts" that the practice would be crushed in weeks?
What is the real story?