Who's Afraid of Falun Gong?

July 7, 2008 - 7:07 PM

Why have China's rulers launched a crackdown on Falun Gong? Why did party chiefs declare the group a serious threat to the Communist Party and the most grave danger to the regime since the Tiananmen movement of 1989? Why has the leadership ordered a massive effort to denounce the group, destroy millions of its publications, detain thousands of its members, and seek the arrest and extradition of its leader from the United States? What was so troubling about a movement whose millions of devotees practice traditional qigong exercises at home and in public parks, whose leader preaches an eclectic blend of Buddhist-inspired and Taoist-influenced quasi-religious beliefs mixed with folk millenarianism, and whose proclaimed goal is improving followers' physical and moral health by channeling cosmic energy and leading ethical lives? Although hardly presenting an immediate or substantial challenge to the regime's ability to rule, Falun Gong conjures nearly all of the demons that haunt the PRC's leaders. The dangers that the group evokes strike at each major aspect of the contemporary Chinese Communist Party's identity and the bases for its authority. Indeed, a review of possible reasons for the current campaign provides an archaeological tour of the several-layered character of the reform-era party-state and the vulnerabilities its leaders perceive.

First, the PRC's rulers have enough of a sense of history to recognize that they are -- or at least that many of their people see them as -- the latest in a succession of dynasties to rule China. From that perspective, Falun Gong has looked uncomfortably like the sects that were major forces in past rebellions that shook the empire or ended imperial lines. For the keepers of the House of Mao, Falun Gong's qigong routines surely called up images of the turn-of-the-century Fists of Righteousness and Harmony, whose members believed that their pugilist-like calisthenics made them immune to bullets and whose failed Boxer Uprising marked the death throes of the Qing dynasty. The Falun Gong leader Li Hongzhi's reported claims to share a birthday with the Buddha Sakyamuni and to possess supernatural powers suggested parallels to the mid-nineteenth century Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, whose adherents followed the self-proclaimed younger brother of Jesus Christ in a vast revolt that severely damaged China's last imperial dynasty. Its blend of popular Chinese religious doctrines and declinist rhetoric likely seemed all too reminiscent of the Yellow Turbans, White Lotus and other colorfully named sects that had rallied awesome forces of discontent around religious beliefs during earlier dynasties. When Falun Gong's adherents massed outside the senior Chinese leaders' compound in April in silent protest over their treatment by a regime that denied them the protection and status generally accorded to law-abiding organizations, the denizens of Zhongnanhai doubtless heard echoes of the popular movements that challenged the emperors who once lived in the Imperial Palace next door (as well as the reverberations of the Tiananmen demonstrations of 1989).

For party leaders with an especially strong penchant for history and hyperbole, the repeated Falun Gong demonstrations in Beijing and many other cities this spring and summer, along with other signs of the group's widespread following, could set tongues wagging about signs of the loss of the mandate of heaven - the traditional Chinese moral right to rule, the forfeiture of which often presaged an imperial line-ending popular rebellion. Such fears would seem especially vivid for those in the elite who see their Communist "dynasty" plagued by corruption at lower levels and headed by a fourth emperor who appears not to be the equal of his predecessor or of the founding emperor.

Second, China's leaders also realize that they are, and that they need to remain, the heirs to the party of Yan'an and Civil War days - the populist and popular organization that rode to power on a wave of support from the masses, especially the peasantry. In this respect, Falun Gong and groups like it may be more disconcerting than pro-democracy dissidents and overtly political movements. The democracy and human rights activists of the 1970s and 1980s and the student-led demonstrations of the late 1980s may have been dangerous signals of discontent among China's rising generation of educated elites. But such movements appear to become most worrisome to party and government leaders when they link up with ordinary city-dwellers and unauthorized workers' organizations, as they did during the Tiananmen demonstrations and related pro-democracy drives in 1989. Falun Gong has shown that it holds considerable appeal for an urban mass base, with even official PRC sources' low-end estimates reporting millions of followers. While many of its adherents are relatively privileged white-collar and educated types, Falun Gong seems to be most attractive to those who have not fared especially well during the reform era, including the elderly, the unemployed and many people socialized under high socialism who have not managed a comfortable transition to a market-based order.

Although the evidence is far more sketchy, Falun Gong does have many adherents in China's villages as well. The kinds of ideas and practices associated with the group could be expected to resonate with the inhabitants of the vast countryside no less than with the urbanites who have been Falun Gong's core constituency. If they do catch on more widely, such teachings and activities could become ideological and organizational focal points for the widespread but still-diffuse resentment that rural residents feel about corruption, favoritism, taxes, fees, and a host of other issues of economics and fairness. Party leaders appear to have taken Falun Gong's demonstrated and prospective mass appeal seriously, and have sought to undermine it. In reports that often quote ordinary people who have renounced the group or claim to have been harmed by it, the official media have repeatedly attacked Li Hongzhi and Falun Gong's agents as liars and frauds who have duped common folk and ruined their health or even cost them their lives.

Third, the Chinese Communist Party remains a self-consciously Leninist institution. On this score, Falun Gong touched a pair of sensitive nerves. Its ability to enlist a significant number of party members indicated weaknesses in the party's internal discipline, which could put at risk the party-state's capacity to govern. One striking event early in the drive against Falun Gong was the publication of an almost Cultural Revolution-style confession by prominent Beijing adherent Li Qihua, a retired People's Liberation Army lieutenant general who had impeccable revolutionary credentials (having participated in the Long March of the 1930s, the epic journey that the CCP regards as its defining moment) and who had held extremely sensitive posts (including director of the medical center that treats China's top leaders). And there have been other revelations of senior cadres' and ordinary party members' and government officials' involvement in Falun Gong's activities, including the April demonstration outside Zhongnanhai. To deal with such problems, the party's central leadership issued the most heavily emphasized measure of the current campaign. It directed Communist Party members who had joined the "cult" to sever their ties and required participation in re-education sessions - exercises reminiscent of the pre-reform era that included criticism sessions and study of approved documents to reinstill the ideological rectitude expected of those who staff the party, state and army apparatuses.

Falun Gong represents a challenge to the party-state's Leninist monopoly of organization, especially political organization. The group's internal workings remain shadowy, perhaps even to those trying to crush it. Although official PRC sources have asserted that it is highly organized, most accounts indicate that Falun Gong does not have an elaborate command structure. But that fact, if true, may give little comfort to party officials who are worried about the political impact of Falun Gong and similar groups. The CCP itself, after all, spent many of its early years in scattered cells and fragmented revolutionary base areas, held together largely by a common set of values and goals and (at times) an acknowledged set of leaders. And the CCP did it without modern technology, such as the internet and cell phones, which Falun Gong and contemporary political dissidents have employed, or even faxes, which the pro-democracy activists of 1989 used effectively. The eerily spontaneous-seeming appearance of thousands of Falun Gong followers in central Beijing in April and in several cities on more recent occasions show, at the very least, an effective substitute for a strong, conventional organizational apparatus.

Whatever Falun Gong's institutional characteristics, party leaders have been determined to dismantle the organization, resorting to techniques reminiscent of the Mao era as well as the post-Tiananmen period. In addition to the traditional vehicle of a party-led, propaganda-laden campaign targeting the masses and study sessions for errant cadres, the regime has deployed the relatively new legal tools that are a much-touted hallmark of the reform era. Like many political dissident groups in recent years, Falun Gong and its umbrella entity, the Falun Dafa Research Institute, have been branded "illegal organizations." The authorities have condemned them for conducting public activities without having the proper permits and registration - approvals that were, at best, unlikely to have been granted once Falun Gong had begun to be identified as an unsavory association a few years ago. As has happened to participants in other unauthorized and semi-organized mass movements, many of the group's members have been arrested - or, more commonly, detained without arrest - and Li Hongzhi has been cited for offenses relating to the establishment and operation of an illegal organization. Chief among these is the innocuous-sounding but legally and politically significant crime of disturbing the public order. Claims in the press that Falun Gong's plans included challenging the party and government, and that participation in the sect had driven some members to murder or suicide, suggested that more serious criminal charges could follow.

Fourth, the reform-era Chinese leadership has defined itself largely as directing a developmental state, thereby claiming legitimacy on the basis of the rising levels of material prosperity that have been the defining achievement of the Deng and post-Deng era. Groups like Falun Gong point unnervingly to two possible weaknesses in this strategy. Most simply, the group's popularity among those who have not done particularly well under the reforms underscores the perils of betting too heavily on economic growth. Falun Gong's rapid ascension suggests that mechanisms could emerge quickly to channel and amplify discontent arising from general or sectoral economic pain -- hardly an idle worry for generally pro-reform leaders facing problems that include the unresolved plight of the losers in previous rounds of reform, the current leveling off of growth rates in even the booming coastal cities, and the soon-unavoidable costs of restructuring state-owned industries and banks.

Falun Gong's appeal also suggests that, while "to get rich is glorious," it may not be enough for everyone. The rise of such a group (like the revival of more conventional religions) is a reminder of moral or spiritual needs, ones that the CCP's widely disdained Marxism-Leninism/Mao Zedong Thought/Deng Xiaoping Theory or its watered-down campaigns for "socialist spiritual civilization" have not been able to fill. Some proponents of the crackdown on Falun Gong may even have seen the movement's popularity as a sign that some of the theories of Western social science could be right - that the turn to markets in the economic realm leads to the emergence of a marketplace of ideas and pressures for democracy. If so, and despite the group's lack of affinity for contemporary Western-style political norms, the apparent popular demand for Falun Gong could indicate dangerous stresses in the structure of "market-Leninism." Whatever their particular analyses of the situation, conservative elements in the leadership appear to have seen in the Falun Gong controversy an opportunity to reinvigorate the party's ideological work through a mass campaign and intra-party rectification -- pursuits that have strikingly, and almost surely by design, slighted the reform era's dominant rhetoric of market-oriented growth.

Fifth, and partly reflecting a sense of the risks of relying on economic performance as the basis for the party's claim of a right to rule, China's post-Mao administration has recast itself as a nationalist regime. In doing so, the party has partly returned to its roots, evoking its role as the principal force fighting against the Japanese and for national unity in the 1930s and 1940s. The strategy also has stressed more recent goals and accomplishments, including the PRC's acknowledged rise as a world power and its related march toward redemption of the remaining humiliations of nineteenth-century colonialism by means of the reintegration of Hong Kong, Macau and, it hopes, Taiwan. In recent years, the regime has played the nationalism card as its ideological trump in attempting to undercut support for dissent. Time and again, from the Democracy Wall in 1979 through the democracy movement in 1989 to the China Democracy Party in 1998-99, official sources have vigorously denounced the regime's adversaries as the tools of foreign interests and, at least implicitly, as traitors to China. Both drawing upon and stirring up popular nativist sentiments, this approach seems to have had some success against those pro-democracy dissidents who have drawn inspiration from Western thinkers and developed contacts with like-minded foreigners and exiled dissidents.

This tactic has been largely unavailable, however, against so clearly home-grown a group as Falun Gong. Despite party spokesmen's best efforts, it appears that they cannot make much out of the fact that Falun Gong's leader now lives in New York or that some of its internet communications originate abroad. The official press has called the group a tool of behind-the-scenes foreign forces and a product of alien cultural infiltration. But those accusations seem to ring hollow when directed against a strikingly indigenous enterprise espousing heavily non-Western doctrines. Some of the claims are tortured indeed, blaming a hostile Western-dominated international environment for the party's vulnerability to the kinds of eruptions of feudal superstition manifested in Falun Gong.

Groups like Falun Gong put the party's nationalist recipe under considerable strain in a more general way as well. While the CCP's recent ideology has touted many aspects of Chinese values and has embraced wholeheartedly the goal of a rich and powerful China, it has been, at best, abidingly queasy about many elements of traditional Chinese culture, especially the more anarchistic and supernaturalist strains. Campaigns against Falun Gong or similar groups risk exposing a gap between such elite agendas and authentically Chinese popular proclivities. The official press's odd trotting out of eminent scientists to expose Li Hongzhi's superstitious nonsense and pseudo-science strikes a tinny note, more in tune with a stale Marxist or post-Mao technocratic faith in a simplistic form of scientific rationalism than with the kinds of sentiments at the grassroots that have provided fertile soil for Falun Gong. The shrill tone and scattershot approach of the broader campaign against the "cult" bespeak a high level of elite agitation or an attempt to convey the intensity of the authorities' opposition more than they suggest confidence that the denunciations will resonate with, or persuade, a Chinese mass audience.

Finally, China's leaders during the last two decades have abandoned pretensions to totalitarianism in favor of a more accommodating form of undemocratic rule. They have bound their party to an implicit social contract with their citizenry: Ordinary Chinese can enjoy spheres of autonomy and room for private pursuits, free from political scrutiny and ideological demands, so long as they do not use that "space" to engage in political activities that might challenge the regime. The PRC's rulers thus have permitted and, in return, demanded a "depoliticization" or "civilianization" of a wide range of social and economic activity.

The flap over Falun Gong has exposed some ambiguities in this contract's terms, and revealed a possible penchant among the leadership for narrowing, illiberal constructions. The issue has been how "political" an enterprise Falun Gong is or could become. The group's principal visible activities and its avowed aims are apolitical enough. The official account, of course, has painted a radically different picture of a megalomaniac and his followers plotting to overthrow the party and the law, and to take the place of the government.

There is a more subtle question here as well. At some point in the emergence of a civil society, initially non-political organizations typically begin to seek a voice in how they are governed, especially with respect to policies that directly affect the group and the issues it sees as important. Some of Falun Gong's activities might be perceived as scattered signs of that sort of development in Chinese society. This is particularly true of the mass gatherings at public buildings by members seeking official recognition for the group and protesting the escalating government-imposed restrictions on their activities. Although some of those acts were precipitated by the regime's own moves against Falun Gong, such modest signs of potential pressure from below for structural political change may be enough, in the eyes of some of China's top leaders, to have warranted a sharpening of the post-Mao era's blunted authoritarian edge. An apparent dip in the political fortunes of Premier Zhu Rongji and the agenda of
bold reform presumably has meant stronger support for a hard line against Falun Gong. At the same time, the care taken to assuage the worries of practitioners of approved religions and ordinary qigong suggests that much of the leadership was ambivalent about, or at least aware of the delicacy of, undertakings that could appear to compromise some of the reform era's defining promises.

As has occurred regularly in the PRC's suppression of political dissent movements, the fear of chaos, luan, has been the subtext (and sometimes the text) of the call for repressive measures against Falun Gong. Ironically, such apprehension about the changes spawned by liberalization has sounded relatively plausible precisely because political reform in China has been so limited. What otherwise might be unremarkable features in the emergence of a robust civil society can seem to portend disarray where there are not adequate public institutions to channel and incorporate such demands and participation from below.

None of this, of course, means that Falun Gong really has imperiled Communist Party rule or that party leaders think it has - unless Jiang Zemin and his subordinates have information about the power of the group, or the weakness of the party, that differs wildly from what outside observers have seen or believed to be possible. While it is not inconceivable that Falun Gong will survive and will someday grow into a major danger in its own right, for now it has been more a Rorschach test for China's rulers. In Falun Gong, they can see traces of the traits that, if repeated on a much larger scale and sustained for a much longer period, could strike hard at the party's principal weak points and undermine each of the major pillars of its right and ability to rule. And the leadership in Beijing surely has recognized that there is little reason to believe that Falun Gong's particular organization and doctrines have had a unique and irreproducible appeal. To the extent that the drive against Falun Gong exceeds the usual harsh response meted out to groups posing similarly modest threats, the reason may well be that Chinese leaders have sensed that the group symbolizes or foreshadows more serious hazards.

Jacques deLisle is a Senior Fellow of FPRI and Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.