Falun Gong in a foreigner’s eyes

Where do I start?

I have so much to say about Falun Gong that I can’t organize my thoughts properly. So, I will talk to you as if we were around a table, having lunch together.

Recently, I spent one month in my homeland, Canada. Before going there, I intended to download information about Falun Gong from the Internet. Why? Because the magazine I work for in Beijing often publishes articles about Falun Gong. My job is to translate from English into French, or polish articles translated from Chinese. How can I make sure I have the right words, if I never read original texts in French? In China, despite the fact that I’m a foreigner, I have to obey the rules as does any other citizen, and so I don’t try to access Falun Gong sites on the Internet.

Since Falun Gong was prohibited in July 1999, and especially since the self-immolation on January 23 this year, a lot of ink has covered the subject. I read all that was published in China about Falun Gong, and like many Chinese, I wondered if all that was being said by the authorities was completely right. Won’t they push a little to influence our thoughts? I was, and still am, against Falun Gong. But growing up in a Western society, I am used to making my own judgments, after gathering my own information. I thought that even if only 50 percent of what we were told here was true, it was enough to ban Falun Gong. But why not try to discover the truth about the other 50 percent, once I had the chance?

In 1989, before I came to China, I had a Chinese friend in Canada, whom I’ll call Lao Z. Once, he thought he was catching a cold, and told me “When I go back home, I’ll just practice qigong and my energy will be balanced. I’ll be OK.” It was the first time in my life that I had heard the word qigong and I asked him more about it. I thought it was interesting and worth trying. But my friend warned me, saying “qigong may be dangerous if you don’t have a genuine master to guide you.” That’s why, after I came to China, I made sure the master I chose was a real and qualified one. This master, let’s call him Lao W, told us students that qigong doesn’t turn a sane person into a crazy one, but that it could bring on mental troubles or develop mental instability in people if not correctly practiced, under guidance. A problem happened to a woman in our group during a class: She started to laugh and laugh, rolling on the ground as if possessed by a devil. Lao W knew what to do and he helped her come back to her normal state.

Our school of qigong was called “Nine Rings” and it belongs to Taoism. I practiced it for over a year. The main visible effects it had on me were that I lost a few extra kilos, I needed only three hours of sleep every night, was never tired, and my mind was full of inspiration and dynamic ideas, which is good for a writer. I had not aimed for any of these effects when starting. They came as natural consequences.

Why I stopped practicing it has nothing to do with qigong itself, but depends on circumstances. Later, I met Lao W again, two or three times, with the others in the group. We found him absent minded, closed, and strange. He didn’t seem to be in good health. His wife asked us about him. Why was he acting as if she did not exist? No one could answer that question. I called Lao W at work. They said he had quit the unit. Such a good job… something was going wrong. It’s only when the words Falun Gong became common that I remembered he had told us once that, influenced by his brother, he had started to practice a new kind of qigong, and was experiencing it before teaching it. Falun Gong had taken away a good friend, a very intelligent man, a husband, a good worker and an honest citizen.

Meanwhile, Lao Z, who had gone to Canada for a one year stage in his field of work, had decided to ask for the status of “landed immigrant”. When he obtained it, he was joined by his two daughters and his wife, one by one. The whole family live in miserable conditions in Montreal, as life is not easy for an artist, and not one of the four could speak any French or English. Six years later, Lao Z came back to China for a visit. I saw him in his hometown in Shandong Province. He told me he was astonished at how rapidly China had changed, and that he would not go back to Canada. His new plans were to wait for his second daughter to finish her studies in Canada (the mother and the elder daughter were at that time working in a factory to allow the younger one to study), and after that, they would all return to China.

Lao Z’s wife has learned about Falun Gong in Canada. She told her husband how good it was, and he started to practice it in Jinan, capital of Shandong Province. During a period of one year, he called me 10 times to invite me to discover Falun Gong. He gave me names and phone numbers of practitioners in Beijing, persons who would “instruct” me and give me Li Hongzhi’s cassettes, etc. I am a naturally curious person. Normally, I would have gone to see what a big deal it was. At that moment, maybe a good angel was protecting me, I felt no interest at all in this new discovery. Lao Z told me that the kind of qigong I used to practice was not good, that his kind was the only one which could allow me “to meet my Creator after death.” I had enough of all that and I told him “First, I have too much to do, I can’t die. Second, I’m not sure that it’s my priority to meet my Creator.” After insisting on my conversion a few more times, he didn’t bother me anymore.

At the end of 2000 I saw Lao Z’s name in a Canadian newspaper I collaborate with. He had been arrested in China “for practicing Falun Gong.” Having two passports (which is illegal), he had been considered Chinese by the authorities, and the Canadian Embassy had not obtained his release. I immediately asked the editor of that paper the origin of the news. He sent me the whole text. I read that Lao Z had been arrested for the second time, and other details showed that his arrest was not abuse, but according to Chinese law. Lao Z had practiced Falun Gong in a public place, attracting spectators and disturbing public order. Arrested twice means he has done it more than once. It also shows that he had not been so badly treated the first time. I wrote an article about it in my weekly column of that paper. Following publication, I received e-mails and letters from Canadians and Italians who wanted to know more. I e-mailed them some articles we had published in China in our foreign languages magazines, and invited them to read more on the Internet. They were very satisfied with the information, and none of them thought Falun Gong was good.

When I arrived in Montreal, we visited Chinatown. There were a few people, Chinese and non-Chinese, practicing Falun Gong. There were also distributing papers. I took one. What was it? An SOS! “Canadian supporters appeal 24 hours today and condemn Jiang Zemin’s brutal policy.” The girl who had given me the paper had also said “Thank you” to me. I turned around and told her, “Why did you thank me? Don’t imagine that taking your propaganda means that I support your group.”

A few months before, my sister, who is a university professor, had copied for me the notices that appeared in three universities of Montreal. They all invited people to attend their meetings and discover the “real nature” of Falun Gong. If just seen as a kind of relaxation exercise, Falun Gong is not bad. In most Western countries, people totally ignore it or place it in the same category as yoga, taiji, wushu, kongfu and taekwondo.

In some book stores in Canada, I asked for books about Falun Gong, just as a test. Out of five, three didn’t know what I was talking about. One asked, “This is something Chinese, isn’t it? A kind of a sect?” And the last one said, “No, we don’t have any.”

Why does Falun Gong proportionally harm more people in China than in the West? It’s hard to explain unless we seriously research the subject, and I don’t think this has been done yet. But, I personally think that it’s because in China, after the great efforts put into the war against Japan, the liberation of the country and the founding of a new China, and involvement, willing or not, in the “cultural revolution” (1966-76), the Chinese people have found themselves unsatisfied in a society which is far from perfect, and without a dream, an ambition, or an ideal. In the West, the regime is not perfect either, but people have a larger choice of activities, sports, hobbies, and even religions or spiritual ideologies. They try everything but don’t stick to a theory. In the last two decades of the 20th century, it has become fashionable to study esoteric matters, alternative medicine, or methods of relaxation, and there are so many schools of them that a person can ignore some. I asked a friend who teaches the history of religions what he thinks of Falun Gong. He said, “I can’t say. It’s only a minor sect, I have not yet started to pay attention to it.”

After Montreal, I went to Toronto. There, Chinatown is a real one! I also met two Chinese women who were distributing literature about Falun Gong and they were wearing a badge with the name of the sect. I asked them, first in English but we quickly changed to Chinese, “Why are you here? If you really believe in Falun Gong, why don’t you stay at home and practice it?” “Because we want people to know the truth,” one answered, while the other followed the conversation without opening her mouth. A long discussion started, and people, mostly Chinese, gathered around to see a laowai (foreigner) supporting China, which seemed strange to them, but they listened carefully. “What I don’t like,” I continued, “is that you mix politics with Falun Gong.” The woman said they were not doing anything political. “If you can tell me that Jiang Zemin’s name is not on these papers, I’ll believe you.” For sure, it was there! So, they are doing political things. Falun Gong people fight the Chinese Government because their movement has been banned. They consider that such a decision is not justified, and want to reverse it.

That woman was at Zhongnanhai, the Central Government seat, on April 25, 1999, among the ten thousand Falun Gong practitioners who “peacefully disturbed” public order. Many of them have fled the country. Many, including others who had nothing to do with Falun Gong, but just used the opportunity to emigrate, were welcomed by certain countries who also grabbed this opportunity to accuse China in the field of human rights. There were so many that, in the United States, immigration officials were requested to attend Falun Gong lectures to learn how to detect false applicants for a “refugee” status.

I told the woman, “You have started a political conflict, and you were given a political answer. You are a Chinese citizen. A citizen must obey the law. In China, no group manifestation is allowed without a permit, like it or not.” She interrupted, “But we want to change that!” Accompanying me was a Chinese friend and her Canadian boyfriend, who is of Eastern Europe origin. He answered her, saying “Any government in the world would be afraid in front of a mass intervention.” The woman said, “We know the government is frightened and we want to take advantage of it.” I found this reaction childish. I added, “No one can change the world in one day. You have to be patient. Look how much progress China has made since the reform and opening-up policies started in the 1980s! Great achievements and remarkable changes have been accomplished in all fields. China accounts for one fifth of the world population. It can’t allow itself to make a mistake. The consequences would be too serious. Where do you think you’re going by pushing the people into revolution, by encouraging turmoil? Just be patient. Things are moving faster than you think. The law is the law. Anarchy will bring nothing good.”

We talked for about an hour. I told her, finally, that I wanted to buy Li Hongzhi’s books, to see what he said himself, not what other people say about him or about Falun Gong. She congratulated me, saying that I was honest. She also thought that I could become a practitioner myself.

In fact, I had decided that, if after reading Falun Dafa or Zhuan Falun, I discovered that the State had lied to us, I would just shut up. You are anxious to know what I discovered? That it was true! It is the propaganda the movement distributes in the streets that contains unproved matters and other errors. For instance, Lao Z’s photo is not really his, and what is said about him is not exact.

How can I become a practitioner by reading such a book as Zhuan Falun? Not only is it written in a low quality style, but the theory itself is a mixture of various ideologies-Buddhism, or Taoism, Islam and Christianity. Li Hongzhi borrows from the sacred scriptures of these and more. But as very few Chinese know about these three major sources, they think Li Hongzhi has created himself a new theory. More, they think he has been taught by… whom? Not the Buddha Sakyamuni, as “The level of Sakyamuni is that of a Tathagata (Buddha at the lowest level),” says the Master (p. 10). In fact, he created his theory. “I am the only person who is genuinely teaching qigong toward higher levels at home and abroad,” he says (p. 1). Such a sentence is repeated continuously in the 10 lectures of the book. “Though some qigong masters have published books, I am telling you that those books contain all kinds of things and are the same as what they practice, such as snakes, foxes, and yellow weasels. When you read these books, these things will come out from the words. I have said that the number of fake qigong masters is many times more than that of genuine ones, and you are unable to tell the difference.” From these affirmations, that are repeatedly used, we can see, firstly, that Li Hongzhi wants to exercise absolute control over the minds of his disciples, and, secondly, that he has no respect for his disciples, whom he sees at a very low level of intelligence.

A slogan like the Falun Gong’s “Truthfulness, Goodness, Tolerance” (Zhen-Shan-Ren) is nothing bad. Indeed, it’s attractive. But we can find these ideas elsewhere, like in Jesus or Confucius. But how can a sane person believe that the master can “install a complete cultivation system in your bodies,” (p. 6) a wheel that “is the miniature of the universe…that will forever rotate in your lower abdomen area.” (p. 40) Or that “My Fashen (a body made of Gong and Fa) knows everything on your mind…before you think it.” (p. 77) And this “Once you want to truly practice cultivation, your life will be in danger instantly…I can do it (protect you) because I have numerous Fashen who possess my extraordinary divine powers and the powers of Fa…Nobody will dare touch you. Besides, you have the protection of my Fashen, and you will not run into any danger.” (p. 129) Followed by several examples of persons who were not hurt by a car or did not die in an accident. “Because I had the protection of Master Li,” (p. 132) they believe. The master’s Fashen can also punish the practitioner who doesn’t obey by “taking back every cultivation component installed in your body.” (p. 84)

About health, a person “cannot practice cultivation with an ill body.” (p. 2) The master can purify the body. More, “your illnesses will be cured directly by me,” he says (p. 123). Why, then, should a practitioner go to hospital, wait in line, and spend money? Li Hongzhi never said, at least in this one book, not to consult doctors or take medicine, but once he has full control of his disciples’ minds, sentences like the former become, “I will not see a doctor for my stomachache, just practice Falun Gong.” But six months later, the patient was dead. He had cancer. Li didn’t say medicine is not good, he just said that “80 to 90 percent of practitioners will become free of illnesses.” (p. 222) Li spoke so much of that wheel of law that he installed in each practitioner that an “illuminated” one opened his abdomen with a knife to see it! Li said he could protect his disciples anywhere and against any danger. Why not to try to fly from the 9th floor? The powerful master Li can do all sorts of things! “I have removed Futi (spirit possession) from the bodies of genuine practitioners, removed all such bad things from the inside to the outside of your bodies…and eliminated demons. I will also clean up your body…I can do that…I can do it only for practitioners…The master possesses great energy potency, he can eliminate your karma.” (pp. 125, 127).

Li also teaches that each body contains “the white substance and the black substance.” (p. 140) A person gains or loses the black substance according to bad deeds he or she commits. The five victims of fire immolation last January thought they had accumulated enough white substance to leave this world without suffering. But they saw how much “black substance” was still in their bodies and understood that they had been cheated.

Not only is Li Hongshi’s theory ridiculous, but the principles it is based on are the most elementary science, things that a first grade pupil knows. (pp. 18, 164, 267). Don’t be jealous, be detached, right your mind, dominate yourself, keep even tempered, all these healthy habits don’t need Master Li to discover them. If Li forbids his cult members to read other books except those he wrote himself, it may be to not let them discover where he borrowed his theory. Actually, absolutely nothing is new in what he preaches.

About how to study Falun Gong, Li says, “By reading my book, watching my video tapes, or listening to my recording.” “There is only one master of Dafa…Therefore, nobody else is able to teach this Fa.” (p. 136) How did Falun Gong gain so many followers in eight or 10 years? What is so appealing in having your mind fully controlled by another person? I think the Falun Gong method for recruiting members is very simple. Recruitment is done by friends, family members and colleagues. People join a group that offers truthfulness, benevolence and tolerance, which is what everyone should cultivate, and a group that promises to fulfill their human and natural needs.

Li warned his practitioners that practicing qigong may be dangerous. One can become mentally disordered, and it would be a disaster for the reputation of Falun Gong. He thinks that problem occurs “when a person’s zhuyishi (main consciousness) becomes too weak…He always remain in trance and cannot lift up his spirit.” (p. 209) Easy to say! Li divides the “ordinary persons” from the “genuine practitioners,” as he speaks of “the other qigong masters” and himself, the only true one. But he forgets that his practitioners are all “ordinary persons” before becoming “Buddhas.” It’s easy to misunderstand what is said, to interpret our own way, to have such a high ideal that we would unbalance our mental stability and become insane or even kill ourselves in desperation. Enlightenment is not for every one in this world. This is the big mistake Li committed, letting the masses think that they all could reach it. Over 1,600 persons have been victims of Li.

Today, China has almost put an end to Falun Gong in its territory. Intervention workshops help Falun Gong members give up the cult and go back to their families, their work and their normal lives. And it is about time.

(Beijing Review by Lisa Carducci, No. 41, 2001)