Author’s note: This story was first published in Bangkok by ‘The Nation’ English daily, on May 22, 2001, under the headline China derides the crazy side of Falun Gong [Some say they are ‘God’ and avoid hospital and TV. They’re mad, but they are very organised].
On April 25, 1999 the world got a jolt and Beijing’s security apparatus suffered severe cracks when 10,000 apparently harmless morning-exercise (health) enthusiasts who called themselves of the ‘Falun Gong’ demonstrated in Zhongnanhai, the exclusive enclave of China’s top government leaders.
Among other things they demanded Falun Gong be recognized as a religion. And contrary to their profession of freedom and universal love, they demanded severe punishment for an elderly, soft-spoken and well-mannered physicist named professor He Zuoxiu. Professor He had penned an article critical of the Falun Gong in an obscure Tianjin weekly. In one of the best-known cases, the same professor He in 1998 had given an interview to Beijing Radio in which he cautioned youngsters against practising Falun Gong.
The following day the sect demonstrated and obtained a retraction and another programme speaking in favour of Falun Gong.
Falun Gong followers were incensed with professor He accusing him of being the voice of the government and mounting a crackdown on the sect. “Nonsense, if I had the support of the government I wouldn’t have written in an obscure Tianjin weekly but in the mass circulation People’s Daily,” the professor retorted.
His motivation were simple: his best student, whom he loved like a son, had gone insane by practising Falun Gong. He felt a moral obligation to warn other youth and said it had taken months for him to get the article published.
In March 1999 the sect demonstrated in Tianjin, surprisingly the magazine did not give in to the Falun Gong’s demands but the police stepped in to stop the protest. A scuffle between police and demonstrators ensued in which, for the first time, some Falun Gong followers were arrested.
This in turn prompted the April 25 protest at Zhongnanhai, when the sect demanded it be recognized as a religion and that professor He be punished.
What is Falun Gong, is it a religion?
Up until that day, and until July that year when the sect was banned, Falun Gong was free. Every morning, in almost every park and vacant space in Chinese cities, groups of devotees practised their morning rites.
Borrowing from the Daoist ‘daoyin’ health exercise or what is now commonly called Qigong exercises, they added an element of Buddhism in it and named it “art of Buddhist law wheel’. Incorporating Daoist health arts with religious mambo-jumbo, they called it Falun Gong.
The sect is against modern science, preaches the end of the world, forbids its followers watching TV or being treated in hospital and maintains that diseases do not exist and that ailments are due to sins people commit.
They preached that UFOs had arrived on earth; aliens had taken over human bodies, and were trying to annihilate humanity through the control of TV and radio. It is either pure madness or a clever plan for mass indoctrination.
In China’s mad rush to modernization it has attracted masses of the disillusioned, the left-behinds, and old communist cadres yearning for the simple old Maoist days. Investigation at the end of 1998 revealed there were 40 million adherents. This was lower than the 70 million claimed by its master Li Hongzhi.
What was so important about being a religion rather than just a sport association (which it had been all along) ? The issue is arguably not about religion but about power.
Previously they had been officially under the state’s sports administration, like many other disciplines of ancient breathing exercises commonly called Qigong. A promotion to one of the official religions of China, would elevate the sect leadership to the formal Chinese People’s Conference, thus closer to the heart of Chinese power.
A Falun Gong follower who does not watch TV is not influenced by government propaganda, and by entrusting his own health to the sect rather than to public hospitals, he cedes all his person to the sect.
Many followers have strong reservations about current Chinese politics. They are conservatives, xenophobic old party members, strongly opposed to government’s reforms and opening up. From this analysis came the sudden banning of the sect in July 1999.
Authorities collected more evidence of a plot. The sect’s leader, Li Hongzhi, had been in Baijing briefly to finalize plans for the Zhongnanhai demonstration. The actual organiser, a retired 74-year-old retired general named Yu Changxin was sentenced to 17 years in jail on January 6, 2000.
The very organisation of the sect was structured on the model of the Chinese Communist Party, with cells and an underground central committee, local stations in every province and three lines of cadres ready to replace those who would be arrested in case of a crackdown. Authorities believed the involvement of the general, the political agenda, and the of the sect showed it had ambitions of attaining real power.
On 23 January 2001, the eve of Chinese New Year, five followers of Falun Gong in a move reminiscent of Vietnamese Buddhist monks, set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square. In the shocking immolations, one died with four hospitalised. Moderate sect followers were stunned and hurried to claim that their master, Li Hongzhi, self-exiled in America expressly forbids suicide.
Finally after months of stalemate, the suicide has convinced more common people that Falun Gong is indeed a cult as the government claims. Indeed a few days before the suicide, the government had scored a significant victory over the sect. China’s most popular TV programme, “Focus”, interviewed some sect followers detained after a wave of protests this year. On camera the Falun Gong members said they had no names because they had become gods.
“I’m god, does god have a name? The name of god is god, I have no name,” said a follower who looked as if he had gone bonkers.
In China’s long history and civilization, one peculiar trait stands out. There has never been an organised or institutionalized religion. Those that were are all foreign imports – Islam, Buddhism, Christianity.
Laozi and Confucius talk about the Heavenly Dao – The Supreme Spirit, the Taiji – seeking harmony within heaven, earth and man. Self cultivation, to acquire virtue, humility, selflessness, and universal humanitarianism became the mark of the superior man. The truly educated man has a deep sense of shame, this is enough to deter him from cheating and sinful acts.
The ‘Dao Li’ (moral/humanistic code/ being reasonable) constitutes the guiding principles of all human intercourse and activities since ancient times [interestingly not the law courts].
They believe knowledge is one (like God). The master is doctor, calligrapher, painter, poet, martial artist, fengsui master and spiritual counselor all rolled into one. Collectively it (Supreme Ultimate) is represented by the ‘Bagua’ or the eight trigrams of the Ying Yang Taiji.
It is the mother of all Chinese thought, science, art and culture. In light of this, the claim of Falun Gong as a religion seems insignificant and ludicrous.