The target of merciless persecution in China, Falun Gong (Work of the Law Wheel) - also known as Falun Dafa (Method of the Law Wheel) - evades easy definition. Claiming to be an ancient technique of self-development, Falun Gong is an eclectic mixture of Taoist and Buddhist principles with a sprinkling of extraterrestrials.
Despite its emphasis on positive thinking and avowedly non-political stance, its Chinese followers have become the victims of a campaign of systematic and appalling human rights abuses. The death toll in custody almost certainly runs into thousands (Amnesty International gives a fully authenticated figure of 700) but the problem with Chinese statistics is that they vary according to their political importance. Falun Gong itself gives a higher figure for deaths under torture for which they can verify names and locations, but the likelihood is that the figures (as so often in China) may be very much higher - because most of the deaths in labour camps go unreported.
In 1992 Falun Gong emerged as one among many Chinese practices of self-cultivation, loosely known as Qi Gong (pr. chee gung), which translates generally as 'energy work'. In 1992 and 1993, Falun Gong received special mention at the Beijing Oriental Health Expo, where its founder, Master Li Hongzhi, was credited with perfoming miracle cures in public. By 1996, some Chinese authorites were condemning Falun Gong as 'superstition and false science' (largely because of claims Master Li made about himself) and calling for it to be banned. On public television in Shanghai in 1998, government officials credited it with having between 70 and 100 million followers, without showing undue concern.
However, trouble really began for Falun Gong in 1999, when a group of practitioners were arrested and beaten by police in Tianjin, a coastal city about 150 kilometres southeast of Beijing. On 25 April, 1999, a massive silent protest involving over 10,000 Falun Gong was organised in Beijing. The protesters sat in total silence for twenty-four hours surrounding the government enclave of Zhongnanhai on Tiananmen Square. They sent representatives to meet with the authorities, and requested the release of the Tianjin prisoners. At the end of the demonstration they picked up their litter and quietly dispersed.
On 22 July, 1999, Falun Gong was declared an 'evil cult' by the Beijing authorities, and totally banned, meriting 'a serious ideological and political struggle that would have a bearing on the future of the Communist Party and the State'. Since then, the Chinese state has waged a war of merciless persecution against Falun Gong and its adherents. According to Amnesty International, the use of torture, imprisonment without trial, and 're-education-through-labour camps', or laogai has increased significantly in the last four years of the anti-Falun Gong campaign. The most conservative estimates suggest that over 800 Falun Gong followers have been beaten or tortured to death in custody since 1999, but the real figures are reckoned at over 2000. There are reports that the internal organs of some victims had been removed before their bodies were returned to their families1
Why is Falun Gong seen as such a threat to the Chinese State?
At the time that Falun Gong became headline news in April 1999, Master Li claimed to have some 100 million followers, 70 million in China, and 30 million abroad, mainly among the Chinese emigrant communities. The Chinese Communist Party officially has a mere 60 million members, so the sheer mass of Falun Gong devotees was seen as a cause for alarm. To make matters worse, a large number of the Falun Gong in China were considered intellectuals, members of the security services and the military, not to mention Party officials and even members of the innermost government circles (including, it was rumoured, Jiang Zemin's wife). The April mass demonstration in Tiananmen Square could not have been organised without the knowledge, and even collusion, of the security forces. Furthermore, the demonstration took place just prior to the tenth anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, so security levels were already high. The fact that 10,000 people could be so efficiently organised into such an orderly group without the knowledge and permission of the Public Security Bureau officials came as a major shock to President Jiang Zemin. The subsequent persecution of Falun Gong had his personal imprimatur. 100 million people believing in something other than socialist material consumerism was not to be tolerated, not without permission. It also threw into stark relief the incredible organising power of the internet, which was very new to China in 1999, and is now heavily policed there. Some 6,900 websites are listed in connection with Falun Gong, both for and against the practice.
On another level however, Falun Gong is seen as just the sort of heretical cult whose arising in China has traditionally spelled the end of the ruling dynasty. In this, for the Beijing authorities at least, it has unpleasant resonances with the Taiping Rising which wreaked havoc in China between 1850 and 1865. The bloodiest civil war in history, it claimed between 20 and 40 million lives, as government troops fought Taiping fanatics, whose leader Hong Xiuquan claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus reincarnated, and Melchizedek, the Old Testament prophet. The fact that Falun Gong is determinedly non-violent, its followers unwaveringly practising ren (forbearance) even as they are tortured, makes the PRC government's vitriolic condemnation seem almost hysterical. Indeed, were it not so brutally lethal, the government's over-reaction to this group might appear quite comical.
Li Hongzhi, a former government grain department clerk and amateur trumpet player, claims to have started self-cultivation at the age of four2. By the age of eight, he claims to have levitated and to have been able to control the actions of his playmates (specifically to stop them fighting) by the power of his thoughts alone. He claims to have been instructed by anything from two to twenty 'Masters in the Mountains', and to be an enlightened being on a par with Buddha and Jesus. At Falun Gong Conferences, the stage is frequently decorated with a large photo of Master Li in Buddha mode. In September 1994, he officially changed his birthdate from 7 July, 1952 to 13 May, 1951, a date celebrated as the Buddha's birthday. In 1998 he emigrated to the United States of America where he now lives and he has received numerous plaudits and citations from cities throughout North America.
The Basic Beliefs of the Practitioners
The three basic moral principles of Falun Gong are Zhen, Shan, Ren, which translate approximately as 'Truthfulness, Benevolence or Compassion, and Forbearance or Tolerance.' It is through focusing on these qualities that a Falun Gong practitioner is able to develop their xinxing (moral character) which then gives them a greater potential to develop high levels of Gong (energy), which is actually said to be essentialy different from Qi (potency).
As well as a set of moral beliefs, there are five sets of exercises central to the Falun Gong system which are supposed to enhance the circulation of energy in the body. The final exercise, a sitting meditation, also helps to create a tranquil mind and, according to the teachings, strengthens the 'divine powers' of the individual. All exercises are taught free of charge by other Falun Gong practitioners and are detailed in Li's books.
Along with the its basic spiritual principles, Falun Gong boasts a number of unconventional beliefs. In his dissertation, Zhuan Falun, Li writes that he can personally heal disease and that a Falun (a turning wheel of gong) resides in the bellies of all true practitioners. These practitioners can see this Falun turn in their bellies provided the celestial eye in their forehead is not blocked. In addition, he writes that practitioners truly adhering to the Zhen-Shan-Ren principle of the universe won't be hurt as much when hit by speeding cars as they otherwise would. Li claims demons and extraterrestrials are everywhere and that Africa has a two-billion-year-old nuclear reactor3.
Falun Gong's Success
The popularity of Falun Gong is a particularly Chinese phenomenon4. The collapse of the Chinese communist dream in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, 1966 - 1976, and the failure of Chairman Mao Zedong's socialist utopia left China deeply demoralised. Idealists of all sorts had been relentlessly purged throughout the Party's history. However, the final nail in the coffin of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist idealism was the accession of Deng Xiaoping (whom Mao had banished as a 'capitalist roader' during the Cultural Revolution) who turned fifty years of sacrifice and struggle on their heads by declaring that 'to get rich is glorious.' Since then, China's sole remaining ideal is 'free-market capitalism with socialist characteristics' underscored by chauvinistic nationalism. The resultant spiritual vacuum has seen a widespread embracing not only of traditional religions, such as Buddhism and Christianity, but also new versions of Taoist traditional practices such as Qi Gong.
Into this vacuum stepped Master Li Hongzhi, offering self-improvement, meditation, and, good health. More importantly, Falun Gong was offered free, to the annoyance of other Qi Gong schools, which complained. Li subsequently withdrew from the Chinese Qi Gong Federation. Falun Gong was perfectly suited to the many millions of older, semi-retired and unemployed Chinese, whose health benefits and pensions disappeared with the economic 'rationalisations' of the new free-market economy. The old 'iron rice bowl' of Chairman Mao, which had guaranteed employment, housing, food and health-care to all citizens for life was a fading memory. Li offered health, rejuvenation and supernormal powers to the conscientious cultivator of Falun Gong5.
The issue of health is one which the Chinese authorities have used as a main line of attack against Falun Gong, claiming that over 1600 people have died because, as practitioners, they did not seek appropriate medical help when it was needed. For his part, Master Li, in his books promises:
'We are here not to eliminate your diseases or to build up your health or to give you some message to heal your diseases. We do not do these things. Your diseases will be eliminated directly by me. Those who practise in the practising spot will be cured by my Law bodies. Those who learn Falun Dafa through self-study by reading the book will also be cured by my Law bodies.'
Fashen, or Law Bodies6, are reminiscent of the three 'Manifestation Bodies of the Buddha', the trikaya of Buddhism. However, Li describes fashen as a 'white body' made of 'fa' and 'gong', which grow with the practice. The formation of fashen is also influenced by the accumulation of de, a white substance which developes through merit and virtuous behaviour. Karma, however, is seen as a negative energy, a black substance, which erodes de. Master Li claims to have innumerable, separate, independent fashen bodies controlled by his thoughts, which carry out his will, performing functions such as the installation of the falun wheel in the practitioners' abdomens.
Some of his other statements range from the bizarre to the incredible. The opening of the third, or celestial eye is promised under certain conditions, leading to remote vision and total recall.
'How does the supernormal capability of remote sight work in the In-Triple-World-Law? Here I am going to expound this to you. In the space of this field, there is a mirror in the position of one's forehead. A non-practitioner's mirror faces himself. A practitioner's mirror will turn over. When one is about to develop the power of Remote Sight, the mirror will keep turning over and over.
There is another supernormal capability which has a direct relation with the Celestial Eye. It is called Total Recall. Now there are six supernormal capabilities which are generally recognized in the world. They include the Celestial Eye, Remote Sight, and Total Recall. What is Total Recall? It is a supernormal capability with which one can know a person's future and past; if the ability is great, one can know the rise and decline of a society; if the ability is even greater, one can see the Law of the change of the whole celestial body. As matter moves following a certain pattern, any object in a special space has its existing forms in many, many other spaces.
The supernormal capability of Total Recall works through a small fluorescent screen like TV in the position of the forehead. Some find it at the location of the forehead; some find it nearby the forehead; some find it inside the forehead; some can see it with eyes closed; some can see it with eyes open if it is very strong. But it is invisible to other people, because it is something within your own spatial field. That is to say, when this capability is developed, there has to be another one to serve as a carrier to reflect the images of other spaces so that one can see them with the Celestial Eye. With this ability one can see the future or the past of a person very precisely. Though one can also reveal something quite clearly through divination, he is unable to know the small things or details of an event. However, with the ability of Total Recall one can see them very clearly. He can even see the dates and changing details of the event, because what he sees is the true reflection of a person or an object in a different space.
I am going to open the Celestial Eye for every cultivator of Falun Dafa. As for the supernormal capabilities which will be mentioned later, I will not open them. With the unceasing rise of your level, the supernormal capability of Total Recall will turn up in due course. You will meet with this case in your future cultivation. When you have developed this supernormal capability, you will know how it is. So we should tell you all these doctrines and principles.'
'The plane of one's Celestial Eye is the direct manifestation of the Law of our universe. As something supernormal, it is closely connected with one's Xinxing7. A person of low Xinxing stays on a low level. As his Xinxing is poor, he has lost much of his vital essence. If one possesses very high Xinxing and cares little about fame, wealth, conflicts among the people, personal interests, and seven emotions and six carnal desires, his vital essence may be well-preserved, and he can see quite clearly when his Celestial Eye is opened. A child under six will have a very clear vision when his Celestial Eye is opened, and it is very easy to open it. A word is enough to have it opened.' (Li Hongzhi, Zhuan Falun)
Li's Personal Beliefs
Nonetheless, despite his insistence on tolerance, some of his views, on homosexuality, for instance, are decidedly unforgiving.
'The disgusting homosexuality shows the dirty abnormal psychology of the gay who has lost his ability of reasoning at the present time8.'
In a 1998 talk in Switzerland, Li said gay people would be 'eliminated' by 'the gods'. Asked in Frankfurt, Germany, that year whether gays could practice Falun Gong, Li answered, to a round of applause, 'You can cultivate, but you must give up the bad conduct'.
On mixed-race marriage his views are similarly intolerant, as he sees such deviance as evidence of alien interference. Li also regards mixed-race or 'cross-bred' people as rootless and deviant, a sign of morally bankrupt times. Mixed-race people are a plot by the evil extraterrestrials who populate his cosmology, which spills over with accounts of lost civilisations, higher realms and mysteries that science cannot grasp.
'By mixing the races of humans, the aliens make humans cast off gods,' he is quoted as saying in a lecture in Switzerland.
In an interview with Time Magazine Asia, 10 May, 1999, he was quite specific about the role of aliens in the present troubled times.
TIME: Why does chaos reign now?
Li: Of course there is not just one reason. The biggest cause of society's change today is that people no longer believe in orthodox religion. They go to church, but they no longer believe in god. They feel free to do anything. The second reason is that since the beginning of this century, aliens have begun to invade the human mind and its ideology and culture.
TIME: Where do they come from?
Li: The aliens come from other planets. The names that I use for these planets are different. Some are from dimensions that human beings have not yet discovered. The key is how they have corrupted mankind. Everyone knows that from the beginning until now, there has never been a development of culture like today. Although it has been several thousand years, it has never been like now.
The aliens have introduced modern machinery like computers and aeroplanes. 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. In terms of culture and spirit, they already control man. Mankind cannot live without science.
The ultimate purpose is to replace humans. If cloning human beings succeeds, the aliens can officially replace humans. Why does a corpse lie dead, even though it is the same as a living body? The difference is the soul, which is the life of the body. If people reproduce a human person, the gods in heaven will not give its body a human soul. The aliens will take that opportunity to replace the human soul and by doing so they will enter earth and become earthlings. When such people grow up, they will help replace humans with aliens. They will produce more and more clones. There will no longer be humans reproduced by humans. They will act like humans, but they will introduce legislation to stop human reproduction.
Speaking About Himself
'...No being knows who I am...
...Where did I come from then? I came from the inside and from the outside.
I came from nothing and formed into something.
I appeared at the pinnacle of the colossal firmament, and from there I descended into the uppermost surface of the Three Realms step by step...
...I came to the lowest level...in order to...save all sentient beings...
...Master has gathered the lives of all of the cosmos's sentient beings and various elements into his body...
...I have paid back all the sins committed by all sentient beings in the Three Realms...
...I really bore for you the sins that you have committed over hundreds and thousands of years...
...I will also offer you salvation and turn you into Gods...
...Since the beginning of time, not a single God had dared to do this, and such a thing had never occurred...' (Zhuan Falun).
'With the effect of a special magnetic field, a qigong master can release a powerful and very beautiful aura. The greater one's energy potency, the larger the energy field he has released. An ordinary person also has an aura, but it is very, very small. In the study of high-energy physics people believe that energy is nothing but the substances like neutrons or atoms. Many qigong masters have been tested. All the famous qigong masters have taken such a test. I was also tested. The measuring apparatus showed that the amount of rays and thermal neutrons I had released was 80-170 times greater than that of the radiation of normal substances. However, this was the result when the pointer on the apparatus had reached its limit. As the pointer had moved to its maximum, we did not know how great it might really be. It is really inconceivable that one can produce such powerful neutrons. How can man release such powerful neutrons? It has proved that we qigong masters are possessed of Gong or energy, which has been verified in the world of science and technology.'
An Evil Cult?
For anyone who wishes to deride Falun Gong, Master Li's statements provide ample ammunition, and there are indeed many, (besides the Chinese government), who would condemn Falun Gong as an 'evil cult'. However, there are many aspects which do not fit with the usual cult criteria. Master Li expressly forbids anyone from accepting fees for teaching Falun Gong. If they do so, his fashen will take away all the benefit they have gained from the practice. This hasn't stopped the Chinese Authorities from accusing him of reaping many millions through what they describe as 'illegal' book publication, (for good measure, they accused him of frequenting brothels on a visit to Thailand in 1997, and of gambling in a Brisbane casino). But not only are no fees requested for learning Falun Gong, there is in fact no central organisation. Conferences and groups are locally organised and funded, making effective use of the internet for co-ordination and advertising. And, while Li makes extravagant claims for his ability to transform his followers' lives, they are basically expected to get on with the practice by themselves.
Much mileage was made by the Chinese media of an incident in Tiananmen Square, 23 January, 2001, when some supposed Falun Gong members immolated themselves. But mystery surrounds many aspects of this event, not least the fact that although it took place in the centre of the vast Tiananmen Square, both Chinese media cameras and medical personnel were present with miraculous promptness. Furthermore, Li expressly denounces suicide in his teachings, and his followers view the events quite differently.
His teaching on ambition and attachment are effectively Buddhist:
'Since all of you sitting here have come to learn the Great Law, you should regard yourself as a true practitioner and let go of your attachments. You will gain nothing if you come here to learn the gong and the Great Law for the purpose of pursuing various personal interests. To tell you a truth: The whole course of one's cultivation is to let go of his attachments unceasingly.' (Zhuan Falun).
Regarding politics, in 1999, he insisted that his followers do not involve themselves in political disturbances.
'Because a cultivator has no interest in politics at all and he will never involve himself into politics or any antigovernment movement, such people can only bring about stability in any society. The characteristics of Falun Dafa cultivation in fact just fit the current situation in China - "Stability should overwhelm anything else." The Chinese government can be completely ensured. The more the good people who practise Falun Gong, the better it will help the Chinese government sustain its social stability.' (Falun Dafa Bulletin Board, 5 June, 1999).
This protestation did not, however, endear him to the authorities, who significantly accuse him of 'heretical ideas', as well as 'criminal activities'. What is curious is that the tone of some of the writings of his Chinese followers, as found in the now suppressed biography, is strongly reminiscent of Maoist rhetoric, under whose wide embrace the vast majority of them were raised.
'Falun Dafa founded by Mr Li Hongzhi is like a red sun rising from the East, whose radiance with unlimited vitality will illuminate every corner of the earth, nourish all the living things, warm the whole world, and play an unparalleled role in the realisation of an ideal and perfect human society on this planet.'
However, in terms of typical cult techniques, Falun Gong is given a 50:50 Yes/No rating by Time Asia. While it is led by a charismatic leader, fosters an 'us versus them' attitude, and uses jargon that outsiders don't understand, it does not exert pressure on people to join, its believers do not remove themselves from society, nor are they required to donate large sums of money, their homes, jobs, and so on, to a central organisation.
What Falun Gong quite clearly does do is to give its followers a strong sense of self-empowerment and a clear moral yardstick in a world which frequently lacks standards of any sort. This is particularly true for China, where, as we have seen, the old communist ideals of building a socialist utopia failed miserably. Traditional Confucian ethics were denounced along with all 'old ways' during the Cultural Revolution, and post-Deng Xiaoping's new consumerist society has left China with no beliefs other than a jaded atheist materialism. Egalitarianism has given way to a society increasingly divided between the 'haves' and 'have-nots', a rapidly-expanding plutocracy against the background of the largest world population of people (over 350 million) living below the UN 'Absolute Poverty' level of $150 per annum income. Furthermore, throughout China's bloated bureaucracy, corruption extends from the lowest village officials to the highest government cronies. The so-called Communist Party is seen to be holding onto power purely for power's sake, maintaining an increasingly oppressive staus quo, and stamping out any hint of opposition, whether from Falun Gong, Tibetan Buddhists, Xinjiang's Muslim Uighjurs, democracy activists, environmentalists or trades union organisers.
What is surprising, perhaps, is that the Falun Gong - within China itself - has produced a virtual army of martyrs, who regularly make their way past tight security to demonstrate their faith in public places, such as Beijing's Tiananmen Square, knowing they face certain arrest, inevitable beatings and torture, and possible death.
However, as Master Li exhorts them,
'Dafa disciples are now right in the midst of the Fa-rectification period, and the old forces' performance has formed the most fundamental and most severe test of Dafa disciples. Whether the test can be passed is an actualisation of Dafa and of whether every Dafa disciple can be responsible to himself. And whether a person can, while breaking and eliminating the evil, step forward to validate Dafa becomes a testament about [letting go of] life and death, becomes confirmation of whether a Fa-rectification disciple can achieve Consummation, and also becomes what differentiates a God from a human. For a Dafa disciple, safeguarding and upholding the Fa is only natural. So at this moment in history, when we truly have a situation in which evil persecutes Dafa, a Dafa disciple will certainly step forward to validate the Fa in response to the persecution.'
Perhaps it is not to be wondered at that there are such willing martyrs given some of Master Li's recent statements,
'...while doing Fa-rectification, when the righteous thoughts are very pure, their supernormal abilities are comprehensively utilised. Moreover, with righteous thoughts many disciples are able to use them at will - whatever they want to use, they almost always have it. For example, to freeze those wicked evildoers that persecute Dafa disciples, they just need to say, 'freeze' or 'stay there and don't move', or point to the group of evildoers, and then they definitely won't be able to move; afterwards they just need to think 'release', and it will be lifted. Actually, you can use your will to command those evil ones who have no human nature - such as those evildoers, who are worse than beasts, who beat people to death or rape female Dafa disciples - as well as those chief evil ones. The wicked evildoers will do whatever you have them do.'
A Force for Good
Outside Chinese embassies around the world, it is a common sight to see small groups or single Falun Gong members sitting in meditation. Dressed in yellow (a colour recently banned in Paris during Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit, under pressure from the Chinese security forces), or sitting beneath yellow banners proclaiming Zhen Shan Ren, they direct their 'righteous thoughts' at the forces of evil within. Back in China, their colleagues attempting to do the same soon discover, in labour camps and psychiatric hospitals the heavy price of trying to be a force for good in an evil world. Maybe they can take comfort from the Master's words.
Be Clearheaded Dafa disciples, away with your tears,
The demon Satan has completely collapsed.
Clarify the facts, send righteous thoughts,
Expose the lies, clean out the rotten ghouls.
Li Hongzhi, September 1, 2002
The Net is Tightening
How much longer can the ferocious evil run wild?
A chill is in the autumn wind already.
The rotten ghouls are terrified within,
Despairing in their final days.
Li Hongzhi, September 14, 2002
It is easy to ridicule Falun Gong on the basis of some of Master Li Hongzhi's wilder claims and bizarre beliefs. However, overall, the emphasis for the practitioners is on cultivating virtue. Whether they hope to levitate, become gods, or merely take care of their personal health, they are told, again and again, that the way up to higher development is by means of practising truth, compassion and forebearance. Far from being evil, these are qualities that are all too rare in our self-centred consumer culture, rarer still in Communist China.
Related BBC Links
More social phenomena are under discussion at BBC Society & Culture...
A handy guide to China, courtesy of BBC News...
An alternative explanation for this phenomenon may be studied here4Human Rights in China recently published a 17-page report on the spiritual group Falun Gong, which former Chinese President Jiang Zemin banned in 1999. 'The Falun Gong Phenomenon' provides insight into the socio-cultural environment of China in the early 1990s, which paved the path for Falun Gong's rapid spread throughout the world's largest nation and led to its inevitable suppression by the Communist regime. According to the report, 'Falun Gong provided a sense of meaning and belonging to people who felt frustrated, lost, lonely and impotent in a society roiling with change, suffused with materialism and devoid of morality.'5The full teachings can be found under several hundred dedicated websites such as falun dafa.org.6A handy survey of Falun Gong's esoteric terminology is available here. 7 'However, true cultivation entails the cultivation of your heart, which is called the cultivation of Xinxing. For instance, in a person-to-person contradiction between people, you should care less about the seven emotions and the six sensory pleasures, and various desires. It is by no means easy for you to want to increase cultivation energy when you are competing and contending with others for your own personal interests. Aren't you doing the same as ordinary people? How can you increase cultivation energy? So, you should pay attention to the cultivation of Xinxing. In this way, your cultivation energy can go up and cultivation attainment can rise to a higher dimension. What is Xinxing? It covers many aspects of things, including De (virtues, a kind of matter), Ren(forbearance), awakening quality, giving, giving up all kinds of desires and all kinds of attachments which are common to ordinary people, and the ability to bear hardships. Only when every aspect of your Xinxing has been improved, can you really go up. This is one of the key causes of strengthening your energy potency.' (Li Hongzhi, Zhuan Falun). 8Volume II of 'Zhuan Falun,' or 'Turning the Law Wheel,' translated into English in 1996. It is now posted on Falun Gong's main website only in Chinese.