Thirty years after the onset of the reform and opening policies that have made China the most rapidly rising economic power in the history of the world, Falun Gong is arguably the most visible face of dissent with the Chinese Communist Party commonly encountered outside China. Yet despite its prominence it remains poorly understood, even among well-informed members of the public. David Ownby has therefore filled a remarkable public service with Falun Gong and the Future of China, his timely, well-researched and balanced volume about the Falun Gong movement, its origins and its contest with the Chinese communist regime.
Ownby is arguably the foremost expert on this movement, which combines elements of traditional Chinese spirituality with meditative practices and ritual body movements that he terms “body work.” He traces Falun Gong back to its origins in northeast China and has combed through the various versions of the biography of its founder, Li Hongzhi, born in 1952, a one-time trumpeter in the propaganda band of the forestry police from Jilin Province. Originally, as Ownby shows, Falun Gong was only one strand of the Qigong movement that spread rapidly in post-Mao China and was initially tolerated and even promoted as a form of physical fitness and “sport.”
David Ownby’s first and most important contribution, I believe, is to put this movement in context. He does so in two ways: first, he places it in a line of syncretistic Chinese millenarian movements that meld Taoism and Buddhism with “body work” and a moral message, dating back to the White Lotus movement that rebelled against the Qing Empire more than two centuries ago; then he traces the rise of Qigong as a component of the professionalization of traditional Chinese medicine in the 1950s and its explosion as a popular movement under charismatic leadership in the post-Mao reform era.
Qigong involves practices that attempt to manipulate the esoteric energy of “qi” (literally, breath or air) that according to traditional Chinese metaphysical beliefs pervades the universe. Efforts to systematize these practices and provide them with the legitimacy accorded the professionalization of traditional Chinese medicine were submerged by the Cultural Revolution but gained momentum in its aftermath. By the late 1980s Qigong claimed millions of adherents who followed dozens of Qigong masters. Li Hongzhi initially aligned himself with this movement, but went further by providing a spiritual text called the Zhuan Falun (“The Scroll of the Wheel of Law” or the “Wheel of Dharma”) to systematize his doctrine. The first edition of the Zhuan Falun appeared in 1993.
More broadly, Ownby aligns Falun Gong with the struggles of the Chinese state with so-called heterodox movements going back to dynastic times. God and Caesar never eyed each other from a respectful distance in traditional China. While Confucius urged his followers to keep a respectful distance from the realm of the spirits, China’s literati-bureaucrats and the Son of Heaven always had a difficult time managing popular religion. They could neither leave it alone nor embrace it. Then as now, they were skeptical of its claims and deeply suspicious of its adherents. More than one millenarian movement gave rise to an uprising that shook the dynastic foundations. The founder of the Ming, Zhu Yuanzhang, arose out of just such a sect before he turned against his followers and embraced orthodox Confucianism upon assuming power in 1368. Likewise, mid 19th-century Taiping rebels embraced elements of Christianity as they proclaimed the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace that nearly toppled the Qing Dynasty.
Falun Gong was well placed to fill the void left behind when the frenzy of the Cultural Revolution yielded way to money worship in the transition from Mao to Deng. It combined elements of the Chinese religious spiritual tradition in the Dharma wheel of Buddhism with moralistic preaching wrapped up in a cloak of scientism that promised physical and not just spiritual health. Falun Gong appeals to traditional values and spiritual beliefs together with a modernistic appeal to a science of the spirit and body. For that reason, the movement attracts those whom China’s westernizing and commercializing bent has left behind. No matter whether people’s assorted aches and pains are not amenable to modern medical practice or whether modern medicine is simply economically out of reach in China’s increasingly polarized society, the solace found in Falun Gong’s moral message of “Truth, Goodness and Forbearance” stands as a rebuke to contemporary Chinese reality. By 1999 , Li had built a network of 28,262 grassroots “practice centres” and 1,900 “training stations” in China. There can be little doubt that the movement attracted millions of adherents, including many veteran officials and party members, including members of the army and police.
Falun Gong’s rise, however, has been just one part of a widespread spiritual or religious revival in post-Mao China. Churches and mosques as well as traditional temples are filled to overflowing despite the continued insistence on atheism as the official creed of the Chinese Communist Party. In line with its open policy of reform the party has become more tolerant of religion than in the militantly iconoclastic days of Mao Zedong’s rampaging Red Guards. At certain moments, the party has even encouraged religious organizations to fill the void in social services left by China’s headlong rush into market economics. As a way to reduce political pressure and mitigate public demands, since Tiananmen and the fall of the Berlin Wall the CCP has acquiesced and even embraced private life and enjoyment. A lifestyle that includes privacy also entails a degree of toleration for private religious practice.
The result of this was a massive crackdown, unlike anything since the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. This repressive campaign was notably documented by the Canadian journalist Ian Johnson in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize in 2001, which he partially reprises in his book Wild Grass. On the decree of the Central Committee on June 10, 1999, an office was set up (known as the “6-10 office,” in reference to the date of the decree) to extirpate the Falun Gong organization and to eliminate its practice from public life. Officials at every rung of the CCP hierarchy were held personally liable should any Falun Gong practitioner end up in Beijing to demonstrate or petition the central authorities. The belief system and its practices were denounced in the party and state media, and public pressure was used to force practitioners to recant their beliefs. Arrests and torture followed, as local officials competed to demonstrate their loyalty to the party decree. Once party officials were aware that controlling the behavior of Falun Gong followers was the price of their own political survival, practitioners were put under surveillance, detained, and submitted to physical as well as psychological pressure to keep them under control. The scope and severity of this campaign leave little doubt that widespread reports of torture and death are credible. While I might personally discount the claims that Falun Gong practitioners were specifically targeted for execution and organ harvesting, once the full weight of the Chinese state was deployed against the movement and its followers, systematic human rights abuse necessarily followed. As documented both by Ownby and Johnson, Chinese lawyers were expressly forbidden to take up Falun Gong cases. Lacking even the minimal protections afforded by the Chinese legal system, the followers of Falun Gong face a public security system backed with blanket impunity.
Unfortunately, Ownby adds little to our understanding of the party’s backlash. His analysis of the epic confrontation between the CCP and Falun Gong is the weakest part of the book.
For Ownby, context is everything, and he suggests that the dénouement was all but inevitable, given the traditional response of the Chinese state to so-called heterodox movements. He suggests that Li Hongzhi and Falun Gong overreached himself by demanding recognition and registration in its own right. I agree. Ownby suggests that Li may have lulled himself into false optimism by his longstanding cultivation of senior party officials including, most importantly, elements of the Ministry of Public Security. However, Ownby analyzes Li largely as a charismatic religious figure, dedicated to spreading his own message, rather than as a political figure looking to attain worldly power; he therefore leaves us with the suggestion that the threat perceived by the CCP was no different than the threat perceived from heterodox religion by the traditional dynastic state, which has always viewed Chinese popular religion with ambivalent hostility.
Here I disagree. The party was reacting to the transparent threat to its monopoly over organization, and the implicit threat that autonomously organized civil society represented. In this case Falun Gong instantiated the political threat involved by organizing a demonstration of 10,000 people overnight right outside the gates of the party without the party’s awareness. This is what Jiang was unable to tolerate.
There is nonetheless the suggestion implied by then Premier Zhu Rongji’s willingness to meet with the representatives of the demonstrators that a compromise involving the co-optation of the movement might have been possible. This is most likely what Li Hongzhi must have been aiming for. If he was, then the possibility remains that Li believed the co-opter could be turned into the co-optee. That is my suspicion.
But Ownby systematically declines to analyze the political motives of Li or Jiang. Some of his reasoning is sound. First, he bases much of his research on careful fieldwork and ethnography, and Li’s motives remain opaque to direct research. Second, Ownby suggests that Li flirted with religious, apocalyptic explanations for the repression. This also is a fair judgement.
However, some clues are hidden in Ownby’s account of the unfolding Falun Gong reaction to massive Chinese state repression. For nearly two years, Falun Gong’s reaction focused on criticizing only Jiang Zemin. The group’s so-called “nine critiques” of the CCP were published only after Jiang was succeeded definitively by Hu Jintao but the repression directed by the CCP Central Committee’s 6-10 office continued. Here the suggestion seems to be that before President Jiang stepped aside, Li still harboured some hope of reconciliation with the CCP.
Moreover, the form of this eventual challenge to the legitimacy of the CCP is deeply instructive, highlighting Falun Gong leader Li’s self-consciously political role. The choice of the term “nine critiques” is not accidental. Anyone in China who is over the age of 50 would recognize the term as the language used for the nine critiques published by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party against the Communist Party of the Soviet Union between 1962 and 1965, under the personal direction of Mao Zedong. These critiques formed a corpus disputing the legitimacy of the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev and the CPSU over the world communist movement, substituting the legitimacy of Mao and the Chinese revolution, and formed an important backdrop to the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution. While Ownby rightly dismisses Li’s critique as a rather banal and unoriginal effort in the annals of anti-communism, the intent to challenge the legitimacy of the party and its leadership is transparently telegraphed by the choice of term.
The Falun Gong movement is today something of a paradox. It is firmly rooted in a rather nativist and sinocentric view of the universe but it is now largely centred outside China. Ownby documents the growth of the movement outside China since Li Hongzhi took up permanent residence outside China in 1995. Li is reputed to be living in New Jersey, but has rarely made public appearances since the CCP crackdown in 1999. Ownby has conducted surveys and ethnographic fieldwork among Falun Gong adherents, who are still overwhelmingly drawn from the Chinese diaspora. Since the repression initiated by the communist authorities in China, the movement has become increasingly adept and sophisticated at using the language of universal human rights to defend its cause and the lives of its adherents. Some of this contradiction is apparent in the pageantry of its annual Chinese New Year extravaganza that it mounts in various cities throughout North America including Radio City Music Hall in New York. This is at once a celebration of the Chinese tradition aimed at a broad audience and also a martyrology of the Falun Gong movement.
For the moment and, I believe, for the foreseeable future, the CCP seems to have won the apocalyptic struggle for the organizational control of China. While its ideological grasp is less complete, it is not at all likely that it will fall to the Falun Gong. Instead, the Chinese state seethes disconcertedly while the Falun Gong movement integrates itself into the variegated ethnic, political and spiritual landscape of the contemporary West. Outside its initial base, the movement may be able to win an occasional skirmish with the Chinese state, either through numerous lawsuits launched against Chinese officials or through occasional media embarrassments. More than likely, each confrontation leaves both sides convinced of the rightness of their cause. Nevertheless some echoes of the millenarian message preached by the Falun Gong are likely to resound long after the CCP has relinquished its grip on Chinese society. In the interim we are destined to witness a continual tension between the material aggrandizement of the Chinese state, together with many sectors of society, and the spiritual yearnings of those not sated or simply dissatisfied with mere wealth. In time, Ownby implies, the Chinese state may learn the truth of forbearance, and learn to leave popular religion well enough alone.