China’s Spiritual Outlaws
Washington Post, July 23, 2003
By Philip Kennicott, Washington Post Staff Writer
Former Chinese president Jiang Zemin, or rather a padded cardboard box wrapped in a black T-shirt that is representing him in effigy, is getting a lecture on the details of human immolation: “We all know that hair is one of the first things that burn on a human body,” says a woman, called as a witness in a mock trial yesterday at the West Front of the Capitol.
This little fact about self-immolation matters at the moment because the Chinese government has accused the Falun Gong spiritual movement of (among many other crimes) inciting its members to burn themselves in protest. Falun Gong members, who met in Washington over the past few days to mark the fourth anniversary of a brutal repression that began under Jiang’s rule, deny the charge. And in yesterday’s mock trial they produced a videotape they claim shows, among other inconsistencies, a self-immolation victim whose hair isn’t burning the way one might expect. Conclusion: The self-immolation incident, which was widely broadcast (with devastating effect on Falun Gong’s popularity) on Chinese television, had nothing to do with Falun Gong and may have been set up, misrepresented or somehow faked.
Four years into the struggle between Falun Gong and the Chinese government, there is a sense that this has become an insular squabble, charge and countercharge, claim and rebuttal, all of it becoming rather too internecine for casual observers to sift the facts from the chaff. At a meeting in the Rayburn House Office Building on Monday, Falun Gong practitioners argued that the Chinese government’s repression has extended its long reach to the United States. They say Chinese officials hire thugs and illegal immigrants to intimidate, threaten and beat up Falun Gong believers. People told of vandalized apartments, arson, and ominous calls from Chinese consulate officials to hotel proprietors, newspaper publishers and anyone else who hosts, or supports, or helps Falun Gong spread its message.
A Chinese Embassy spokesman denies it, but there’s enough concern that Rep. Henry Hyde raised the issue of an attack on a Falun Gong practitioner in Illinois when the Republican met with Li Peng, a top Chinese official, last year. Li responded, according to sources familiar with the meeting, with a familiar line: Falun Gong is an evil cult.
If the hundreds of people in yellow T-shirts, sitting cross-legged in neat rows underneath yesterday’s braising sun and rain, feel wounded, it’s because “cult” is a label that sticks very easily. It was unveiled, in earnest, four years ago when large Falun Gong demonstrations in China so unsettled the Chinese government that it began an often-violent crackdown. But even if Jiang Zemin was on trial yesterday for the crackdown — accused of torture, economic repression, even, say his accusers, genocide — he has also managed to put Falun Gong on trial in the court of public opinion.
“Falun Gong has been outlawed by the Chinese government,” says Sun Weide, spokesman of the Chinese Embassy. “The reason for this is that this evil cult has committed many crimes. It has caused over 1,700 deaths, including those people killed by Falun Gong practitioners, including people who have burned themselves.”
These kinds of charges (vigorously denied and mostly unsubstantiated), and especially the word cult, can sow confusion and suspicion, followed by a befuddled indifference, among outsiders.
Cult is a word without much use outside the realm of religious mudslinging. Falun Gong certainly doesn’t qualify in the limited, pernicious sense of the word: It does not coerce obedience, brainwash its members, gouge them for money or compel worship of its founder, Li Hongzhi. It doesn’t wear down their egos, then build them up in the new image of the spiritually transformed. Most of the writings of Li Hongzhi, who now lives in the United States, are expressly apolitical. The basic Falun Gong motto, “Truthfulness-Compassion-Forbearance,” couldn’t be less threatening.
But Falun Gong isn’t just about these pleasant generalities. Its specific beliefs about how the body works, how science intersects with spirituality, and the benefits of practicing Falun Gong, are more controversial. Practitioners generally describe Falun Gong as a fusion of traditional Buddhist and Taoist elements, but there is a strong overlay of what — from a skeptical, outsider’s point of view — reads like pseudo-science. Li Hongzhi’s basic text, “Zhuan Falun,” frequently claims that modern science has found evidence to support spiritual claims; for instance, that humans have a “third eye” that can be opened through spiritual practice.
He also uses science to make claims about his own spiritual powers.
“I have also been tested, and the detected radiation of the generated gamma rays and thermal neutrons was 80 to 170 times more than normal matter,” he writes, though this is a rare moment of self-aggrandizement.
Michael Yang, a Falun Gong practitioner and a medical doctor trained in both Western and Eastern traditions, says that there is no particular obligation of any practitioner to believe everything in precisely the same way. As a psychiatric resident with Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, he says he has seen the benefits of Falun Gong with patients. But he has also heard the caricatures of Falun Gong from its critics.
“Aliens, supernormal abilities,” says Yang, a bit wearily. “I don’t need to defend [Li Hongzhi] for that.”
Conversations with several Falun Gong members suggest that a spectrum of belief — that some people believe after a fashion and others just believe — is perfectly acceptable within Falun Gong. That means, even though it is not considered a religion, that faith in Falun Gong is a lot like faith in any other spiritual system. Part of the challenge is figuring out one’s personal relationship to the miraculous, the unlikely and the irrational.
As for the popularity of Falun Gong among some intellectuals and scientists, Robert Oxnam, a former president of the Asia Society, speculates that the desire to join the Falun Gong movement — to be part of one of the most serious challenges to China’s authority since the protests of Tiananmen Square — may help override doubts about the particulars of practice.
“It is a little bit like what happened in the 1960s in the United States,” he says. People signed on to movements and worried about the full implications of it all afterward.
As for the Chinese government, its motivations for the repression are equally multifaceted. Two theories are generally advanced. One is about numbers, the other is about history.
The numbers theory says that any group that grows too large — at its height, Falun Gong claims it had 70 million to 100 million believers — in China will be swatted down. At the mock trial, a witness argues that Jiang was petty and jealous, that he “felt threatened by the ability of [Falun Gong] practitioners to gather in such large numbers.”
The history argument makes a parallel between Falun Gong and the Boxer and Taiping rebellions in 19th-century China. Both had spiritual, mystical components. According to scholar Frank K. Flinn of Washington University in St. Louis, the “Chinese authorities have never underestimated the power of the religious component to motivate the masses.”
Both the numbers and the history argument may have truth to them. But there seems more to it, something about Falun Gong that suggests a “perfect storm” argument as well. Falun Gong was introduced to the public in 1992 when China was suffering the ups and downs of moving towards a more capitalist system. Old social safety nets were becoming frayed. The Internet soon made it easy to spread new ideas. And Falun Gong dealt with old spiritual crises — such as envy and resentment — that had taken on new meaning as economic inequity became more pervasive.
Li Hongzhi’s writing also suggests a mechanics of moral exchange that makes Falun Gong particularly resilient. Virtue, he says, is a material white substance that surrounds the body like an energy field in another dimension. Virtue can be exchanged, almost like a commodity.
“While one person is here swearing, with this swearing, a piece of virtue from his own dimensional field leaves and goes to the other person,” he writes. “The more he swears at him, the more virtue he gives him.”
In Christianity, the meek will inherit the Earth, but who knows when, and in what fashion. With Falun Gong, the meek are constantly racking up the virtue lost by those who oppress them; suffering replenishes them.
Around 11 a.m. yesterday, before the mock trial began, a little breeze came over the Capitol lawn, a short burst of music sounded from a loudspeaker, and suddenly a crowd that had been milling around, standing for pictures, distributing signs, was quiet. From hubbub, silence and as if on cue, people were seated, hands together, faces serene.
There’s something uncanny about large groups of people doing things in precise, orderly ways. Falun Gong may have terrified the Chinese government not so much because of an explicit threat to its control but because it moved and operated by mysterious, immanent principles that mystified officialdom.
Those principles would probably mystify the U.S. politicians who have signed on to the defense of Falun Gong over the years, and the tourists who stop by the edges of the protest meeting yesterday. But, here, under the shadow of the Capitol, the people’s right to do mystifying things is not being abridged. And the more mystifying those things are, the more impressive that right is.