Why China's Falun Gong Movement Is Important

BEIJING: Continuing suppression of members of Falong Gong, a movement whose supporters continue to “step forward” to respond to their leader’s call to “achieve consummation by facing imprisonment or death,” provides clear evidence that something new, if inexplicable, is happening in China. But there is a paradox here, for this “something new” is also something very old. It is precisely because this mass cult-turned-protest-movement has a traditional resonance that it poses such a threat to the Party establishment.

When, in April 1999, ten thousand members of the Falun Gong sect appeared mysteriously in front of Zhongnanhai, the compound of the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership, to be arrested en masse, observers found it hard to explain what was going on. The overseas press corps in Beijing was used to explaining political dissidents, student protesters, disgruntled workers and disenfranchised members of the “floating population.” This mystical, crypto Buddhist/Taoist sect of middle class meditators, however, seemed to arise out of nowhere so that its origins and seriousness as a threat to China’s Party establishment were difficult to assess.

The group, it turned out, was led by an exiled patriarch, Li Hongzhi, who had conjured his cult out of traditional Chinese breathing exercises (qigong), a belief in miracle cures, nostrums about clean living, and a mish-mash of Buddhist and Taoist mysticism. As wave after wave of Falun Gong supporters arrived in Tiananmen Square to be arrested, however, what began as an aberrant event became the most widespread movement of organized protest in China since 1989.

When, like the Tianamen Square demonstrators, it met with an uncompromising government counter-attack, it soon became obvious that, however strange and fantastic its followers might seem from the outside, Party leaders viewed the movement as a menace They labeled it a xiejiao zuzhi, literally a “heretical” or “depraved” organization, a term of denigration long-reserved for “unorthodox” religious or spiritual groups based on superstition.