The media frenzy that accompanied the Olympic Games in Athens was so pervasive that for two weeks, one could be forgiven for thinking that there was no world outside of competitive sports. The Games had returned to their spiritual home, and almost as soon as they finished, preparations began for the next host nation: China. A press conference before the opening ceremony gave the opportunity for members of the Falun Gong movement to issue a plea for their plight not to be forgotten, calling on ‘the faction within the Chinese Government who are carrying out a systematic and brutal persecution of Falun Gong to stop’, to restore the ‘balance and harmony between man, nature and the divine.’ The practitioners of Falun Gong compared their treatment to that of Socrates, denounced by ‘narrow persons in Ancient Athens’ as they have been by former Chinese leader, Jiang Zemin. Greece is the most recent country in which law suits have been filed against Jiang. Plaintive Chris Cominos, a 37 year old Australian citizen, has likened the former Chinese ruler’s use of the 2008 Olympics as a cover up of human rights abuses to that of Hitler in 1936. The Chinese ambassador to Greece addressed the media after a meeting at Greece’s foreign ministry office, ‘The Olympic ideal is not related to human rights…’ he commented.
In the 90’s, the Chinese government’s crackdown on Falun Gong was well documented but more recently such human rights abuses have passed relatively unobserved by the western world. So why has Falun Gong provoked the most violent reaction from the Chinese Government since the student pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989? The answers are numerous, and from within the confines of a country with almost complete state control over the media, not always immediately forthcoming.
‘Falun Gong’ literally means the ‘Practice of the Wheel of the Dharma’ and refers to an ancient form of ‘Qigong’, the tradition of refining the body and mind through slow moving exercises and meditation. The practice (which vehemently denies religious or cult status) was introduced to the Chinese public in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, a martial arts expert who claims to have learnt his craft in the mountains under the masters of the ancient tradition of Qigong. The claims of its effects range from improved fitness and a sense of well-being to clarity of mind and reduced stress. Li’s vision of the potential of Falun Gong goes even further. In an interview with The New York Times, he referred to his art being used to ‘develop an ability to fly, to move objects by telekinesis, and to heal diseases.’ Through extensive ‘cultivation’, he claims, practitioners can open their ‘tianmu’ or third-eye, allowing them to see through other dimensions and observe objects thousands of miles away. Li claims that he can install the ‘falun’ or ‘dharma wheel’ telekinetically in the abdomens of his followers to help them throw off bad karma.
Li is keen to stress that their group is entirely organic and that there are no demands made of adherents to attain any particular level, ‘We don’t worship anyone. We don’t have any rituals. Everyone’s free to come and go, and we don’t have an organisation as such.’ An attractive proposition in a country controlled by the all-seeing, all knowing Communist Party. So much so that recent estimates have placed the number of Falun Gong practitioners in China at around 70 million, and worldwide, the total tops 100 million. Falun Gong has mass appeal, regardless of how seriously Li’s theories are taken: the number of followers in China now exceeds members of the ruling Communist Party. And therein lies the danger.
In 1999, the Communist government was shocked into action by the ease with which a large scale peaceful demonstration was organised by Falun Gong members in an attempt to gain official recognition for their activities. On April 25th 2002, some 10,000 practitioners stood quietly from dawn until late into the night outside the Zhongnanhai, the compound of the Communist Party Leadership in Beijing. From then on, Falun Gong and its power to mobilise the masses was viewed as a ‘threat to social and political stability.’ The following months saw a flurry of government propaganda, culminating in the banning of Falun Gong on July 22nd of the same year. Ye Xiaowen, Director of the Bureau of Religious Affairs of the State Council issued a statement via state controlled media that ‘Falun Gong had brainwashed and bilked followers, caused more than 1400 deaths and threatened both social and political stability.’ Few of these accusations were supported by verifiable evidence, but then they didn’t need to be; it was illegal to question the government’s actions. By the end of the month the number of arrests for apparent violation of the new law stood at around 20,000.
Defence lawyers were not permitted to file pleas of ‘not guilty’, and the punishments meted out to offenders varied from prison sentences with or without trial to terms of ‘re-education through labour’, a curious Chinese social policy whereby ‘forced labour’ is used as a tool for rehabilitation. As these human rights abuses continued, journalists were closely monitored whilst the Communist press conspired to maintain a justified, happy façade. The People’s Daily, one of the party’s national newspapers, ran endless interviews with those ‘cured’ of Falun Gong, ‘The reeducation-through-labour camp is clad with grass and trees. Some [detainees] are seen maintaining the grass, some attending deer, rabbits and birds raised on the camp, some playing basketball, and many more are attending compulsory lectures on “rights and duties of a citizen”.’ One wonders how 48 Falun Gong practitioners could have met their death in such idyllic surroundings in June and July of this year alone, according to the organisation, taking the death toll of practitioners to around 1500 since 1999. Amnesty International thinks it may have something to do with reports of the force-feeding of salt water to inmates, beatings and other punishments such as ‘forcing us to stand up for a long time…exposure to biting cold or standing in the scorching sun, hanging up in the shape of an airplane…being shocked by electric batons’, treatment all recorded by an eye witness at the Wanja Forced Labour Camp.
With the help of Amnesty, word has reached the international community about the crackdown by the Chinese government, prompting The US State Department to criticise China’s religious oppression. The Communist authorities responded by claiming that Falun Gong was not a religious movement, but a cult involved in obtaining state secrets and that American intervention amounted to little more than prying, ‘this is a typical action showing US double standards on human rights…going as far as to defend the anti-humanity evil cult.’ This international reaction to China’s brutal treatment of the group has rallied support for the Falun Gong practitioners, but are China’s concerns with Li Hongzhi’s teachings entirely unjustified?
Li’s book, now banned in China, Zhuan Falun Chronicles, is in his words, ‘the only’ way to guide personal ‘cultivation’ to a higher plain of existence. He declares that he was commissioned to come to earth by ‘a supreme being’ in order to save humanity. His views on other religions are quite simple: they are no longer relevant or understandable, and therefore, ‘you cannot be saved by them.’ Despite claims of Falun Gong being ‘open to all’, the reality is not quite the same. Opinions expressed by Li in The New York Times that ‘interracial children are the spawn of the ‘Dharma ending period’, a Buddhist term for an era of moral degeneration, angered many groups who had hitherto sympathised with Falun Gong. Mixed race children were deemed ‘defective persons’ according to an interview with German Scientology News, ‘Anybody who does not belong to his race will not be cared for. I do not just say that. It is really true. I am revealing the secret of heaven to you.’ ‘Religious’ and social theories aside, Li is treading on dangerous ground with his take on modern science and physics, claiming the earth to be ‘located at just about the centre of the cosmos’ and declaring the existence of ‘about three thousand small universes beyond this one.’
But Li’s most controversial pronouncements, and those which have left him wanted for murder in his home country relate to medicine. In his mind, ‘mankind’s poor moral standard…leads to all kinds of bizarre diseases’. He draws a distinction between ‘everyday people’ and ‘disciples’, a vocabulary which certainly has a religious ring to it, despite his assurances to the contrary, and warns against medicine for ‘disciples’, claiming ‘your diseases will be eliminated directly by me.’ Why, then, ask troubled practitioners, do people who practice Falun Gong continue to die of cancer and other illnesses? Those who survive illnesses without medical treatment (as statistically some people do) must be grateful to the Master. Those who die, perhaps weren’t paying enough attention. ‘Reading the book,’ says its author, ‘can solve all your problems.’
So if science is bound in fact and religion is bound in belief, is an objective appraisal of a movement such as Falun Gong possible? Regardless of how many of the millions of people who practice Falun Gong believe in Li’s philosophy, whether or not we agree with his beliefs (which tally with existent religions and political parties given space on the soap-box in the rest of the world), one thing remains certain: the rights to believe, the rights to protest, and the rights to be treated with respect are inalienable. As citizens of the world we have a duty to fight for the maintenance of those rights in countries where freedom of expression has been throttled by the grasp of governmental power.