China and Religious Protest: The Falun Gong

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China and Religious Protest: The Falun Gong

The Conflict

A large religious movement called the Falun Gong has garnered a lot of attention in the People's Republic of China and around the world. China has determined that the organization is illegal, and has punished public practice of the religion with imprisonment.


  • China has a long history of violence and social discord associated with religious movements.
  • The Chinese government views the Falun Gong as a cult and a threat to public order.
  • Adherents to the Falun Gong regard the practice as a basic human right.


• The People's Republic of China does not recognize the right to religious practice and as a communist government does not support religious freedom.

The tension in Beijing's Tiananmen Square was palpable the morning of April 25, 2000. Plain-clothes police officers milled around the square, anticipating a possible demonstration by adherents of the outlawed group known as Falun Gong. With prearranged precision, devotees of the group emerged from the crowds of tourists, lofted Falun Gong banners above their heads, and began practicing the organization's hallmark exercises. Other demonstrators chose simply to sit and meditate. The hodgepodge group included all types of people from middle-aged women to young children.

The demonstrators separated into small clusters throughout the compound. Patrolling police officers, expecting a more concerted gathering, were momentarily confused. Scattering to the different corners of the square, they descended on the protestors with determined force, punching some, muffling others, and eventually dragging them all away. Police forced those tourists who had witnessed the affair away from the square, but not before confiscating their film. Similar outbreaks continued throughout the afternoon. By day's end the police had forcibly removed approximately one hundred demonstrators from the courtyard.

For many international observers, the combative response of the police officers was extreme and disproportionate to the actual threat of the peaceful demonstrators. Why, they asked, did the government feel so threatened by a seemingly harmless group whose motto is "truth, compassion, and forbearance?" To understand the government's response to Falun Gong, it is necessary first to understand China's religious heritage.

Historical Background

China's Religious Heritage

While Falun Gong claims to be an "advanced cultivation system of mind, body and spirit," officials in China's capital city of Beijing have derisively labeled it a harmful cult. Whether or not such a classification is appropriate it does reveal the government's attitude toward the organization and in part explains Beijing's recent reaction. Falun Gong, officials claim, is a modern version of the superstitious, anti-government religions that have colored China's past.

In the nineteenth century, China was home to many religions and philosophical traditions. The three most important, however, were Confucianism, Daoism, also known as Taoism, and Buddhism. Whereas Confucianism stressed social harmony and organization, Buddhism and Daoism focused on mystical, otherworldly pursuits. Government rituals and intellectual treatises helped define each of these belief systems, yet for most people, the three were not mutually exclusive. Instead, Chinese religion consisted of an amalgamation of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism. Each contributed its own gods and saints to the limitless pantheon of deities. At various life-stages and in different circumstances, individuals would rely on one or more of these three traditions.

Not surprisingly, this fluid, malleable religious tradition was vulnerable to reinterpretation according to local needs and desires. At times, disgruntled individuals channeled popular religious conviction against the government. In other words, religion in China has often been the vehicle for mass dissent and rebellion. The nineteenth century was particularly rich in these types of religious movements. Often shrouded in secrecy, certain religious orders launched violent attacks against local officials and citizens. Two of the best known of these religious groups were the Taipings and the Boxers.

In 1850 Hong Xiuquan (Hung Hsiu-ch'uan) and his followers, known as the Taipings, attempted to establish the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace, or Taiping Tianguo. Hong claimed to be the son of God and the younger brother of Jesus Christ. He explained that God had instructed him to overthrow the imperial government, spread his religion, and establish heaven on earth. Though Hong couched his teachings in Christian terms, his theology was a conglomeration of both traditional Chinese and Western ideas. Hong's rebellion, which lasted well over a decade, eventually claimed the lives of millions of individuals and nearly toppled the central government.

In 1900 another group of devotees captured the government's attention. Known as the Boxers United in Righteousness, members of the group were frustrated over the growing influence of western missionaries. Drawing on supernatural powers, the Boxers believed they could rid China of Christianity and all foreign influence. Leaders of the movement claimed that with one hundred days of spiritual and physical training their followers would become immune to bullets, making them virtually invincible. Through an intricate program of rituals, incantations, and magic ceremonies the Boxers indoctrinated thousands into their ranks. The Chinese imperial court, frustrated over Western demands, gave implicit support to the Boxers, though the group was beyond the ability of the government to control. For several months during 1900 the Boxers attacked and killed any individual they deemed impure and unorthodox. Eventually, an alliance of Western powers militarily suppressed the group, but not until the Boxers had shown the immense influence of popular religion among the Chinese public.

Suppression of Religion in China

In the early twentieth century Chinese intellectuals began attacking religion as irrational and superstitious. Founders of the 1922 Great Federation of Anti-Religionists promised "to sweep away the poison and harm of religion on behalf of human society. We profoundly deplore the fact that in human society religion has spread a poison which is, ten times, a hundred times, a thousand times worse than floods or ferocious animals." Not incidentally, the federation's membership included many future leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

With the formation of the communist state in 1949, China's religious landscape changed drastically. Though the Chinese Communist Party claimed to protect freedom of religion, government leaders made a sharp distinction between "superstitions" and the more orthodox "integrated religious systems" including Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. Officials believed the so-called superstitious folk religions not only wasted the resources of the nation but also attracted potential anti-government rebels such as occurred with the Taipings and the Boxers. As the Deputy Mayor of Shanghai explained in 1953, "Cults have been deceiving the masses under the cover of the burning of [incense], kowtowing before their shrines, living on vegetarian diets, and saying Buddhist prayers while in effect their organizations were actually engaged secretly in counter-revolutionary activities. …" For this reason, the government outlawed and suppressed all unofficial religions.

Besides outlawing "superstition" the new government allowed and even promoted the persecution of officially recognized "integrated religious systems." For instance, though the constitution guaranteed that "every citizen of the People's Republic of China shall have freedom of religious belief," the government also explained that "rural land belonging to ancestral shrines, temples, monasteries, [and] churches … shall be requisitioned." Believers were frequently harassed, interrogated, and blacklisted. At the same time, Beijing promoted the establishment of "loyal" churches, ministered by reliable supporters of the CCP, to replace congregations deemed too independent. In short, though the government theoretically allowed certain churches to exist, it sought to regulate and control them.

Nowhere was this policy more evident than in the Chinese province of Tibet. In 1959 one of Tibet's preeminent Buddhist leaders, the Dalai Lama, fled into exile to escape the persistent persecution of the Chinese government. Beijing responded by placing the other top Buddhist official, the Panchen Lama, under heavy surveillance. For the rest of his life, the Panchen Lama remained a virtual prisoner of the communist regime, unable to exercise complete authority within his religious community. When he died in 1989 leaders in Beijing quickly responded by selecting the new Panchen Lama. Besides controlling Tibet's leadership, the Chinese government has systematically destroyed approximately six thousand temples and killed several thousand Tibetans.

Catholics have experienced similar domination by the Chinese government. In an attempt to undermine the influence of the pope, Beijing established its own "patriotic" Catholic church in 1957. Within this church the government has final control over the selection and over the ordination of priests and bishops, despite the wishes of the Vatican. Meanwhile, the original pro-Vatican Catholic Church, known in China as the "church of silence," has secretly worked to maintain doctrinal control and influence over its followers. Nevertheless, members of both the "patriotic" and the "silent" Catholic churches have complained of persecution and been singled out as foreign spies working "under the cloak of religion." Not incidentally, in 2000 Pope John Paul II announced plans to canonize one hundred twenty Chinese martyrs of anti-Catholic persecution.

Opposition to organized religion reached a feverish pitch during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. The Cultural Revolution, led by Mao Zedong, was an attempt to reinvigorate Chinese communism and often included the destruction of cultural icons associated with the pre-communist era. Seen as a lingering remnant of the old society, religion was a common target of the Cultural Revolution's zealous "red guards." These "guards," consisting of thousands of young men and women, destroyed innumerable temples, churches, and mosques throughout China. Centuries-old artifacts and relics fell victim to the unchecked enthusiasm of the "revolutionary" legions. The fact that any vestiges of religion survived this tumultuous decade is remarkable.

Current Religious Policy of the People's Republic of China

Following the 1976 death of Communist Party leader Mao Zedong, China underwent a rapid series of economic and political reforms. Simultaneously, Beijing began looking more favorably on organized religion. For the last two decades the government has encouraged the restoration of old temples and mosques. It believes such a change in policy, a significant departure from previous years, will encourage tourism and appease minority groups. Consequently, Daoism and other traditional Chinese religions have experienced a revival, and foreign religions, such as Islam and Christianity, have grown immensely.

Though the government has become more tolerant of major religions it has maintained its skepticism toward minor sects. Claiming that unofficial religions are frequently covers for anti-government forces and organized crime, officials have arrested and imprisoned various sect leaders. Although Beijing no longer sees religion as inherently bad, the government is still wary of religious-led disruption and possible rebellion.

The Emergence and Suppression of Falun Gong

Recently, adherents of the group Falun Gong have disturbed the ruling authorities in Beijing. Alternatively known as Falun Dafa or "Law of the Wheel," Falun Gong is an organization of individuals dedicated to the teachings of Li Hongzhi, founder of the movement. According to the group's publications, Falun Gong originated in prehistoric times, but was not widely understood until "Master Li" published Zhuan Falun—the Falun Gong bible—in 1992. Before establishing his organization Li had worked as a government grain clerk in relative anonymity. At the same time he became increasingly interested in the healing powers of traditional breathing exercises. By 1992 Li had begun teaching others his methods and assembling a group of followers.

Li claims that through a set of five exercises an individual can cultivate his or her mind, body, and spirit. The exercises he advocates entail slow-motion martial arts movements that emphasize precision, fluidity, and breathing control. For example, the exercise known as "Buddha Showing Thousand Hands" requires the practitioner to "open all the energy channels and mobilize energy circulation in the body by stretching the body gradually and relaxing it suddenly." Another exercise, "Way of Strengthening Supernormal Powers," is "a sitting tranquil exercise to strengthen supernormal powers and energy potency." Li suggests that through these exercises the individual can cultivate the values of zhen-shan-ren, or "truth-compassion-forbearance." Furthermore, Li asserts that the practice of Falun Dafa will lead not only to physical and mental health, increasing one's moral standards, but also to spiritual enlightenment. The group's literature promises that, eventually, practitioners of Falun Dafa will acquire a small falun, or "wheel of law," in their lower abdomen. This wheel will continuously revolve and endlessly cultivate the powers of the devotee.

Since 1992 Falun Gong's popularity has soared. The organization claims to have one hundred million practitioners in more than thirty countries worldwide. While it is unlikely the actual number is that high, Falun Gong has clearly penetrated every level of Chinese society. Its adherents are not radical political activists, angry minorities, or pro-democracy students. Instead, most are middle-aged men and women who represent China's middle class and who are attracted by the simple promise of enlightenment. Whether factory workers or housewives, they have been loyal supporters of the government and do not consider themselves a threat to society.

Though Falun Gong has attracted many adherents and shares much in common with other traditional Chinese belief systems the government does not see it as a mainstream religious movement. Instead, officials have highlighted the more eccentric aspects of the group. For instance, the government claims Falun Gong has caused the deaths of more than fifteen hundred individuals either through suicide or through the refusal of medical treatment. State television has issued reports on the murderous activities of some Falun Gong members. In one television program producers showed graphic pictures of a Falun Gong individual cutting open his own stomach with a pair of scissors hoping to find the "wheel of law" in his abdomen.

Yet the most offensive aspect of the organization, from the government's point of view, is its overwhelming popularity. Simply because it is influential, claiming a larger membership than the Chinese Communist Party, Falun Gong has the potential to challenge the government. As Wang Ruoshui, a former deputy editor-in-chief of the Communist Party's newspaper, explained, "[government officials] are emphasizing the Falun Gong's tight organization, as if this is really terrifying. The message they are sending is that any organization outside the system is illegal." Government leaders are also wary of the organization's use of the Internet, taking Falun Gong beyond the rigid control of party media. Most alarming, however, is the prospect that Falun Gong is winning followers among the highest levels of government. In 1999 President Jiang Zemin discovered that the navy had been printing copies of Zhuan Falun. He also found that several party members were active supporters of the movement. Some sources claim as many as seven hundred thousand members of the Chinese Communist Party belong to Falun Gong, including several high-ranking military leaders and at least one Politburo standing committee member. For these reasons the government has continued to target the organization in newspapers, television programs, and in official announcements.

Falun Gong members have not passively accepted government-sponsored misinformation regarding their organization. Following a 1998 television program critical of Falun Gong the group sponsored a large protest outside the television studio. In 1999, when an academic journal published an article outlining the dangers of cults, Falun Gong practitioners again launched a large demonstration. According to government sources Falun Gong was responsible for at least eighteen separate protests during 1998 and 1999.

Despite the frequency of such protests, most were limited in size and intensity. Consequently, the massive protest of April 1999, truly surprised the government. On the morning of April 25, approximately ten thousand Falun Gong practitioners descended on Zhongnanhai, the office and residence compound for most of China's top leaders. Participants remained calm as they sat and meditated throughout the courtyard. Instead of signs and placards, each carried a small cushion to sit on. Soon the line of demonstrators extended over two miles long. The police, caught off-guard and bewildered by the demonstrators' methods, allowed the protest to go on throughout the day and into the evening. As one participant quoted in the New York Times explained, "What we stand for is good for the nation and good for society, so how can we threaten anyone? [The government officials] don't understand us. We want understanding." Local residents were equally confused about the demonstrations. "They're crazy," said one such observer, "but there are a lot of them, so the government has to listen."

Not surprisingly, the government did listen. The response, however, was not what the protestors anticipated. Rather than sitting with the group's leaders for an open dialogue government officials responded by targeting Falun Gong members for increased attack. Shortly after the massive April protest the government sent a directive to various business, government, and factory leaders asking each of them to identify Falun Gong adherents within their organizations. Many work leaders, fearing unnecessary interruptions in business, were reluctant to do so. Nevertheless, by early summer those individuals partial to Falun Gong were increasingly on the defensive.

In midsummer the government stepped up its persecution of Falun Gong. On July 22, 1999, the Ministry of Civil Affairs issued a declaration that explained, "the Falun Dafa Institute, and the Falun Gong organization under its manipulation, is an unlawful organization that has to be outlawed." The declaration continued, saying, "No one may hang or post in any place … signs that advertise Falun Dafa. No one may distribute in any place … propaganda materials that advertise Falun Dafa. No one may assemble in any place people for promoting Falun Dafa activities. … Activities … for the purpose of protecting and advertising Falun Dafa are prohibited." It concluded with a final warning stating, "Those whose acts of violating the above rules constitute a crime shall be held accountable for their crime; and if their acts do not constitute a crime, they shall be disciplined or punished according to the law."

On October 31, 1999, the government completed the legal suppression of Falun Gong with a new anti-cult law. The law called on the judicial system and the police to be on guard for cult activities and be prepared to act against them. It also decreed jail sentences of three to seven years for cult members who disrupted public order, and sentences of at least seven years for the leaders of such organizations. Not surprisingly, many have accused the government of applying the law retroactively in the prosecution of Falun Gong leaders and sympathizers.

As the government passed such laws against Falun Gong the police began rounding up and arresting members of the organization. According to Falun Gong reports police have arrested more than thirty-five thousand followers since July 1999. At least five thousand of those were allegedly sent directly to labor-camps without trial. As Gail Rachlin, a Falun Gong spokesperson in New York, explained, "In the one year since [the April] gathering, we have come to witness the Chinese government execute one of the largest, harshest and most arbitrary persecutions in modern history." For their part, officials claim Chinese courts have tried 2,591 cases related to Falun Gong. Of the ninety-nine they have concluded, the judges have sentenced eighty-four individuals to prison—some for ten years or more. Human rights groups have been concerned over the number of people sent to prison and for the treatment they have received. According to the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), reports of torture have become common, including the use of cattle prods and drug injections. According to a Hong Kong human rights group, at least sixteen Falun Gong individuals have died in police custody since April 1999.

Recent History and the Future

Despite the efforts of the government and the police, protests led by Falun Gong supporters continue to occur in China. Though no accurate tally is available, the official Chinese news agency has admitted the protests have become a nearly uncontrollable problem. "Since July 22, 1999, Falun Gong members have been causing trouble on and around Tiananmen Square in central Beijing nearly every day," the agency reported. "Some of the troublemakers were practicing Falun Gong, some were protesting, banners in hand and shouting slogans, and some were even attempting to detonate explosives." In the days leading up to the one-year anniversary of the April 1999 protest, demonstrations increased in frequency and participants. On April 13, 2000, police arrested more than two hundred individuals in downtown Beijing, kicking and punching many of them. Less than two weeks later an additional one hundred protestors converged on Tiananmen Square, again facing arrest and detention. Though these protests are less sizable than the ten thousand-member sit-in of 1999, they are nonetheless symbolic of the enduring strength of the Falun Gong movement.

What, then, is the future of Falun Gong in China? According to China's Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Sun Yuxi, "[China's] struggle to combat the Falun Gong cult has registered a success." Sun explains that ninety-eight percent of the group's adherents have left Falun Gong, leaving a small minority to blame for "creating trouble." Such claims may not be simple bravado. A recent poll reported by Voices of China shows sixty-three percent of Chinese have a negative opinion toward Falun Gong and forty-seven percent believe it is harmful to Chinese society. Facing a determined government and an unsupportive populace, it may be safe to assume Falun Gong will simply disinte-grate. Even Li Hongzhi has dropped from the public arena recently, living in secrecy in New York as his movement struggles to find new leadership. Falun Gong may soon join the Taipings and the Boxers in China's dustbin of history.

On the other hand persecution and martyrdom frequently lead to increased devotion and even public sympathy. For example, while sixty-three percent of Chinese have a negative opinion toward Falun Gong, only thirty-one percent agree with the government's handling of the situation and sixty-two percent feel the government banned the organization purely for political reasons. In other words, though they may not agree with the group's actions, many people apparently feel some degree of sympathy toward Falun Gong. Furthermore, as one journalist pointed out, "a lot of Falun Gong practitioners were not originally in opposition to the government, [but] they are now. … The government drew a line, and they were on the other side of it." The government's actions have also led to increased international attention on the group. Falun Gong study groups have sprung up worldwide, and the organization continues to grow. Many international adherents are supportive of their Chinese counterparts. Some have chosen to travel to China to publicly protest the government's actions. With their foreign passports, they know their jail sentences will be short and relatively painless. In fact, some view prison as part of their purification process.

Whatever the future of Falun Gong, the group's conflict with the Chinese government has highlighted existing tensions in China. Communism, it appears, no longer has a monopoly on the people's loyalty, and individuals are looking elsewhere for sources of inspiration and relief. Falun Gong has also revealed the ruling party's determination to retain control over organized religion. Like Falun Gong practitioners, Christians, Muslims, and Tibetan Buddhists have experienced increased persecution since the Falun Gong protests of 1999, including arrest and imprisonment. While the government officially protects freedom of religion, the nation's leaders are still very much aware of the potentially rebellious power of popular spiritual belief.


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David L.Kenley


1850 The Taipings attempt to establish the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace, leading to a decade-long rebellion that costs millions of lives and topples the central Chinese government.

1900 Boxers United in Righteousness attack and kill foreigners and other individuals deemed impure or un-orthodox because of religious beliefs in the Boxer Rebellion.

1949 China's communist government is formed. "Unofficial" religions are outlawed and suppressed as deceitful and destructive.

1966-76 The Cultural Revolution, led by Mao Zedong, destroys temples and churches.

1992 The Zhuan Falun, the Fulon Gong bible, is published.

1999-2000 As the popularity and publicity of the Fulon Gong movement grows, the Chinese government asserts that it was a threat to order, as "cults" like the Taipings and the Boxers have been in the past. Arrests and imprisonment of Fulon Gong members increase.

The Question of Religious Extremism

China is not alone in its efforts to suppress a minority religious movement. France, Germany, and Belgium have all created commissions that investigate newly created religious sects. France recently passed a bill giving the government the authority to dissolve religious groups identified as cults that foster a "state of mental or physical dependence." Pakistan has the Blasphemy Law, which imposes the death penalty for defamatory actions including the profession of belief in prohibited faiths. Russia's Religion Law imposes a complicated registration process on all religions that, according to its critics, was designed to squelch all but the Russian Orthodox Church. And, in Uzbekistan, over five thousand people have been imprisoned under provisions of the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations. Primarily targeting orthodox Muslims, the law forbids "ritual dress" in public, among other restrictions. These are only a few examples of laws currently enforced that were written to protect the public from the potential violence that most governments believe is the inevitable result of religious extremism.

What these governments fear is fanaticism, a devotion to faith so extreme that public order and safety are threatened. Legislators worldwide point to cults like the Aum Shinrikyo in Japan, the Buddhist splinter group in Japan responsible for releasing poisonous gas into the Tokyo subway system in 1995, as evidence that cults encourage violence. Also frequently cited are groups such as the People's Temple Christian Church, founded by Jim Jones, whose nine hundred members committed mass suicide in 1978, and Uganda's Movement for the Extreme Restoration of the Ten Commandments, which put to death nearly one thousand members in March 2000. Even though these are widely acknowledged as extreme examples, they are still used as proof that the religious movements identified as cults—groups defined as an elite society that form around a self-appointed, dogmatic leader that may use psychological coercion to indoctrinate and retain members—are inherently dangerous.

As hazardous as some cult members have proven to be to themselves and to the public, the laws designed to guard against their excesses have resulted in the restriction of religious freedom and political voice that often accompanies a religious movement. Whether by design or by practice, laws that restrict religious expression often result in the politicization of the faith being repressed. As the United States Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad notes, "In societies where the government imposes strict political ideology and control over the populace, including on religious matters, many individuals and communities of faith operate underground and risk harassment, detention, and imprisonment." This in turn can lead to the very violence the laws sought to prevent as suppression almost inevitably fuels fanaticism.

This paradox led the United Nations to appoint a Special Rapporteur on the Elimination of all Forms of Religious Intolerance. While this recently-created office recognizes that the "question of religious extremism" is one of the fundamental issues it will address, it also notes that such extremism needs to be examined within the "larger context of the economic, social, and political conditions that foster it." By doing so, it hopes to discover the root causes of religious fanaticism and prevent its potentially violent expression.

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China and Religious Protest: The Falun Gong

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