Aug 1, 2018

Falun Gong still worries China, despite efforts to crush the sect

The Economist
September 1, 2018

TUCKED away in a corner on Gerrard Street, in the heart of London’s Chinatown, three middle-aged Chinese women sit on the ground, their legs tightly crossed, in silent meditation. A deafening loudspeaker behind them blasts out a stream of invective against the Chinese Communist Party. Before long, one of them gets up and starts handing out flyers to passers-by. But pedestrians from China who are approached by the woman grimace and dart away. Most do not even bother to glance at the meditators, who are adherents of Falun Gong, a spiritual practice which China banned in 1999 and calls an “evil cult”.

Such a brusque response should offer some solace to China’s government, which has been trying for nearly two decades to crush Falun Gong, a movement that once enjoyed widespread mainstream acceptance. The ruthless campaign, however, has significantly weakened, but not destroyed, the sect. Chinese officials still worry about its influence at home. Official lists of proscribed cults still put Falun Gong at the top. But it is the sect’s activities abroad that are an even bigger, and growing, concern for the Communist Party.

Officials like to tar Falun Gong with the same brush as apocalyptic cults such as America’s Branch Davidians and Aum Shinrikyo in Japan, but it shows no sign of the violent extremes associated with those sects. It is likely that the Chinese government overstates the comparison as a way of undermining the appeal of a movement that it sees not so much as a threat to society, but as a challenge to the party itself. As Carl Minzner of Fordham University puts it in a new book, Falun Gong has become “by far the most organised” among anti-Communist movements within the Chinese diaspora. Chinese dissidents in exile are prone to factious squabbles; they find it very hard to unite. Falun Gong shows little obvious sign of disunity.

Gong underground

It is difficult to assess how much of a following Falun Gong retains in China. So brutal has the government’s campaign against it been—including the imprisonment of thousands of Falun Gong followers—that practitioners are extremely wary of proclaiming their beliefs openly. In the 1990s Falun Gong may have had millions of adherents. Some of them were party members and officials. Students and staff met on university campuses to take part in Falun Gong meditation. Massimo Introvigne of the Centre for Studies on New Religions, a think-tank in Italy, says that the current following in China is probably only about 5% of what it was then. Even so, the numbers remain large enough to alarm the government. Every few weeks Chinese-language media report on recent arrests of Falun Gong suspects. In May a woman from the southern province of Guizhou was sentenced to a year in prison for sending pro-Falun Gong messages to more than 2,000 people on WeChat, a social-media platform. In July three women in Beijing were each sentenced to between three and four years in jail for distributing the sect’s literature at a market.

Overseas the movement, which has a large unofficial headquarters in hilly woodland in upstate New York, has been expanding its public profile (pictured are followers marching through Washington, DC, in June). In the early 2000s practitioners in America launched multi-language news media such as Epoch Times, a newspaper, and NTD, a television station. These have grown to rival China’s state media in their reach abroad. In 2006 followers created a pro-Falun Gong cultural group called Shen Yun Performing Arts. It has put on shows of traditional Chinese dance and music (spiced up with anti-Communist themes) before capacity audiences at prestigious venues. Next year the troupe is due to perform in 81 cities in four continents. Overseas adherents have also been adept at lobbying Western politicians. In 2009 Canadian legislators set up a bipartisan “Friends of Falun Gong” association.

One of China’s biggest anxieties about Falun Gong is that it is led by someone living outside China over whom it has no control: Li Hongzhi, a 67-year-old former government clerk in a grain-procurement office in north-eastern China. Mr Li founded Falun Gong in 1992. It was then no more than a quasi-Buddhist spiritual movement. Adherents would try to gain enlightenment by reading the works of “Master Li” (said to be able to walk through walls) and engaging in slow-motion exercise routines, often in groups in public. Mr Li fled to America a couple of years before the sect was banned, and remains active. In a speech in June to thousands of followers at a stadium in Washington, he praised practitioners in China for keeping their faith despite repression by the “evil” party.

It was only in response to the party’s efforts to eradicate it that Falun Gong turned anti-Communist. In April 1999 thousands of followers protested outside Zhongnanhai, the party’s headquarters in Beijing, about the arrest of Falun Gong activists in the nearby port of Tianjin. It was the biggest demonstration in the capital’s heart since the pro-democracy movement of 1989. Although it had no political aim, it spooked the party. Chinese leaders felt threatened by what they saw as a “competing ideology”, says Anastasia Lin, a Canadian human-rights advocate (and winner of the Miss World Canada pageant in 2015) who practises Falun Gong. Three months later China banned the sect. Thereafter, Mr Li began openly attacking the party.

Among Chinese diplomats based abroad, monitoring Falun Gong’s activities and combating its influence is treated as an important duty. They put pressure on venues to cancel Shun Yun’s performances (sometimes successfully) and not to allow speeches by Falun Gong adherents. In 2015 Chinese officials denied Ms Lin a visa to take part in a Miss World contest in China. Last year the Chinese embassy in London told a student society at Durham University not to allow her to speak in a public debate (she did anyway). A Falun Gong practitioner in Calgary, Canada, says she believes she has seen Chinese spies try to infiltrate the sect in her city. She says some of them are “pretty conspicuous”, giving themselves away by not knowing the correct posture for meditating.

In recent years, from New York to Hong Kong, “anti-cult” stalls have become an increasingly common sight in public places where Falun Gong practitioners gather. They usually have a handful of staff, who distribute anti-Falun Gong literature and display photographs aimed at making adherents look unhinged. Organisers deny that they are agents of the Chinese government, but it is likely that the party encourages their efforts. As David Ownby of the University of Montreal puts it, China’s campaign against Falun Gong is likely to be a never-ending war of attrition.

No comments: