Sep 5, 2018

What is Falun Gong?

The Falun Dafa emblem
The Economist
September 5, 2018

China’s government calls it an “evil cult”

WALK into Chinatown in any big Western city, and on the main street you are likely to find a row of seated meditators, their legs crossed and backs straight. Seemingly innocuous, they could easily pass for participants in a yoga class. In fact, the meditators are practising a prescribed set of exercises from Falun Gong, a spiritual discipline which China banned in 1999 and calls an “evil cult”. Along with Tibetans, Uighur Muslims, democracy activists and pro-independence Taiwanese, Falun Gong practitioners round off the “five poisons”—risks which the Chinese government has acknowledged as posing the biggest threat to its rule. What is Falun Gong?

Falun Gong, which means “law wheel practice” in Chinese, is a set of meditation exercises and texts that preach the virtues of truth, benevolence and forbearance. It was founded in north-east China in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, a former trumpet player. Falun Gong draws on China’s long tradition of qigong, a regimen of controlled breathing and gentle physical movements. But unlike other qigong-inspired disciplines that sprouted up in the 1990s, typically claiming nothing more than health benefits for practitioners, Falun Gong avows a path to salvation for the faithful. Adherents would try to gain enlightenment by reading the works of “Master Li”, who is said to be able to walk through walls and levitate. By the late 1990s millions of Chinese from all walks of life had taken up Falun Gong. Practitioners could be seen meditating in parks and public squares in every city.

Falun Gong’s growing appeal spooked the ruling Communist Party. The party wants the undivided loyalty of China’s people, and Mr Li, a living leader, competed for that loyalty. Officials would have felt threatened by what they saw as a powerful “competing ideology”, as one Falun Gong practitioner puts it, and by the incredible growth in the number of practitioners between 1992 and 1999. In 1996 the government banned public sales of “Zhuan Falun”, the spiritual movement’s main text. Soon afterwards newspaper editorials began attacking Falun Gong, claiming it drives adherents to commit suicide. In April 1999 more than 10,000 aggrieved Falun Gong practitioners protested outside Zhongnanhai, the party’s headquarters in Beijing. In response to the provocation Jiang Zemin, China’s then president, vowed to eradicate the sect. In June 1999 he set up Office 610 (named after the date of its creation), a secretive extra-judicial party organisation tasked with suppressing Falun Gong, and the following month the government declared the sect illegal. Within months thousands of practitioners were rounded up, sent to jail or “re-education” centres.

Yet despite a relentless 20-year crackdown, Falun Gong has survived. It is a much-weakened force, whose current following in China is probably only 5% of what it was at its peak, reckons Massimo Introvigne of the Centre for Studies on New Religions, a think-tank in Italy. Public meditation sessions in China have all but disappeared. But every few weeks Chinese-language media still report on newly nabbed Falun Gong practitioners, perhaps indicating a surprising resilience. And Mr Li, now in exile in America, remains active. In June he gave a speech to thousands of followers at a stadium in Washington, DC, praising practitioners in China for keeping their faith despite repression by the “evil” party. Little wonder, then, that Falun Gong is placed first on the Chinese government’s latest list of 24 proscribed evil cults.

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