Perhaps you picked up a pamphlet at a small Chinese restaurant such as Veggie Heaven1, or maybe you came across a large group doing exercises and meditation in a public park, or you may have even witnessed one of their many protests complete with mock-torture scenes. You don’t have to look to far to see that in major cities across the globe Falun Gong has taken hold. Practitioners of Falun Gong claim that it is nothing more than a personal practice of gentle exercises and mediation aimed at “cultivating” better health and well-being, while the Chinese government has labeled it an “evil cult” and implement policies aimed at eradicating it. So whats really going on here?
Drawing on a number of Eastern traditions, as well as a dash of New Age mysticism, Li Hongzhi founded Falun Gong in China in 1992. Li’s “cultivation system” bore many similarities to a number of already widespread forms of slow moving and meditative exercises called qigong, having grown out of the tail-end of China’s great “qigong fever”2. As its popularity grew Falun Gong soon eclipsed many earlier groups with its numbers swelling well into the millions.
Li didn’t just promise better health like other forms of qigong but also the attainment of “special powers” and ultimately salvation. Li also teaches that he can psychically insert a rotating Falun, or “dharam wheel”, that is “intelligent” and “composed of high-energy matter” into the lower abdomen of followers. As this wheel rotates clockwise it gathers energy which “provides salvation to the practitioner” from the universe. As it rotates counter clockwise it releases energy “that can save any being and rectify any abnormal condition.” This energy has healing properties, Li teaches, and the practice of Falun Gong can heal serious illness. Because of this many practitioners regularly forgo modern medical treatment.
Li’s teachings also have a strong moral component as well. In general Li’s morality is socially conservative and at points reaches outright bigotry. Li has denounced pre- and extra-marital sex as well as homosexuality. Of the latter he has been quoted saying, “Gods view them as filthy.” His views on race are no less objectionable. Heaven according to Li is racially segregated; white people have their own heaven; Asians have their own heaven; black people have their own heaven; but interracial children are “rootless” have no place without Li’s assistance. And then there is the sexism, Li bemoans “so-called women’s liberation” as a cause of “the degeneration of society’s morality”.
Aside from his bigoted views on race, gender, and sexuality, Li also has some strange and apocalyptic ideas, saying that the “biggest cause of society’s change today is that people no longer believe in orthodox religion. They go to church, but they no longer believe in God. They feel free to do anything.” Ok, that’s about on par with what you might heard from a fundamentalist Christan in the US. But Li continues, “The second reason is that since the beginning of this century, aliens have begun to invade the human mind and its ideology and culture.” Wait, aliens!? Tell me more!
“The aliens have introduced modern machinery like computers and airplanes. They started by teaching mankind about modern science, so people believe more and more science, and spiritually, they are controlled. Everyone thinks that scientists invent on their own when in fact their inspiration is manipulated by the aliens. In terms of culture and spirit, they already control man. Mankind cannot live without science.
The ultimate purpose is to replace humans. If cloning human beings succeeds, the aliens can officially replace humans. Why does a corpse lie dead, even though it is the same as a living body? The difference is the soul, which is the life of the body. If people reproduce a human person, the gods in heaven will not give its body a human soul. The aliens will take that opportunity to replace the human soul and by doing so they will enter earth and become earthlings.”
How anyone buys this stuff is beyond me.
For a number of years Falun Gong enjoyed official state sanction through the China Qigong Science Research Association (CQSRA), the agency charged with the regulation of China’s various qigong groups. Though Li often found himself at odds with the CQSRA in their desire for a “scientific” approach to qigong research. But eventually Party sentiments toward qigong began to shift and an attempt was made to exert more control over the various organizations while eliminating what was viewed as superstitious and “anti-scientific” aspects of the movement. Li balked at these moves and withdrew Falun Gong from the CQSRA in 1996 resulting in a government crackdown and the banning of the group’s literature.
For the next few years Falun Gong practitioners peacefully protested the government’s actions and what they perceived as an orchestrated smear campaign in the media. Hundreds to thousands of protestors would besiege government or media offices, often meditating as they did so, only to disperse soon afterward. Then on April 25th, 1999 nearly 10,000 Falun Gong followers surrounded a central government compound in Beijing to protest recent unfavorable coverage of the group and the arrest of fellow practitioners in the previous days. Perhaps the Party bureaucrats saw in the massive gathering shadows of China’s past when large religious and martial arts groups led popular uprisings such as the Boxer or Taiping Rebellion. Or maybe they were simply concerned of it looking like they had lost control. Whatever the reason, this protest, though peaceful, greatly worried Party officials who demanded a solution once and for all to the “Falun Gong problem”.
Soon following this protest China implemented an all-out ban on Falun Gong, intensifying their efforts to crush the group. The Chinese authorities have since imprisoned thousands of practitioners, with accusations of police torture and abuse rampant. Many others have been sent to “re-education through labor” camps, where once again accusations of torture and abuse are common. Falun Gong supporters claim that through beatings and executions that hundreds, possibly thousands, of practitioners have been killed. They also claim that Falun Gong practitioners have been routinely targeted for execution to supply China’s organ transplant market, with the organs being taken out while the victim is still alive.3
The Chinese government denies the worst of the accusations but still claims that some harsh measures against Falun Gong are necessary because they represent a significant threat to public health and social stability. Additionally they charge that Falun Gong has led to the deaths of over 1,600 people in the form of suicide, murder, and medical neglect. Falun Gong supporters dispute these claims and say instead that what the government counts as suicide were cases of torture and state murder. Falun Gong found much sympathy in the West and not everyone at home was on-board with the draconian measures being used either. Then came January 23rd, 2001.
On the eve of Chinese New Year in 2001 five Falun Gong practitioners set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square while in meditation. The event has since become hotly contested with Falun Gong supporters denying any link to the individuals, saying that in their belief system suicide is forbidden. They have even going so far as to claim that the whole thing was a false-flag, complete with paid actors, staged by the government to justify further crackdown. Following this event public sentiments in China shifted even more in favor of the government’s campaign against Falun Gong.4
Since 2001 the anti-Falun Gong campaign in China has continued unabated, with continued arrests and police abuse. My own research into the issue leads me to conclude that the Chinese government is indeed guilty of human right’s abuses. However it also leads me the believe that Falun Gong is not benign force for personal or social good. The actions of the Chinese Government toward Falun Gong practitioners, even if the absolute worst of it is untrue, should be condemned. But we should also not be blind to the problematic aspects of Falun Gong. When a self-appointed “Master” teaches that a few simple exercises can cure illness and bring salvation, that aliens are here on earth to create discord while using science to control us, that racial segregation is the way of heaven, that gays are filthy, and that women need to know their place, it’s problematic.
1. This is how I first encountered Falun Gong. At one point in my life I was on the streets and traveled from place to place. When I was in Austin, TX some other street kids told me about a place on “The Drag” that would feed homeless kids. I wandered down to Veggie Heaven and soon was handed a take out container filled with rice and a wonderfully spicy tofu dish. So I don’t wish for anything in this article to be taken as a disparagement of Veggie Heaven or their staff. In my experience they are amazingly kind people and their food is equally amazing.
2. The “qigong fever” marked a period of great enthusiasm for and interest in qigong, even among the scientific community and Party bureaucrats. Early advocate, Liu Guizhen, explains qigong,
“The Character ‘qi’ here means breath, and ‘gong’ means a constant exercise to regulate breath and posture; that is to say, what popular parlance calls to practice until one has mastery [you gongfu}; to use medical perspectives to organize and research this qigong method; and to use it for therapy and hygiene, while removing the superstitious dross of old: so it is thus called qigong therapy.”
For more on the “qigong fever” you can check out Qigong Fever: Body, Science, and Utopia in China By David A. Palmer. And for more on the roots of the concept of Qi in China please see The Roots of Qi by Donald Mainfort.
3. The claim of systematic organ harvest is perhaps the one of the most controversial of the groups claims (along with the self-immolation, see Note 4 below) and has received considerable traction among supporters in the west. The story first broke in a 2006 article in The Epoch Times (a Falun Gong affiliated paper) citing two eyewitnesses reporting that the Sujiatun Thrombosis Hospital was being used as a concentration camp and organ harvesting facility. Visits to the site seemed to refute such claims however. There are also claims of an extensive network of such facilities in China as well as claim of live people being shipped to embassies world wide to be butchered for their organs.
A report from human rights lawyer David Matas and former Canadian Secretary of State David Kilgour seems to give the claim merit. However a subsequent US State Department report and other investigations conflict with these claims and find little or no evidence. In the end the claim looks pretty sketchy and seems to largely circulate due to certain anti-communist and anti-Chinese biases. Does China have some issues in the organ transplant area? Sure they do. It is widely acknowledged that they badly need reform (and they are moving in that direction). But does that mean that they are systematically targeting practitioners of Falun Gong to steal their organs? I’m not so sure.
4. The survivors were interviewed a year later and then a decade later. This is also not the only act of self-immolation attributed to Falun Gong by the Chinese government. The 2001 self-immolation event could be a post all on its own, but I’m not going to delve too deeply into it here. I do however recommend that readers do some further research on their own as it is quite an interesting conspiracy theory. Anyone familiar with some recent conspiracy theories making the rounds on the internet will see many parallels: grainy cctv stills with apparently anomalous things circled, claims of crisis actors, amateur facial comparisons, low-budget documentaries, ect. My conclusion? I’m very skeptical of the false flag claim.
Falun Gong – harmless exercise fanatics or weird cult by udo schuklenk
Falun Gong vault on Cult Education.com
Sima Nan: Fighting Qigong Pseudoscience in China by Donald Mainfort
A Star Turn for China’s Cult Buster By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL
The Danger of Promoting Falun Gong by Sanal Edamaruku
Zhuan Falun by Li Hongzhi (the central sacred text for Falun Gong practitioners)
The Religion of Falun Gong by Benjamin Penny (book, sorry no link, go to the library)