Hongyan Xiao. East Asia: An International Quarterly. Volume 19, Issue 1/2. Spring/Summer 2001.
On April 25, 1999, over 10,000 Falun Gong (short for falun xiulian dafa, Great Method for Practicing the Wheel of Law) practitioners gathered at Xinhuamen, the main entrance to Zhongnanhai, where the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is headquartered, to protest the government’s charge that the sect was a superstitious cult that brainwashed its adherents. The CCP was shocked, not by the large number of Falun Gong practitioners, but by its efficiency in organizing such a demonstration and mobilizing a protest only forty days before the tenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Incident, near the very spot where the massacre took place on June 4, 1989.
The protesters were merely a small fraction of the Falun Gong recruits. According to the CCP’s own published figures, the Falun Gong, since its inception in 1992, has established 23,000 centers across China, with a membership of two million people. The provincial government of Hebei, for example, had to send down 6,458 work teams to dissuade over 30,000 Falun Gong devotees from practicing their religion. In Nanchang, the capital city of Jiangxi province, some of Falun Gong members surrendered tapes and other materials only after considerable government pressure. A few even attempted to prevent the confiscated materials from being destroyed. The extent and nature of the cult revealed by these incidents provides a different perspective on the Falun Gong’s penetration into Chinese society.
Even in the face of the Falun Gong’s most provocative action to date, the April 25th protest at Zhongnanhai, the CCP did not take immediate action. The CCP officials patiently negotiated for about nine hours with Falun Gong representatives and finally dissuaded them from continuing the protest. The CCP’s strategy was simply to bide its time. The party-controlled media did not mention a word about the incident. It was only on July 22, 1999, almost three months after the Zhongnanhai protest, that the CCP’s Central Committee, the Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of Civil Affairs outlawed the Falun Gong, and simultaneously declared the eradication of Falun Gong to be a political imperative. Wang Zhaoguo, protégé of the late Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, delivered a special speech, claiming that the April 25 incident was the most serious political event since the June 4 Incident of 1989. Wang portrayed the CCP-Falun Gong conflict as a contest between “Marxist atheism and vulgar theism, between historical materialism and outdated idealism, and between science and evil thought.” In a more direct evaluation, Jiang Zemin, CCP’s general secretary, compared the Falung Gong sect to the Solidarity movement that toppled the Polish communist government.
The April 25 protest was not a local incident staged by a few inexperienced Falun Gong renegades. First of all, the protesters outside the Zhongnanhai compound were made up of not only local Beijing residents but of people from Hebei, Tianjin, Shandong, Liaoning and Inner Mongolia as well. Prior to the April 25 incident, the Falun Gong had already organized over 300 protests in various places across China. In May 1998, for example, over 1,000 Falun Gong members gathered and laid siege to the Beijing TV Station. In June, 1998, in the front of the Qilu Evening News Daily office in Shandong Province, Falun Gong practitioners organized sit-ins to demand an apology for the newspaper’s critical reports. Only two days prior to the April 25 incident, 6,000 gathered at the Physical Education Institute of the Tianjin Teachers’ University, with about half of them eventually marching on Tianjin City Hall. Even after the official ban, sporadic protests have continued to take place in many cities of China. A judge in southern China was thrown into a mental asylum because he refused to renounce his faith in the Falun Gong. According to one source, it is estimated that the CCP’s crackdown has jailed or sent to labor camps over 5,000 people.
These events demonstrate considerable popular support for the Falun Gong but do not explain how the movement has succeeded in generating such support. This article argues that the economic reforms have created a crisis in the CCP ideological education that has strengthened unofficial social movements like the Falun Gong.
Master Li Hongzhi and the Falun Gong
Like any doomsday cult, the Falun Gong has its own apocalyptic prophecy, and like every cult leader, Li Hongzhi, the founder of Falun Gong also claims to have supernatural powers, such as levitation and the power of flight, and to work miracles. It is claimed that he has the ability to insert his “wheel of the law (falun)” into other people’s abdomens telekinetically, rendering them immune to disease. The recipient must, however, routinely rotate the wheel via qigong (breathing exercises) prescribed by the Falun Gong principles. This activity is not as easy as it sounds—it requires a daily regimen that includes at least two hours of reading, long hours of meditation, and extreme fasting.
Li Hongzhi was born on July 7, 1952, in Gongzhuling of northeastern Jilin Province. He grew up in Changchun, the provincial capital. His education did not go beyond the junior high school level. From 1970 to 1978, Li first worked at a Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) horse farm in Inner Mongolia, and from 1978 to 1982, he joined the service staff at a hotel run by the Jilin Forest Ranger Division. He was then employed by the security department attached to the Changchun Grain and Oil Company, where he worked till 1991, at which time he left to devote himself exclusively to qigong activities. He established the Falun Gong Research Institute in Beijing in 1992, and within a few years gathered around him people from all walks of life, including senior CCP leaders, rank and file party members, professionals, intellectuals, and college students. This is a phenomenon unprecedented in the People’s Republic of China’s fifty-year history, and is comparable in scope only to the infamous White Lotus secret society sect that engaged in extreme anti-government activities in Chinese dynastic history.
The key to Li’s success has been the time-honored exercise of qigong, which became a craze in the 1980s. Li was among those enthusiasts who began to attend qigong seminars during this decade and studied under several noted masters, including Zen master Li Weidong and the martial artist Yu Guangsheng. However, four years of practice and learning alone could not make him a master of any qigong style, which usually takes far longer to master. Li set about establishing his claim to be the latest incarnation of the Buddha. This included photos of Li with a halo and the alteration of his birthday to April 8 (Chinese lunar calendar) to coincide with that of the original Buddha, Sakyamuni.
Li also ingeniously associated his supernatural abilities with those common to the martial arts and fantasy literature of Chinese popular culture, especially currently among the young, such as his reference to the Han Xin story of the late Qin dynasty to emphasize the value of forbearance, and the metaphors of the Monkey King and the White Snake to relate to his own ability to perform magical power. In these traditions, extended practice of qigong renders one invulnerable to weapons, fire, etc. Li has used the idiom of these genre to create the conviction among his followers that he is a living embodiment of the popular imagination.
The CCP’s demonization of Li has brought him a quick fortune, which grew with his popularity. In Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang Province, tickets to his lectures sold for fifty yuan, no small amount of money in a region where many state-owned enterprises (SOEs) have been euphemistically undergoing structural reforms, i.e., mass layoffs. These SOE workers, on average, receive only about 200 yuan in government stipends every month. However, tickets were not the only source of Li’s income, which was also supplemented with the sale of audiocassettes, videotapes, CDs, VCDs, and DVDs. His videotape series, for example, was priced at 150 yuan per set, earning him a profit of 300,000 yuan. And from May 1992 to the end of 1994, Li ran by himself or with others a total of 56 qigong classes, earning him a profit of 3 million yuan. Li Hongzhi’s lifestyle is commensurately lavish including stays in luxury hotels, a penthouse, and hi-tech appliances.
Unfortunately, Li Hongzhi’s health regimen has led to over 700 deaths. Those victims include a Ph.D. student in the theoretical physics department at the prestigious Chinese Academy of Science. In 1998, after three years of following the Falun Gong program the student became a schizophrenic due to prolonged periods of fasting.
Distressing as these accounts are, they were not of great concern to the CCP, which initially showed great tolerance for the Falun Gong. This was because the sect sought to instill the “three virtues of truthfulness, benevolence, and forbearance” with its adherents. This value system reflected in large measure the CCP’s own formula for creating a more harmonious society in a time of unsettling rapid reforms. Forbearance, which teaches people how to endure hardship in the chaotic pursuit of gain, was particularly esteemed. Hence the CCP’s tolerance of the Falun Gong for more than seven years; furthermore, a large group of Party members also became deeply involved.
The factor that ultimately caused the party’s break with the sect was the political opposition and challenge posed by the Falun Gong, and the unorthodox message it conveyed to the people of the supremacy of divine power over human agency. Li made a bold declaration that no government, including that of the CCP, could deal with the social problems existing in China, but that supernatural power, possessed by the Falun Gong alone, was the answer. The April 25 incident, in the eyes of the top CCP leadership, was an attempt by the Falun Gong to take over leadership of the moral health of a large segment of the Chinese populace. This was especially disturbing to the party in a time when its own moral authority was clearly in decline.
The CCP’s objection to the Falun Gong’s “vulgar theism” is quite disingenuous given the party’s own conscious promotion of practices that smack of superstitious and religious practices. The April 25 incident simply demonstrated that the Falun Gong had an organization that was more efficient, more combative, and more appealing to the Chinese populace than the CCP’s own organization. This was enough to condemn the sect.
The students’ protests in the Tiananmen Square ten years earlier was a movement that united the college students with others largely limited to urban areas. In contrast, the Falun Gong had literally penetrated into every corner and every layer of Chinese society, moreover it not only once again staged open opposition, but presented an organized opposition that appeared capable of toppling a corrupt party sustained by sheer force. It is precisely its high degree of organization that distinguishes the Falun Gong from its student predecessors and makes it more dangerous to the party.
As regards its organization, the Falun Gong, headquartered in Beijing, has a pyramidal four-level structure. At the apex lies the Research Institute. Beneath it are general training stations, established in provinces or large cities. Each general training station oversees a number of branches, which in turn organizes the exercise sites. At the general training station level, the organization is further divided into four functions: one public relations, one cadre training, one organization, and one general administration.
Wang Ying was the Anshan City branch head. His branch, together with that in Liaoyang, Yingkou, and some branches bordering Inner Mongolia, functioned under the authority of the Dalian General Training Station. However, Wang routinely reported to Dalian and Beijing simultaneously. Moreover, all positions above the branch level had to be certified by Li Hongzhi’s own letters of appointment. This pyramidal structure varies slightly from place to place. In Chongqing, for example, one of the four cities in China that is directly administrated by the CCP’s central government, the structure was relatively complex, with fifty-six sub-training stations classified into Level One and Level Two, which were operated under the branch level stations. The sub-training stations supervised 890 exercise sites. In total, there were 358 key Falun Gong members managing Falun Gong activities in the Chongqing metropolitan area.
This structure was supplemented by a pedagogical regimen intended to remold individuals’ identities. The main tool employed was the Falun Gong Xiulian Dafa, authored by Li Hongzhi himself. Daily extended reading assignments of this tract were combined with meditation and fasting to the point of starvation. What is particularly revealing about this system is its similarity to that used by the CCP during the Cultural Revolution as a means of mental control. The basic principle of both practices is to channel thought into one particular path through prolonged repetition.
The efficiency of the Falun Gong organization was no doubt an important factor that made possible its massive recruitment in China. But there was a more important factor that made possible the rapid growth of this health group based on a hodgepodge of Buddhism, Daoism, and Master Li’s own powers. The ideological void left by the CCP’s own obsolete doctrines was the Falung Gong’s most effective recruiting mechanism. Indeed, the CCP itself has recently admitted the laxity of its ideological work and the dire situation of a crisis of faith in China.
The increased social mobility induced by the reforms has contributed most to this crisis. Mao Zedong’s secret for maintaining political stability was to confine the peasants to the countryside. In contrast, Deng Xiaoping’s rural reforms began with the commercialization of farmland by reintroducing village, township enterprises (VTEs) into the countryside. This has unleashed a huge extra labor force that naturally gravitated towards urban areas. While in Mao’s era, young urban intellectuals were sent down to the countryside in part to alleviate mass unemployment in the cities. During the reforms there has been a reversal of this flow as millions of rural people have streamed into the urban areas. The force generating this floating population receives much the same as that of the previous period of the Cultural Revolution, employment problems.
These people, however, have by no means severed their ties with the economically impaired countryside. They bring with them a strong “localism” to the cities, which has created strong social support networks. On the one hand, these networks facilitate commercial relations, promoting intercourse between the urban and rural areas that transmits prosperity from the former to the latter. At the same time, these networks also facilitate the formation of criminal organizations whose membership consists of individuals from the same province or small town. In Beijing, for example, criminals are often caught in groups like the Anhui Gang (the Anhui Bang), the Zhejiang Gang (the Zhejiang Bang), and the Northeastern Gang (the Dongbei Bang), and so on. In themselves these pockets of gangsters are not a genuine threat to the rule of the CCP because they primarily pursue economic rather than political power. For the party, the real political threat comes from the secret societies whose membership is composed of large numbers of the underclass who come together for ostensibly social reasons. Falun Gong was transformed into such an organization by a combination of government patronage and persecution. Its resistance, most notably the April 25th protest, solidified its new identity as a rival for popular loyalty.
Another explanation for Falun Gong’s popularity lies in Li Hongzhi’s ingenious incorporation of Chinese religious elements into Falung Gong. These include concepts from the elitist Daoism, the egalitarian Buddhism, and the ethic-teaching Confucianism. It is a popular Daoist belief that there are ways for people to escape disaster and disease so that they can live a long life. And extraordinary people can receive revelations of the secrets of the cosmic forces from the gods that can benefit human lives. Li claims that he has received revelations (zhen-shan-ren) such as the truth of the universe from previous Buddhas. Moreover, Li can teach people how to attain such “supernormal capabilities” because he can open the third eye possessed by all ordinary people.
That eye, or tianmu (celestial eye), can be opened only after vigorous practice based on his Falun—the wheel of law. He also claims that in every class he has taught half of his students have had their tianmu opened. The eyesight of tianmu is graded in five levels, from the Flesh Eyesight, the lowest, to the Buddha’s Eyesight, the highest. Those who have acquired the highest levels of eyesight, as Li claims, “have the supernormal capability of penetrative sight, with accuracy better than that of CT scanning.” However, Li argues that people with such supernormal capabilities can cause problems for our society because they can use their supernormal abilities to do bad things, such as committing voyeurism behind the walls or outmatching the lottery machines for money. Li has a solution to prevent all this from happening. He introduces a popular Confucian concept xinxing (man’s inner dispositions) in order to discipline the behavior of his adherents. Li regards xinxing as a virtue: “The cultivation of the Falun comes from the cultivation of one’s xinxing,” and Li has determined not to give his supernormal power to anyone with bad xinxing.
Like Confucians of the past, Li’s highest goal is also to develop the virtues. However, Li does not discriminate those with bad xinxing. He upholds that “[the] Buddha’s light illuminates everywhere and rectifies all abnormalities”—a powerful egalitarian idea of Buddhism that has inspired a great many Chinese people, now and in the past. Li has the ability to rectify people with bad xinxing. Once their xinxing is cultivated and becomes good, Li will subsequently provide them with the supernormal power.
Li is very willing to share his secrets of health and perpetual life with those devoted to him, and to teach them on the basis of equality and altruism. But Li does not want any others to claim the kind of authority similar to his. His teaching is centered on the popular egalitarianism. But his organization, as previously mentioned, is strictly hierarchical. In this regard, Li’s Falun Gong is parallel in both structure and belief to the popular Taiping movements of the mid nineteenth century of China, whose leader Hong Xiuquan declared himself the younger brother of Jesus, and that only he had the direct revelations from God. Hong’s programs for land reform, however, were based on equality to the truest sense of the term.
For many Chinese people, the spirit of ancestors or extraordinary people have the power to bless or curse the offspring. Sometimes there is not a sharp distinction between gods and humans: humans are potentially divine and gods often take human form, such as, among many others, Confucius. This belief is also manifested by a recently revived phenomenon of people using images of Mao Zedong as amulets to ward off evil spirits. Li also exploits this belief among the people to control the behavior of his followers. For example, the falsification of his birthday and the creation of his images surrounded with a halo have engendered awe-inspiring feelings in his adherents.
All Chinese religions share one strong sense of personal identification with impersonal forces of the universe (tianyi). The basic Confucian doctrines, for instance, teach that individual development should correspond with social responsibilities, which in turn are in accordance with tianyi. It is hard for the CCP to find fault with Falun Gong regarding the claims about “zhen-shan-ren” because individual development with social responsibility is the very spirit advocated by the CCP itself in the reforms. The CCP also uses deified figures to inspire Chinese people. But there is one thing that the CCP finds intolerable. That is Li’s claim that the divine authority is superior to the human agency. In other words, it is not a problem for Li Hongzhi to use the “cosmic forces” to improve health or to influence behavior. But when it comes to challenging its authority, the CCP has zero tolerance. The summary crackdown on all Falun Gong activities in the mainland China has well proved this point.
There is another unique characteristic of Falun Gong, which ironically did Li Hongzhi both a service and a disservice. Li claims that he is the only receiver and transmitter of the revelations from the original Buddha. At the beginning, Li soon attracted to himself a host of diverse followers (even today Li claims that he has about 75 to 100 million followers in the world). Li flew his own colors, effectively bypassing the religious establishment blessed by the CCP. However, when the CCP made the dramatic decision to outlaw the Falun Gong, no religious leaders or groups, except for his own devotees (because all other religious groups had cast covetous eyes on both Li’s fast mass recruitment and the wealth that accompanied it), came to his rescue, leaving him an easy target for destruction. We can imagine if Li had resorted to the support of any of the religious institutions already in existence in the very beginning, the resistance facing the CCP today would have been significantly different. Despite the fact that Falun Gong has a large number of followers, it is not deeply entrenched because his claim to the absolute truth of the universe and the ones envisioned by others are mutually exclusive.
In the final analysis, Falun Gong has not provided the Chinese society with anything new. Li’s conviction is merely a reinterpretation of conceptions found in the religious and superstitious literature of China. Li is not unique in arriving at a mysticism through the mixture of all the three Chinese religions. In many occasions, Li himself is confused with some of the main concepts of Buddhism and Confucianism. Li’s promise that people will never get sick after practicing Falun Gong has one crucial condition. That is, people cannot practice any other schools of cultivation. On more than one occasion, Li promises that his fashen (Buddha’s body) will protect people all the time and “[s]ometimes when you encounter tribulations, you call out my name and you will see me right in front of you.” But for those who claim that they are unable to see his golden fashen in time of need, he blames their own use of tianmu (the third eye) in inappropriate ways. It really galls him when anyone attempts to draw merits from other schools of exercise to improve Falun Gong:
If you want to cultivate, you must focus on only one way. You will not be able to cultivate at all if you do not. The saying of “gathering the best of every cultivation way” is only applicable to the level of curing diseases and improving health. It will not bring you to a higher level…You have already cultivated the Dafa and the Fashen (law body) is right by your side. You have acquired things of a higher level and now you want to go back and search again!
His interpretation of karma, virtue (de) and men’s inner dispositions (xinxing), for example, are unorthodox and inconsistent, to say the least. His slogan-like principle “without de (virtues), there will be no gong (acquisition of falun skills)” cannot logically explain the fact that some bad people do possess gong and perform bad deeds. The catchy “zhen-shan-ren,” which Li regards as the absolute truth of the universe, is the only creation of his own. But when we turn our attention to organization, we are suddenly struck by the realization that Falun Gong is superior to all other non-governmental groups in the contemporary history of China. Similar to the CCP’s own, Falun Gong is well-organized, run by competent and loyal members at each level, and facilitated by modern means of communication.
In the society, in which people have ceased to believe in an ideology made irrelevant to their daily life by the CCP itself, Falun Gong highlights the party’s decline in legitimacy. Ren (forbearance), a term traditionally meant to endure hardships in adverse circumstances, now offers comfort for those alienated by accumulated frustration brought by the reforms. People have paid enough attention to the consequences of the reforms, such as mass layoffs of the SOEs, official corruption, and a polarized society. Next, they will logically ask questions about the political correctness of the reforms.
After all, it is not about a struggle between the Marxist atheism and the vulgar theism. It is about the contradiction between a market economy and the totalitarian political party.
Conclusion: Contradictory Imperatives
Ideological work has become a mission impossible for the CCP in the reform era. This loss of ideological control is the price paid for “wealth and strength” because the priority given to economic development has forced the CCP to decentralize its authority to release market forces. As the economy continues to slip out of the government’s grip, its attempts to regain an ideological hold becomes both more frantic and less persuasive to the Chinese masses. Specifically, there are two fundamental problems that the CCP has yet to overcome. First, the theory of Marxist political values, such as collectivism and economic equality, is in direct contradiction with the practice of free market capitalism. Second, the traditional structure intended to strengthen ideological work through administrative means has been undermined by the process of bureaucratic decentralization, itself an integral part of the reforms.
The drastic socio-economic changes of the past two decades have produced large-scale alienation for the large section of the Chinese people whose lives and values have been disrupted by the reforms. I still have a vivid memory of an incident with a retired cadre in the summer of 1998, who was selling his own calligraphic work in front of the Central Art Museum near the main shopping center of Beijing. When I asked him why all his works merely depicted the character forbearance (ren) written in different styles, he blurted out in anger: “How will we be able to live, if we do not learn how to bear with our lives!”
This is an individual example of a wider social trend that involves a reinterpretation of a value system previously erected to serve the cause of socialist equality. Whereas in the past, forbearance meant toleration of hardship brought on by socialist modernization, it now means fortitude in the face of those created by capitalist modernization. The beneficiaries of this ongoing social stoicism have changed commensurately from party to entrepreneurs, both commercial and moral.
The transformation from the planned economy to a market economy has left the CCP in a weakened position to respond to the new problems created by this transition, particularly these of official corruption and a grossly uneven distribution of wealth. The gradual decentralization of power has created a system in which local elites have substantial flexibility to pursue their own economic interests and the interests of their localities. The commitment to collective welfare rooted in socialist ideals endorsed by the ideological rhetoric has given way to a governing philosophy based on individualism. The CCP has endorsed a “To get rich is glorious” policy, which emphasizes the creation of individual wealth at the expense of the provision of a range of social goods. As a direct result of these shifts in values and in practices, corruption among officials has run rampant. At the most elite level, personal connections (guanxi), such as in the cases of Chen Xitong and Hu Changqing, are abused and official positions are exploited for personal economic gain. There have been a number of serious incidents that indicate the loss of state legitimacy due to the corrupt behavior of local officials.
In 1998, The Wrath of Heaven: The Anti-Corruption Bureau in Action (Tiannu: Fantanju zai Xingdong) became the most widely circulated banned novel in Beijing. The book revealed how corruption had reached to the very highest level of the Beijing city government and was based on the actual corruption case of Beijing Mayor Chen Xitong and his Deputy Mayor Wang Baosen. The popularity of this novel reflects the popular anger toward official corruption. The CCP has responded by cracking down on high-ranking officials like former vice governor, Hu Changqing, of Jiangxi Province, who was executed for taking more than $650,000 (RMB 7 million) in bribes. Hu has the distinction of being the highest Chinese official to be executed for corruption in five decades, and his execution was timed to back up a pledge recently made by Premier Zhu Rongji to step up a nationwide crackdown on corruption.
Popular culture is not the only venue that provides insight into anti-corruption sentiment in the PRC. In two separate comprehensive surveys conducted in the mid 1990s, official corruption was ranked as the most hated social phenomenon in China. In 1996, the China Youth Daily conducted a more comprehensive survey, sending out thirty thousand questionnaires to over twenty provinces across China. And those who were “concerned” (52.10%) and “very concerned” (34.60%) about corruption were overwhelming. Since then, from Li Peng to Zhu Rongji, the anti-corruption drive has been viewed as “a matter of life or death” for the CCP, which clearly reflects concern among the top leaders that if corruption within the top echelons of the Chinese leadership is not brought under control, the public may again take to the streets, just as tens of thousands of Falun Gong adherents did on April 25.
While the April 25th incident was not a direct response to official corruption, it does demonstrate how organization such as the Falun Gong can provide a public, potent outlet for a variety of grievances. The sect also provides a language that can articulate a common theme linking those grievances together in such a way as to exploit contradictions between socio-economic theory and practice without fragmenting its unifying theme into a babble of unrelated complaints. This unity was then deployed as a weapon to defend the sect against government attack and to counterattack the government. This counterattack was powered by populist hostility toward government authority and a nativist ideology that demonstrated the moral superiority of the forbearing, divinely supported populace against its corrupt rulers.
Political participation, as in the Western culture, assumes a contest between the interests of private citizens and the interests of their rulers that will be eventually resolved by reaching a consensus. In other words, conflict or contradiction is deemed as part of the process whereby political harmony is achieved, one that is putatively non-hierarchical. In China, however, due to the overly paternalistic nature of the state throughout its history, the relationship between the rulers and the ruled is posited as a harmonious hierarchy with the ruling party assuming the superior position: conflicts of interest between state and citizens are seen as obstacles to political harmony rather than as means to achieving it. While ideological contradictions in both states have produced large numbers of politically disaffected people, in China the public attitude of political submissiveness has been especially pronounced.
Submissiveness characterized as respect for authority is often indistinguishable from fear of authority in practice. Under these conditions, this may produce a public mentality that “points at a deer and call it a horse (zhilu weima).” Potentially, people who “point at a deer and calls it a horse” are more dangerous than people who “call a spade a spade” because it engenders a more covert form of resistance that often manifests itself as a talent for indirection. It is a pattern repeated in Chinese history: it is the very “submissiveness” shown by either the court ministers or by the peasant rebels that has given China’s history its own dynamics. The CCP has come to learn this lesson: the eradication of the Falun Gong organization in the society does not mean that the struggle is over. Most recently, The People’s Daily has published an editorial, emphatically pointing out that the party’s tussle with Falun Gong will be a long-lasting, intensified, and complicated one, because some of its adherents “still refuse to come to [their] senses.”
The CCP, like its predecessors, the Confucians in the past, has consistently asserted that the leaders should be guided by ethical imperatives, and has steadfastly tried to idealize its leadership by extolling the collective spirit that the CCP’s interests represent the interests of all Chinese. The rampant corruption that rages openly and deeply inside the CCP, however, is in blatant contradiction to the party’s ideological self-justifications. The popular response is to seek a less hypocritical and self-serving alternative that will more adequately serve their material and ethical needs. This search has had its own transformative effects, including the “culture of indirect resistance” that has survived the relation between the citizen and state up to this point.
The changes in the state’s categorization of sects, like Falun Gong, affect their legitimacy and this can produce further impressions of government hypocrisy in the popular mind. One day, the Falun Gong is regarded as good, but the next day it is regarded as bad—without any obvious changes in the nature of the organization itself. This problem, however, is by no means restricted to the PRC as the Branch Davidian incident in the U.S. clearly demonstrated. The U.S. government initially tolerated the organization, but this attitude changed when the Davidians became recalcitrant. In the end, the government’s action was deemed grossly excessive by large sections of popular opinion. The result was net loss in legitimacy for government organizations like the FBI and the ATF.
A crisis has arisen due to material anxieties in the new class of urban business people whom the party has sought to control as well as in the desperate masses of people that comprise the floating population. The Falun Gong was a direct response to the distress of these latter groups and was effective enough to encourage the people to abandon traditional forms of indirect resistance for those of direct mass action. Although the CCP has forced the collapse of the Falun Gong organization, it has not solved its legitimacy crisis by defeating the sect. The rejection of Falun Gong ideology by some members of the sect, a rejection arising from fear rather than conviction, does not automatically result in a re-legitimization of Marxism for Falun Gong followers and its recruits. Indeed, if anything, the coercive nature of party rule has been further undermined in the minds of many and, probably, in the minds of many in the most diverse extra-government movements in the PRC, the anti-party group.
Another critical problem that remains unresolved is Li Hongzhi’s considerable accumulated material wealth. Li’s life, aside from his political activism, has been exemplary from the perspective of the ideology of vulgar materialism that currently pervades both the state and citizenry. Unfortunately, economic success on a scale such as Li’s almost guarantees that it will be regarded as a political threat by the party sooner or later. Therefore, the fundamental contradiction engendered by the reforms, Marxist theism versus vulgar materialism, thus remains unsolved.