Falun Gong and Religious Freedom

Marion Wyse. Cross Currents. Volume 50, Issue 1/2. Spring/Summer 2000.

There has been a lot of media coverage lately of Zhong Guo’s attitude toward political and religious freedom. Articles written for state television and papers in Zhong Guo (People’s Republic of China) have attempted to reassure “outsiders” that these two aspects of the Chinese constitution are taken very seriously by the Central Committee. At the same time, stories on national television and in papers in the United States have warned the Chinese government to practice what it preaches, or else face the consequences of a trade embargo.

The prosperity and general openness dominant in places like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Xiamen (where I am writing this essay) are not representative of most of Zhong Guo. In other parts of the country, poverty and bureaucratic inefficiency remain as legacies of the Cultural Revolution, thirty years of a planned economy based in state enterprises, and centuries of feudal stagnation. These two factors provide a basis for discontent and despair among the one billion Chinese who live below the standard set by the nation’s prosperous cities. To achieve that standard will take longer than expected, given the Asian economic crisis.

It is the Central Committee’s awareness of this brewing discontent that drives it to respond as it did to two situations that dominated the news in 1999: the Taiwanese leader’s vow to move toward a “state to state” relationship with the mainland, and activities of the Falun Gong sect. Although the Committee’s responses appear negative to an outsider steeped in post-Enlightenment European values, they are valid and traditional in the Chinese context. Both of these situations involve political and religious freedoms, which are intertwined in Zhong Guo, even though what outsiders call the separation of “church” and “state” is assumed. The 1989 Tiananmen Square event, resulting in a still unknown number of deaths among dissident students, has been used by the West as proof that political freedom does not exist in Zhong Guo. Suppression of the Falun Gong sect is now being cited as proof that religious freedom exists only on paper.

Religious freedom in Zhong Guo is part of the legal framework set up by the Communists in 1949, meant to allow all in the country equal opportunities to serve the state. Women and men have equal rights. Christians and Buddhists have equal rights. Minorities and the dominant Han Chinese have equal rights. No one was excluded from the wide embrace of the Party. All were invited to join in the longer march toward making Zhong Guo independent and strong. After more than a hundred years of internal strife and external attacks by the wolves of trade and religion, Zhong Guo built an impassive wall which became its face to the “outside” and turned inside to re-create itself. By 1978, it was ready to open a few small doors and windows in that wall, allowing the “outside” to peer in and its own people to peer out. If face met face, the hope was that learning would take place both ways.

However, twenty years later, few Chinese understand the “outside,” and even fewer “outsiders” understand Zhong Guo. Even those with a strong grasp of its history and language do not appear to comprehend the reasons Chinese act as they do, on an individual or national scale. But Chinese do not understand Americans either. Too many things have happened lately which are tearing away the fragile trust between the PRC and U.S.A. American planes bombed Zhong Guo’s embassy. The Cott Report levied accusations of nuclear spying (but what government does not have spies?). The U.S.A. is playing both sides of the fence over Taiwan. The dispersal of the Falun Gong has been interpreted as suppression of religious freedom. There seems a concerted campaign by anti-Clinton forces in Washington to give Zhong Guo a “bad face.”

As a result, many Chinese believe that their wish to cooperate with the U.S.A. is doomed to failure. As a nation, they are hurt and bewildered. The ongoing pressure to explain to CNN reporters why Zhong Guo does this or that, is wearing tolerance toward outsiders thin, especially about issues considered “none of an outsider’s business.” One of these issues is religious freedom.

Progression toward actual religious freedom began after the Cultural Revolution was abandoned. Chinese can go to a temple, church, or any small legal gathering and partake in the worship ritual, without worrying that the Public Security Bureau (PSB) will knock at the door.

Religious freedom here means not having to account to anyone but one’s priest for the thoughts and actions included in the religious realm. As long as those thoughts and activities are centered in pleasing the gods (or God) of one’s faith and in acting with respect toward one’s fellow citizens (which includes no attempts at conversion) and one’s government (which includes no criticism of policy), no one cares. The PSB has been relieved of the task of monitoring citizens’ worship habits, as it was relieved of monitoring sexual habits. Everyone appears more relaxed. The measure of privacy accorded a citizen has grown, even though it appears less than that to which a North American is accustomed.

But there are still small neighborhood religious gatherings that do not apply for legal status. This can indicate that some Chinese do not want to take the chance that their form of worship will be perceived as antistate. Since most in this category are supported by American mission societies and are focused on the traditional Christian message of conversion, caution is well advised. So it can legitimately be asked: is a religion which has a mandate to preach and convert, in the way that fundamentalist Islamic or Christian believers tend to interpret their sacred texts, free to pursue this aspect of their faith? No. Is this then religious freedom? Yes, within the context of the PRC law and in the context of Chinese tradition.

Religious practice in Zhong Guo is growing, as the Chinese go back to traditional beliefs or look to foreign faiths. Hong Kong newspapers report regional suppression of the trend. With no policy statement from Beijing against normal participation in legal religious worship, it is possible that suppression is being carried out by individuals in positions of power who perceive certain religious activities as a threat on the order of Falun Gong. Since the official Beijing attitude is tolerance, however, most believers enjoy freedom. There are churches in every city, and open gatherings. Chinese Jews in the north face little or no trouble. Muslims populate the northwest province of Xin Jiang, and their culture is an intricate and proud part of the Chinese mosaic. Any religion that wishes to practice in Zhong Guo may openly apply for a license from the relevant Ministry; if granted, it can start to practice with the awareness that for a while it will be under surveillance, as it probably was before. Once established as a nonthreat to the state, it will be left alone. Although Catholics may wish for closer ties with the Vatican, the state is quite clear that foreign domination of any kind is not welcome, so cooperative efforts between the Vatican and the Central Committee ensure that those believers are kept cognizant of global Catholic trends and activities.

So what about the Falun Gong? In the early 1990s, a Chinese American started to sell tapes, videos and literature into his homeland. An American viewing this material would classify it as New Age without hesitation, and know of several just like it selling in the “Religion” section of Barnes & Noble. It could just as easily be categorized under “Health” or “Self-Help.” The material promotes breathing exercises and communal participation in traditional body movements to maintain health in a stressful modern environment. Its underlying philosophy is a blend of what Buddhism, Christianity, Bah’ai, and other religions have to say about the way body and spirit and mind must work together for health and inner peace, as well as satisfaction with life. This method, or approach, is called “Falun Gong,” which means “Buddhist Law.” “Law” here should be understood in the same way as “Torah”—that is, a path or way that follows the deep patterns inherent in the cosmos and which if practiced leads to inner and outer harmony. Since harmony is a traditional and deep-rooted Chinese value, there is nothing so far to cause alarm.

In general, the people exposed to Falun Gong material in the new-style department stores were of high school education, but some had college training for their posts in government or bureaucratic offices. The videos were bought as much for their entertainment as for their health value, although Falun Gong arrived with the promise of health and personal wholeness, the approach of traditional Chinese medicine.

Apparently, according to the Chinese who have spoken about this over the years with outsiders, few took the material with any more seriousness than that. Eventually, books with a more blatant religious tone followed, written by the man who had put the earlier material together, Li Hong Zhi. It was evident to any educated Chinese who read them that the statements made in these books were sure to cause government hackles to rise. It was also just as evident that the writer was talking nonsense. Li urged his followers (anyone by now “addicted” to his video exercises and the philosophy inherent in them) to join him in the New World he would bring. This type of talk is anathema to the Chinese Communist Party, which is the inheritor of the only kind of Utopia recognized by Marxism. Any other “world” is counterrevolutionary.

Who is Li? A strong ego at work, convinced of his own divinity and ready to take leadership of the world—or a cynical entrepreneur riding a money horse? Perhaps a little of both—but the humility and gentleness that a seasoned historian of religions looks for in someone who starts such a movement is not at all evident. A personal claim to divinity is paramount to admission of overactive ego unhampered by mature consolidation of the self. It is too close to fake TV evangelism and too far from the moral and social toil that it really takes to build a better world.

As the 1990s progressed, the Internet became Li’s tool as the computer literate among his followers went to his web page. They became distributors of Li’s more radical messages and the leaders of local groups. These groups were representative of all ages and levels of society; estimates of membership range from two to ten million. The initial message of harmony and health, and then of participation in a “new world,” reached across economic and educational barriers as it was passed on by the more educated adherents (some of them Party members). And it was the Internet that enabled Li to orchestrate an unlicensed protest of more than ten thousand people in front of the Beijing building where bureaucrats were considering his request to license Falun Gong as a religion.

It was this unauthorized gathering in the center of the national capital that led to the severity of Beijing’s suppression of the Falun Gong. The lack of a permit was the first strike against the gathering. Second, the protest had been orchestrated from outside of the country (most likely Li’s home in America). Third, no one in any position of government authority had been aware it was going to happen. Finally, it disrupted the whole area where it was held. Any one of these four elements would have led to arrests of the leaders. The fact that this was a self-styled religious gathering made no difference. It could have been the Association of Cooks wanting to set up more restaurants. The fact that it was a religious group may well have increased the suspicion leveled at their reasons for converging, but the Central Committee would have warned the people of Zhong Guo against the group anyway after such a demonstration of coordinated “lawlessness.” The whole country is being put on notice against this group. To that end the government has pulled out all the propaganda stops and rounded up national and local leaders. The anti-Falun Gong campaign appears to outsiders as rhetorical overkill, but it must be recognized that the population of 1.25 billion is semiliterate outside of the cities and it takes time to reeducate minds.

Does the PRC have a case against Li Hong Zhi? The evidence that has been documented by the state media on Falun Gong’s empty promises, rash behavior by adherents, and manipulative tactics by the leader is overwhelming. It is not possible to examine this evidence (or other data) due to distances and secrecy. However, based on knowledge of human nature and the material openly supplied for years by Falun Gong, outsiders in Zhong Guo have no problem accepting that, in this case, Beijing has every right to be concerned about the potential for social instability which this group could generate. In the sweep to suppress the movement, however, thousands of innocent “breathers” are being charged.

According to the state media, more than two thousand people have died as either a direct or indirect consequence of Falun Gong teachings. Why do they die? Apparently the “path to health” does not include going to doctors. How many people have to die before a religion is prohibited from spreading its message? What if acceptance of or choice of death is part of that message? Is there a link between a Falun Gong adherent and a Christian martyr from, say, the third century in the Roman Empire? There is: both claim to be following the orders of a divine leader, and both are suppressed by order of a human government. Is it fair to equate Li with Jesus as a leader? Is a follower of either leader able to judge the suitability of such a “required” death?

To the nonbelieving observer, the claims of Christianity for Jesus as Christ make no more sense than the claims of Li Hong Zhi. As one Chinese commentator noted, Christians or Buddhists are in the enviable position of having a divinized leader who has been dead for two millennia, while the Falun Gong have the misfortune of living through their leader’s present incarnation.

Cynicism aside, if religious freedom means living one’s life according to the precepts of one’s faith, if it means reading books and meditating and quietly growing toward the ideal of one’s faith, if it means meeting with like-minded souls for worship, if it means explaining to anyone who asks why one has a deep inner contentment or focus—then there is freedom in today’s PRC for the Buddhist, the Christian, the Jew, the Muslim, and the Taoist to walk his or her own path.

If religious freedom means propagating via the media or publishing houses one’s views without limit or censure, if it means soliciting donations to support the further spread of those views, if it means secret meetings, if it means standing on a corner and handing out leaflets without a license, if it means gathering in a street to block traffic and show disrespect to the authorities, if it means challenging the rulers—there is no such freedom in today’s PRC.

Based on these considerations, some in the U.S.A. claim that there is no freedom in the PRC and that, therefore, religious groups from outside have the obligation to enter, educate, and convert citizens “in bondage” to the PRC. Those entering the country would be disguised as an English teacher or as an employee of a joint venture, of course. But on what authority is such activity justified?

On this fiftieth anniversary of a journal that has done so much to bridge the gulf between religious groups, it would be good to make sure that the tolerance and sensitivity with which such dialogue is broached is offered even to those with whom dialogue is difficult. This fiftieth year of the People’s Republic of China would be a good time to extend that courtesy to a nation that has for too long been considered “evil” by too many outsiders. Living in the PRC and growing to understand what the nature of tolerance is for the Chinese, I am learning that I know little of how to dialogue appropriately here. True understanding is taking a long time, but in that time I am free to practice my faith. What faith is that? It is a faith rooted in the assumption that our Creator has given us all choices, on the individual and communal level, and that we are all called to respect those choices. There is nothing and no one in Zhong Guo prepared to deny me the legal right to live out and act on that assumption.