Craig A Burgdoff. Nova Religio. Volume 6, Issue 2. 2003.
After my first Wednesday evening Falun Gong exercise session, we broke into Chinese and English reading and discussion groups just as we had the previous Saturday morning session when I was taught the exercises. The practice session was held at the Buckeye Village community center, which, like most Falun Gong practice sites, was a public space, in this case part of a residential community owned and managed by Ohio State University. Most of the practitioners in this local group were graduate students at Ohio State University or their family members. I was one of the few non-Chinese present.
As we began to arrange ourselves around the table, informal conversations between group members flowed. One practitioner, another “Westerner” who would soon be going home to Brazil, turned to me and quietly said, “You shouldn’t write in your book.” I looked at my book. Typically, I had covered the page with marginalia and under lined several sections. Margo, went on to explain, “Master Li tells us not to write in the book because each time you read it your understanding will increase. If you mark things now you may limit your ability to see new and deeper meanings in future readings.” I nodded my understanding and acceptance of Margo’s statement as she went on to tell me that we would be reading Zhuan Falun as it was considered the most important and essential of Li Hongzhi’s teachings about the fa.
I begin with this anecdote because it reflects tensions I have experienced as a participant-observer of the Columbus, Ohio Falun Gong group since beginning in March 2001. About that time a member of the local group contacted me and offered to make presentations to my World Religions classes about the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners in the Peoples Republic of China (PRC). However, when I searched for objective and scholarly information, I found little unbiased information available about Falun Gong as a religious practice. What I did find was an extremely polarized debate over human rights in the PRC; human rights observers frequently had so little access in the PRC that objective reports were impossible. Moreover, the debate over human rights seems to have eclipsed discussion and information about the spiritual content of Falun Gong practice.
Is Falun Gong an “evil cult” with a hidden political agenda or is it a form of traditional Chinese exercise that simply promotes health? I decided to begin attending practice sessions at Buckeye Village in order to answer this question for myself. My goal was to understand the religious content of Falun Gong in its particular local manifestation in Columbus. As an academic observer I maintain an active critical concern about Falun Gong and its founder Li Hongzhi; however, this critical position situates me as outsider and, at least according to Li’s teachings, as non-participant. The distinction between “practitioners” and “ordinary people” is a foundational principle of Li’s teachings and is one cause for concern about Falun Gong. In my positive experience of Falun Gong, I have found practitioners to be engaged seriously in a highly disciplined spiritual and ethical practice. My ambivalence about Falun Gong stems from the contrast between Li’s totalistic rhetoric and the practitioners’ dedication to ethical and spiritual cultivation.
As the anecdote above seeks to demonstrate, Li rhetorically insists that Falun Gong practitioners cannot correctly interpret the dafa (great law) and that he reserves interpretive authority to himself alone. While interested parties are free, indeed encouraged, to examine Li’s writings and come to their independent conclusions, “true practitioners” do not appear to be free to reach their own interpretations. True practitioners, Li suggests, should see and accept the inherent truth of his teachings. Those who cannot, or do not, clearly see the essential truth of his teachings are not practitioners; they are “ordinary people.” Clearly, Li Hongzhi’s insistence upon his sole interpretive authority raises concern about the possible uses to which his charismatic authority may be put.
This article is divided into two sections. The first section is an account of my experiences as a participant-observer in a local Falun Gong group in the United States. It includes a description of a typical practice session and an overview of the local organizational structure. The second section is my analysis of the theological and ethical concerns that have been emphasized during group practices and by practitioners during the formal interviews I conducted with individuals. In this section I argue that there are several structural components of the movement that work against Li’s ideological power. While Li’s rhetoric does emphasize millennial and totalistic themes, the organizational structure of Falun Gong works against totalistic control. Practitioners have little if any contact with Li except for his writings and very few and brief public appearances. Falun Gong has at best a virtual central organization, comprised of independent cell-like local groups. There is no hierarchy in place to enforce orthodoxy and little or no emphasis upon dogmatic discipline. There is no “official” membership, and practitioners are free to participate as much or as little as they like without censure. There is no attempt to isolate practitioners from society, and no manipulation of sexuality or finances other than emphasizing the need for strict moral behavior.
Most importantly Falun Gong is wrongly understood as primarily an ideological belief structure used by Li to manipulate practitioners. Rather, the Falun Gong movement places emphasis upon orthopraxy over orthodoxy and Li’s totalistic rhetoric. While Li guides and assists the practitioner, spiritual and ethical progress depends upon individual practice. The foundational basis of this practice is an understanding of karma as being a physical substance that can only be removed from an individual by the disciplined practice of that individual.
Finally, I argue that the ongoing persecution of Falun Gong practitioners in the PRG is a source of great concern. This persecution is certainly of grave concern to practitioners and has become the primary fuel for Li’s evolving millennialist rhetoric. I believe that the perception and experience of persecution by Falun Gong practitioners is the single most important precipitant to creating a chaotic and violent religious crisis. Consequently, it is crucial that any critical analysis of the potential volatility of Falun Gong recognizes that the PRC is an partner to the ongoing evolution of Falun Gong theology.
Falun Gong Practice
Falun Gong is a recent addition to the variations of the Chinese exercise tradition collectively referred to as qigong? Li Hongzhi claims that he invented the Falun Gong exercise system based upon his knowledge and mastery of esoteric qigong cultivation techniques. Accordingly, his system circumvents the long and intensive study required to achieve high-level qigong practice with a “set of cultivation methods suitable for popularization.”8 Li claims, “in spite of the modifications, this practice still far exceeds what others offer and the levels at which they are practiced.” Through his modified exercise system and his metaphysical intervention on behalf of each and every practitioner, practitioners reputedly are able to circumvent the disciplined training normally required to achieve the supernatural capabilities traditionally attributed to qigong masters. Li’s spiritual intervention includes the implantation of afalun, or revolving law-wheel, within the abdomen of each individual practitioner.
In one hour on a Saturday morning, I learned the five Falun Gong exercises well enough to be able to follow along during group practice but not well enough to do them on my own. My experience is consistent with that of other new practitioners. As Falun Gong promotional literature claims, the exercises were easy to learn. However, absent from the promotional literature is any mention of the physical pain and discomfort new practitioners experience when they perform the exercises. The exercises are difficult because they require maintaining specific positions motionlessly for several minutes at a time. The standing and sitting meditations in particular demand a great deal of physical endurance.
All the exercises, except for the sitting meditation, are done in an upright standing position. The first exercise, Buddha Showing a Thousand Hands, consists of six different stretches and arm movements. Each of the six stretches involves extending the arms, e.g. over the head, intensely stretching and tensing the entire body for a few seconds and then suddenly relaxing. This exercise is intended to increase energy circulation in the body. The second exercise, Falun Standing Stance Exercise, consists of four postures, during which the practitioner is said to embrace supernatural wheels of energy, falun, rotating between the arms. This exercise is difficult because it requires practitioners to hold their outstretched arms in a large circle for several minutes without moving. Standing with the eyes closed, practitioners attempt to enter a meditative state while enduring what may be intense physical discomfort. The practitioner who taught me the exercises mentioned that it was usual for beginners to experience some discomfort when first doing this exercise. The first several times I tried the exercise my arms felt like lead after one minute. After two minutes it felt like nails were being inserted into my shoulders. I did not make it to three minutes. I was humbled when I looked around and saw an elderly Chinese woman in front of me hold the position with seeming effortlessness.
The third and fourth exercises, Penetrating the Two Cosmic Extremes Exercise and Falun Heavenly Circulation Exercise consist of slow fluid movements of the hands over various parts of the body. Both of these movements are consistent with traditional qigong in that they are intended to stimulate and increase the flow of energy or qi through the body. The fifth and final exercise, Strengthening Divine Powers Exercise, is essentially sitting meditation; fully one-half of the entire practice session is dedicated to sitting meditation. Sitting meditation is done from a full-lotus position but beginners are told that the half lotus or even cross-legged position are acceptable. They are, however, encouraged to work toward achieving the full lotus position. Numbness and pain in the legs and hips are common during the thirty or sixty minutes of sitting meditation. I was told that such pain is normal and that it is a good sign because it indicates that karma is being eliminated from the body. According to Li, “the more karma that comes, the more pain the legs feel.”
The exercise portion of group sessions is either one or two hours in length. All the exercises, except the first, are proportionally increased in duration from the one-hour session to the two-hour session. The time allotted to each exercise is effectively routinized in both the short and long versions because the sessions are choreographed through the use of a standardized recording. These two recordings, available for purchase or free download from the Internet, feature Li leading the exercises, in Chinese, while traditional Chinese music plays in the background.
The exercises are an important part of cultivation, but the most important aspects of cultivation practice are moral development of one’s xinxing (inner self or mind nature), and getting rid of personal attachments. “You must cultivate your inner self and not pursue things externally.” Cultivation is really self-cultivation and as such must be tailored to the unique needs and circumstances of each person. “If you want to be a practitioner, it all depends upon cultivating your heart and on you, yourself being enlightened because there are no role models.” As I will stress in my analysis below, Falun Gong cultivation is a disciplined spiritual practice that requires practitioners to respond to the particular challenges of their life experiences.
After completing the exercises the entire group breaks into two smaller groups of Chinese and English speakers to read and discuss Li Hongzhi’s writings. The format is loosely structured but generally each participant reads a paragraph from the text and then the next participant reads a paragraph and so on. Occasionally a participant, usually a newer practitioner, will ask a question or seek clarification, and a short informal discussion will follow. However, these group sessions are primarily dedicated to reading Li’s words aloud.
Because I neither speak nor read Chinese, I am always in the English reading group. Between 85 percent and 90 percent of the group consists of Chinese graduate students and their family members. There are usually three or four “Westerners,” as we are called, and twenty to twenty-five Chinese practitioners at every group session. The total number of participants varies as attendance fluctuates, but usually there are about twenty-five or thirty people at every session. The English-speaking group is the smaller of the two, usually between six and ten participants. There is always at least one experienced Chinese practitioner in the English-speaking group who will usually be the first to answer questions and clarify interpretive points, although anyone is welcome to offer opinions.
Reading Li Hongzhi’s writings is considered to be an essential aspect of Falun Gong cultivation. The emphasis is on becoming comfortable and conversant with these texts, rather than upon comprehension. New practitioners are usually told not to worry if they do not understand everything at first. It is considered normal that under-standing will increase with successive readings. While anything Li has written is considered important, Zhuan Falun, according to the Columbus practitioners, contains the complete and essential teachings of Falun Gong; it is certainly considered a sacred and revelatory text. The only time I felt remotely pressured by Falun Gong practitioners was when an experienced practitioner told me that unless I read Zhuan Falun in its entirety at least once a week, I would make no further progress in my practice.
Li Hongzhi’s leadership fits Wessinger’s model of closed access authority involving “extraordinary charisma” defined “as being any sort of direct revelation understood to be available only to the leader and not generally accessible to other members of the group.” Li frequently claims to be the only legitimate interpreter of dafa. Framing Falun Gong as his intellectual property, he accuses others who claim to teach his dafa of plagiarism. Anyone else who claims authority vis-a-vis Falun Gong is either misinformed and/or in a state of serious error. His interpretive authority rests, finally, upon his claim to unique status as an enlightened being with supernatural powers.
Remarkably, while Li jealously guards his spiritual authority, he seems to have willingly relinquished organizational control. In fact, Li insists that practitioners who take on organizational roles should have absolutely no authority over other practitioners. Arguably, the absence of any other official authority figures within the Falun Gong organizational structure strengthens Li’s unique status and power and makes any relinquishment of his organizational control unlikely. In any case, the lack of organizational hierarchy works against institutionalization.
Neither Li nor the Falun Gong organization receive direct financial support from practitioners. All activities are provided by volunteers and are free of charge. Almost all materials are available for free download from the Internet. However, practitioners indirectly finance Falun Gong in that all activities and events are organized and financed at the local level by individual self-nominated practitioners. This informal support is voluntary, and I have never heard anyone suggest or request that another practitioner contribute to group expenses. Practitioners often give, at their own expense, Falun Gong books and materials to anyone who is interested in learning about Falun Gong. However, a small profit on each book, cassette, video, CD, etc., generates significant income for Falun Gong’s Universe Publishing Company. Consequently practitioners do indirectly fund profits which presumably find their way to author and founder Li Hongzhi.
Attendance and participation at Falun Gong activities in my experience is non-coercive. Upcoming events and activities are publicized and there are calls for volunteers to participate in promotional activities (usually practicing the exercises and/or publicizing repression in the PRC), but these are strictly voluntary. Personally I have never had anyone suggest that I, or anyone else, should in any way increase my participation in or commitment to Falun Gong (with the minor exception cited above). Participation and commitment vary widely. This range of commitment makes it difficult to determine a concrete number of participants, even at the local level. Some practitioners come infrequently, some only participate in the exercise portion of group practice and skip the reading discussion sessions, and others (a core group of ten to fifteen mostly Chinese practitioners) are present at almost all activities.
The loose organizational structure of Falun Gong also means that there are no membership lists. There are no initiation rituals, instead, new members are simply taught the exercises and invited to participate in events as they occur. Increased or decreased participation does not seem to affect one’s status in the group. While membership lists are not maintained, email addresses and lists are usually exchanged and this is the preferred method of communication and organization.
I am continually amazed at the ability of this loosely-organized voluntary group to circulate information quickly. Local organizers keep me and other interested participants supplied with local, national and international Falun Gong information through email lists. Information from the national and international level is disseminated through local organizers who in turn forward it to local members. The organizational structure is both web-based and web-like. This structure efficiently distributes information but it is ineffective at maintaining hierarchical control over group members. The dispersed organizational structure works against the possibility of the type of group isolation or withdrawal that has been associated with violence precipitated by new religious movements.
Performance and Karma
Li Hongzhi claims that Falun Gong is a spiritual practice but not a religion because, among other things, it has no rituals. Rather than accepting Li’s characterization, however, we can get a better understanding of the implications of Falun Gong by looking at ritual as performance. By “ritual” Li seems to mean symbolic actions that communicate referential meaning. Such a literal understanding of ritual implies a heuristic structure that situates both religion and ritual as being primarily concerned with what people believe. However, I would argue that as an analytical concept, belief offers little insight into Falun Gong. Instead, a conception of ritual as performance demonstrates how Li’s totalistic leadership of Falun Gong is actually undermined by an emphasis on individual practice.
My concern here is that characterizations of religion as a function of belief displaces attention from specific actions and practices onto a putative individual interior state. In a critical analysis of what he calls the ideology of belief, Donald S. Lopez, Jr. argues that it is “an assumption deriving from the history of Christianity that religion is above all an interior state of assent to certain truths.”19 Even in its Christian context, Lopez argues, “belief is the after-thought” inferred in order to justify the deployment of political power against non-Christians. We in the West tend to look at religion from the presumption that belief is a universal religious category. As Lopez argues, even in its Christian context “belief may obscure more than it reveals, and its application to non-Christian religions is even more suspect. Indeed, the actual import and existence of an interior state of belief is clearly speculative. In contrast, my analysis, like my experience and observation of Falun Gong, is concerned with what the people actually do when they practice Falun Gong.
Should we, in fact, accept that what Li teaches closely reflects what practitioners believe? In raising concerns about “belief as an analytic category, I am inverting the paradigm that privileges great men and grand theology as central and subsequently situates the actions of local people as peripheral to religious movements. While Li Hongzhi clearly invokes millennial themes, to what extent are those themes evident in the activities of Falun Gong practitioners? Why should we assume that what Li teaches closely reflects what practitioners believe, or that belief is even a concern for practitioners? The adaptation of religious practice is much more complex and contingent than the notion of idealized believers eagerly and whole-heartedly adopting the orthodox teachings of a charismatic leader. I have observed little evidence that Li, despite his earnest attempts to maintain totalistic control over Falun Gong, actually controls how practitioners interpret and practice Falun Gong. Furthermore, his putative control is undermined by the nearly complete lack of any significant contact between Li and the majority of practitioners.
To return to the issue with which I began this section, Li’s assertion that Falun Gong is neither religion nor ritual, I think we should avoid Li’s static use of “ritual” and reclaim a performative understanding of it. Briefly, “ritual” has implied a “nearly universal structure” that reifies formality, tradition and the cognitive transparency of ritual actions. Based on Bell’s distinction, Falun Gong is arguably performance-based, rather than ritual-based. Instead of a text that symbolically recreates religious ideology, Falun Gong exercises express and invoke a multiplicity of ideological structures. Whereas the Christian communion ritual symbolically reenacts and represents the theology of resurrection, Falun Gong exercises do not reenact nor represent symbolic content. Rather, the exercises are necessary because they result in the elimination of karma from the body; consequently they are essential because of what they accomplish, not because of what they mean symbolically. My point here is that if we look at Falun Gong practice from the perspective of rituals that enact or represent beliefs then we risk occluding the efficacy of performance. For Falun Gong practitioners, what you believe is of less consequence than what you do. In order to highlight this emphasis on action over belief, I prefer the more inclusive and descriptive term “ritual practice,” favored by many ritual studies scholars today.
A particularly important aspect of Falun Gong is that it is very effective at situating the practitioner within a physical, spiritual and moral continuum that defies discrete categorization. Talal Asad’s critique of the historical trend toward privileging of orthodoxy over orthopraxy is particularly relevant here. Li’s use of the term “ritual” seems to be an assertion that there are no theologically representational actions (unlike communion) in Falun Gong practice. I would agree but go on to assert that correct practice, or orthopraxy as Asad puts it, is the essential qualifier of “true” Falun Gong practitioners. While the cosmological “truth” of Li’s teachings and revelations is essential to Falun Gong theology, physical and ethical practice is the primary means by which practitioners are expected to demonstrate their “faith.” Because Falun Gong requires conscious action, belief, in itself, is not sufficient as an analytical category. I think we need to be very careful to distinguish between what Li teaches and how practitioners translate those teachings into lived experience. We can see the implications of this stress upon lived experience by examining what I think is the foundational concept of Falun Gong practice: karma.
The principle of karma is the nodal point between Falun Gong ideology and ritual performance because (negative) karma is thought to be a black material substance located in the body. Karma is released and the body purified, in part, through the performance of the exercises. The release of karma and the resulting purification is often experienced as physical pain. Accordingly, the physical discomfort that sometimes accompanies Falun Gong exercises signifies spiritual transformation. Physical and psychological “tribulations” are given cosmological meaning because they are interpreted as physical, spiritual and ethical purification. My point here is that the principle of karma requires practitioners to engage in performative action: not in order to express their beliefs symbolically, but to accomplish spiritual purification. Without active performance purification cannot occur. While Li claims to assist the process of purification supernaturally, its initiation and continuance is dependent upon the exertions of individual practitioners; Li himself is not the agent of purification.
Closely related to the material and spiritual existence of karma is Li’s claim that the human body and the physical world exist within an infinite number of spiritual levels. The material world and the human body are inherently spiritual. Moreover, the doctrine of karmic materiality extends the spiritual continuum into the ethical realm. According to this theology, all evil deeds and human attachments are materially lodged within the human body in the form of karma. Through Li’s version of disciplined practice, practitioners can rid themselves of material, spiritual and ethical impurity. The “salvation” Li offers comes at no small cost since he teaches that “no loss, no gain” is a fundamental characteristic of the universe. In effect, ridding oneself of karma requires both sincere effort and spiritual tribulation. “Tribulations,” as Li uses the term, can refer to the physical pain experienced during meditation, psychological suffering or loss, and even what appears to “ordinary people,” (i.e. non-practitioners), as physical illness and disease.
An important concern about the Falun Gong doctrine of karma is that Li encourages practitioners to reject medical treatment and to stop taking prescribed medications. Li’s claim that Falun Gong does not prohibit conventional medical treatment is factually true but disingenuous, at least in my experience. Conventional medical treatment is discouraged through the dual doctrines of karma and tribulation. Accordingly, physical discomforts, including what so-called ordinary people would interpret as sickness, are actually caused by the physical expulsion of karma from the body. Medical treatment simply masks the pain associated with karma elimination, and thereby forces karma back into the body where it will remain, only to reappear later, quite possibly as an even worse “sickness.” Putative sickness represents a unique opportunity to release significant quantities of karma, but only if practitioners recognize the opportunity. The pain and suffering of illness is thus understood as a spiritual issue and not a medical issue. Presumably any practitioners who experience ongoing medical complications would not be considered “true” practitioners.
When I first began my participation in Falun Gong I was astounded and bemused by the fantastic multidimensional cosmology, the esoteric and mystical teachings and Li’s extraordinary claims of supernatural abilities. I found it difficult to understand how it was that Chinese graduate students, all of whom were pursuing advanced degrees in science and technology, were by far the most active and dedicated practitioners. In formal interviews and informal conversations no practitioners were willing to admit to contradictions between their scientific or technical training and Li’s claims. In fact, I have never heard any practitioner openly express doubts or entertain questions about Li’s claim of extraordinary abilities such as clairvoyance, levitation, and seeing through a celestial third eye. Rather, Li cautions practitioners to avoid “clinging to the attachment of pursuit” of supernatural capabilities. Consequently, practitioners rarely mention and never claim such abilities. At the local level, Li’s supernatural abilities and fantastic claims, such as 260 million-year-old human footprints and a two billion-year-old nuclear reactor in Africa, seem to be of little theological importance. Falun Gong practice does not require unquestioning acceptance of all of the Master’s teachings. More important, there is no overt emphasis on dogmatically enforcing orthodoxy. Falun Gong practitioners, like most people who participate in a religious tradition, freely pick and choose from the official teachings according to their individual inclinations. Thus, my ambivalence about Li’s controlling rhetoric is tempered by the observation that for most practitioners Falun Gong is fundamentally about individual ethical development. In many religious traditions there is tension between local and/or individual practice and the rhetorical assertions of institutional orthodoxy by the organizational elite. This is particularly relevant to the case of Falun Gong because of its loose, quasi-virtual organizational structure. The local, individual practice of Falun Gong emphasizes personal morality. At the same time, however, personal morality is constructed and understood as assimilating the essential characteristic (s) of the universe: “the most fundamental characteristic of this universe, Zhen-Shan-Ren, is the highest manifestation of the Buddha Fa.” A person, or practitioner, is good or bad solely according to the extent to which he or she is able to embody the principles of zhen (truthfulness), shan (benevolence), ren (forbearance). However, when I asked practitioners for specific examples of their primary ethical challenges, the responses were consistently mundane examples such as arguing with a spouse, overcoming shyness, possessiveness, pride, etc. Indeed, Falun Gong’s Buddhist lineage may be most obvious in this emphasis upon eliminating worldly desires and personal attachments. While Li situates extinguishing individual desires and attachments within a grand cosmological contest with ultimate implications, practitioners seem to be more focused upon overcoming their perceived personal attachments and ethical shortfalls.
Practitioners often discuss the ways in which Falun Gong exercises heighten their bodily awareness. Any theology pushed to its limit presents areas for exploitation, and the increased attention to bodily karma demonstrates such a limit. While his emphasis on individual practice means that Li Hongzhi does not maintain control over practitioners, there is still considerable room for exploitation. Li’s notion of tribulation as spiritual opportunity represents a powerful and potentially exploitable opportunity for manipulating practitioners. Mundane events are reinterpreted as opportunities for spiritual advancement. Most importantly, negative or unpleasant life experiences are thought to offer the best opportunities for growth, improvement and purification. Any physical or spiritual difficulties are to be welcomed and experienced as spiritual tribulations rather than rejected and/or avoided. Obviously the idea that suffering is an exclusive site of spiritual purification could easily be used to exploit practitioners and encourage would-be martyrs.
Li’s increasing use of apocalyptic rhetoric in response to the ongoing political persecution of practitioners in the PRG, as Susan Palmer has noted, represents another potential avenue of danger and exploitation. It is important to note that Li Hongzhi’s cosmology included a millennial component prior to the 1999 ban by the PRG. In his Buddhism-inspired cosmology of cyclic destruction and renewal, Falun Gong is a historically unique revelation and practice that will lead to the reestablishment of harmonious order in the cosmos. However, Li’s introduction of “a-rectification” as the necessary solution to moral degeneration, of which the PRG persecution is but one symptom, does represent a new theological development.
Since the primary reason for the incongruence between the universal ordering principle and the current structure of the cosmos is moral degeneration, a-rectification involves hierarchically redeploying the various inhabitants of the universe to their appropriate moral and spiritual levels in the cosmic order. Humans who have sunk below the cosmologically mandated moral standards for humanity will be dropped to an even lower level, while “true” practitioners, as well as spiritually advanced non-practitioners, will ascend to appropriately higher spiritual levels. Interestingly, when pressed on this issue no practitioners were able to articulate more than a general sense of what this future would actually be. They inevitably returned to discussion of the more tangible ideal that repression in the PRG would end and those responsible would be duly punished.
In this light, /a-rectification should be understood within the context of the persecution of Falun Gong in the PRG. In Millennium, Messiahs, and Mayhem, Robbins and Palmer contend that “violent episodes involving religious movements are seen as emerging from an interaction of endogenous factors implicating the leadership or organization of the group with exogenous or environmental factors often involving some kind of hostility or persecution in the movement’s environment.” In other words, the potential for violence by Falun Gong is directly related to insider perceptions of outside persecution.
The persecution of religious groups and the response of religious groups who experience persecution could be characterized as an integrated, self-fueling system. It is clear that Falun Gong included several elements conducive to potential volatility such as a dualist worldview, millennial expectations and a charismatic leader prior to its ban by the PRG in July 1999 and subsequent persecution. While I have argued above that those elements are counterbalanced by an emphasis upon individual practice, as the persecution has continued and intensified, the elements conducive to potential volatility have also intensified. In this tragic encounter both sides have played their part, unerringly increasing the stakes in a lock-step march toward a seemingly inevitable confrontation. Because of the uneven balance of worldly power between the PRG and Falun Gong practitioners, such a confrontation would seem to require practitioners to engage publicly in some form of symbolic violence against them. Indeed, Susan Palmer argues in this issue that the practioners who have demonstrated in Tiananmen Square since the ban are “martyrs.”
It is crucial that a balanced view of Falun Gong and the exogenous factors affecting it be maintained. While some specific instances of persecution of Falun Gong practitioners in the PRG have not been confirmed, persecution in general has been widely documented by third-party accounts, and we should not lose sight of the material reality of persecution. The practitioners I have come to know do not experience persecution as an abstraction. Excessive attention upon Li’s millennial rhetoric obfuscates the real injustice of hundreds of people who have been tortured or murdered for advocating a particular religious practice. Li’s millennial rhetoric is attractive precisely because of practitioners’ horror and frustration at the persistent brutality of the persecution.
It is also crucial to recognize that at least for Chinese practitioners in the United States, persecution in the PRG is the primary rallying point for religious fervor. The group of practitioners I have worked with is by far more focused upon publicizing the situation in the PRG and garnering international political pressure against it than in the recruitment of new members. When they talk about what/a-rectification means to them they talk about eradicating “The Evil,” by which they specifically mean Jiang Zemin and his brutal campaign against Falun Gong. These are not starry-eyed Utopians dreaming of spiritual rapture. They are political realists seeking to rally international opinion against brutal, systematic repression. As Scott Lowe has pointed out, Falun Gong is a political threat, like other new religious move merits in the PRC, because it challenges the legitimacy of the PRG’s ruling elite at a time of deep social instability that is not about resolved by the destruction of Falun Gong.
If we have learned any lessons about new religious movements in the post-Waco era, is it not that the persecution of new religious movements is inflammatory and unproductive? There is no doubt that critical analysis of Li Hongzhi and Falun Gong needs to continue. During this process it will be important to differentiate between what Li says and what practitioners do. To say that the performance of Falun Gong is primarily individual and ethical does not, of course, rule out significant political roots and implications. These implications are not, how-ever, reducible to a millennialism focused upon an ideal world or a Buddhism-inspired nirvana.
In order to understand the internal dynamics of Falun Gong we have to look closely at the religious practice, which in this case includes practitioners’ individual and ethical relationships to Li Hongzhi’s leadership. While individual practice is rooted in specific material cultural circumstances, performance is a key to understanding the religious implications of the evolving relationship between Li and practitioners. Combined with the loose Falun Gong organizational structure the emphasis upon orthopraxy provides a sufficient check upon Li Hongzhi’s totalistic tendencies. However, if the persecution in the PRG continues, or escalates, the counterbalances I have discussed may no longer be sufficient to maintain the structural stability of the Falun Gong movement.