The Falun Gong: A religion, a cult, or a business?

By Kyle Francis

While it might drop a couple heads toward the crawler on CNN, human rights abuse isn’t exactly a fresh news item. Since human beings have been smart enough to realize we could exploit each other, we have. With genocide and mass murders appearing as bullet points on Google news as often as Paris Hilton inadvertently flashes the paparazzi, suffering just isn’t as salable as it used to be.

Advocates of the Falun Gong in the People’s Republic of China both domestically and abroad have run into this bulwark of the corporate media. Since Chinese legislation deemed the religion illegal in 1999, countless FLG practitioners have come forward claiming heinous abuse at the hands of the government and accusations of religious inquisition abound. Naturally, the PRC denies everything and refuses investigation by human rights’ organizations. Ostensibly, it all seems rather cut-and-dried.

Unfortunately, much of the evidence supporting the human rights crimes remains fuzzy and circumstantial. In addition, the politics of the case are more complicated than the tempting, but over-simplified black and white labeling scheme. U.S. based human rights advocate Harry Wu has publicly questioned the legitimacy of the FLG’s claims, and much of the world media remains equally skeptical. FLG founder and current leader Li Hongzhi has been likened to a cult leader by some scholars and refuses interviews by the media. It doesn’t help that many of the FLG’s most incriminating statistics are hyperbolic at best nor that the organization itself began as something closer to a business than a religion.

There’s an old cliche about a book and its cover.

From aerobics instructor to deity

Like much of the dialog surrounding the FLG controversy, using “aerobics instructor” to describe Li Hongzhi is over-simplified to the point of inaccuracy, but it does make one hell of a bullet point. Before it was the enormous, incredibly well-organized religious and cultural force that scared the wrong people in the PRC, the FLG was part of what’s best described as a “pop spirituality” movement called qigong.

Historically, qigong finds its roots in a predominantly Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian religious tradition. “Qi” is often used to describe intangible substances that exist within humanity and universe, while “gong” refers to the cultivation of such vital energies with the goal of staying healthy, healing illness and improving oneself. Though each master’s methods differed subtly, it was widely believed practicing qigong led to greatly improved immunity, flexibility and overall good-health. Several official studies by the government have backed this up empirically. Though it was outlawed along with everything else vaguely spiritual when the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949, qigong experienced a revival in the ’50s when a high-ranking party official appeared to be cured of his terminal tuberculosis through its use. After this, it was accepted as a legitimate medical technology by the CCP.

When qigong was at the height of its popularity in the ’80s, Li emerged from his job as menial worker and insinuated himself into a few of the more prominent qigong circles. Before long, Li produced his own system, the FLG, and began its propagation in May of 1992.

While Li’s engineered enigma might prevent anyone from discerning his true initial aims, qigong was a business and he was forced to run it like one. When the FLG began to take on its more obviously religious trappings in the mid-’90s, Li publicly refused to offer any kind of healing services, but early on, it’s clear that this was vitally important to him.

“I have just come into public and enjoy little popularity,” he printed in an official organization document. “People are not likely to attend the class I hold to impart my cultivation system if we can’t convince them of the efficacy of our system by treating diseases and giving advice.”

At first, Li was enormously successful. He received several government awards for his incredible talents, one of which included the prestigious “Advancing Marginal Sciences” award. He quickly became one of the most popular qigong masters in the country, according to a number of qigong expo coordinators. Until 1994, the FLG was just an immensely popular qigong system with a charismatic leader who was very proud of his talent for improving people’s health.

Gong vs Dafa

In 1994 Li began subtly nudging the FLG toward “religion” status. The first definite indication came with the publication of his book, Zhuan Falun (roughly “Turning the Wheel of Dharma”), which later became FLG practitioners’ holy book.

“A few years ago, there were many qigong masters who taught qigong,” he wrote. “All of what they taught belonged to the level of healing and fitness… I do not talk about healing illness here, and neither will we heal illness.”

Li spends much of Zhuan Falun discussing the differences between “high levels” and “low levels” of self-cultivation–healing illness being one of the “low levels.” He makes it clear early he no longer intends to concern himself with the lower levels and so his followers are forbidden to do so as well. The high levels, the FLG’s bedrock principles, are directly tied to the Dafa (literally: Great Law), which strongly implies that Li’s teachings should be followed unquestioningly.

“At present, I am the only person teaching qigong at high levels at home and abroad,” he writes. “Think about it everyone: What matter is it to teach qigong toward high levels? Isn’t this offering salvation to humankind? Offering salvation to humankind means that you will truly be practicing self-cultivation, and not just healing illness and keeping fit.”

In this way, Li offers a blanket justification for his sudden shift towards spirituality. If practitioners follow the Dafa, cultivating themselves with no other end than salvation, they’ll still receive the physical benefits by divergence. Li’s later claims of having supernatural powers–invisibility, telekinesis, mind reading–and implications of his own divinity supported the wisdom of his words and offered immediate proof of his loftier claims.

At this point, a number of religious scholars noted Li’s clever utilization of “religious economy.” Not only was he able to differentiate himself from other qigong masters through the religious aspect of the FLG, but his promise of otherworldly rewards reached far beyond anything offered by other qigong masters who simply taught stretching and meditation.

The politics of persecution

“I think the crackdown [against the Falun Gong] was due to two reasons,” says Ian Johnson, a Wall Street Journal and Baltimore Sun reporter with over 10 years experience in the PRC, and author of Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China. “One [was] long term and one [was] an immediate catalyst. One, Falun Gong was spreading rapidly and growing in popularity. Critics of Falun Gong were under attack by the group–and critical newspapers were besieged by adherents demanding apologies. In the long run this couldn’t go on. The second reason was the catalyst: the group miscalculated and organized a 10,000 person sit-down protest in downtown Beijing. This obviously attracted government attention, to put it mildly.”

After the Beijing protest, the FLG was outlawed and a propaganda campaign was set into motion with the aim of completely grinding out the religion from Chinese culture. Allegations of human rights abuse have been leveled against the PRC by FLG practitioners. The most notorious of these allegations deal with the harvesting of organs from live people and the erection of a prison camp in the Sujiatun district of Shenyang, Liaoning province. Though former MP David Kilgour–recognized for his private human rights investigations in Darfur, Zimbabwe and Burma–and his contemporary, David Matas, uncovered a great deal of circumstantial evidence supporting the FLG’s claims, China has yet to allow a United Nations-sanctioned investigation to take place, limiting any kind of action by outside forces and any kind of serious media attention.

“China has a 19th century view of sovereignty,” says Johnson. “In other words, it’s absolute. When they say that they don’t want countries ‘interfering in the internal affairs of China,’ they mean it. That is how they see international relations. They don’t fully buy into the post-World War II view that international organizations can limit sovereignty. In some areas, like trade, they certainly do, but in social policy they’re more suspicious. I think this is one big reason why they don’t want inspection tours.”

Harry Wu, the respected human rights activist responsible for first uncovering the PRC’s practice of harvesting the organs of executed prisoners to sell to foreign nationals, is also suspicious of the FLG’s claims. Despite Kilgour and Matas’ interviews with second-party witnesses and the testimonials of the Epoch Times–an FLG-linked newspaper–Wu claims he was unable to speak with anyone to validate the statements, nor was he able to find any evidence of a Sujiatun prison camp. The witnesses interviewed by Kilgour and Matas have refused to meet with any international organizations to give more detailed information.

“A lot of people are skeptical of FLG because they think it has low credibility,” says Johnson. “[It] is no longer a purely apolitical religious group, if such organizations can be said to exist at all. It runs newspapers and a television station and advocates for political change.”

Though an implication that Li might have a more insidious endgame than running a peaceful religious organization verges on the outrageous given the current evidence, seeing some of the FLG’s claims as exaggerated certainly isn’t a stretch. Still, Kilgour and Matas’ report can’t be completely written-off, despite its lack of concrete evidence. If there’s a possibility of gross human rights violations taking place in one of the world’s fastest-rising powers, there’s a communal global responsibility to pay it a little closer attention, at the very least. Unfortunately, the very people who are waving banners emblazoned with atrocities above their heads are the same who are stifling a reasoned, legitimate investigation capable of affecting real change. Ultimately, anyone who could provide a springboard for human rights organizations to leap off of is either unable–or unwilling, for whatever reason–to do so. This responsibility falls twice as hard on Li.

“First, I think public figures have a duty to answer for their actions,” says Johnson. “His actions have not been clear or fully understandable, and I think he should make himself available [for interviews]. Second, FLG has a credibility problem in Western countries. A lot of people say, ‘Yes, it’s terrible what happened to them,’ but then roll their eyes and say/imply that they’re lunatics. No one can really understand what the group’s goals are or what they mean by some of their claims. For example, they claim that thousands are leaving the communist party every day. If this were true, the CCP would have no members left. So what do they mean by this? Only Li Hongzhi can answer.”

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