Falun Gong and the future of China

By David Matas
Remarks delivered to a conference on Religion and Human Rights in China May 20, 2009, Knox College, Toronto

Falun Gong is a set of exercises with a spiritual foundation which began in 1992. It was initially encouraged by the Government of China as beneficial to health, but was banned in 1999

The Communist Party of China represses every belief system it does not control. The repression of the Falun Gong in 1999 just seemed Party business as usual. When the Communist Party is repressing every other community of belief it does not control, it is hardly surprising that it also banned the practice of Falun Gong.

What is striking about the repression of the Falun Gong is not so much the fact of repression as the extent of repression. Practitioners of Falun Gong are persecuted far more, far worse than adherents of any other belief system.

Falun Gong has the ignominious honour of leading by far the parade of human rights victims in China. They represent two thirds of the torture victims and half the people in detention in re-education through labour camps.

David Kilgour and I wrote a report first released in July 2006 in which we concluded that Falun Gong practitioners are killed for their organs which are sold to patients in need of transplants1. Falun Gong practitioners and prisoners sentenced to death are the sole groups systematically targeted for organ harvesting. We know that this is so because only Falun Gong practitioners and prisoners sentenced to death are systematically blood tested and organ examined, a necessary precondition for organ sourcing.

The extremes of language the Chinese regime uses against Falun Gong are unparalleled, unmatched by the comparatively mild criticisms China has of the victims the West is used to defending. The documented yearly arbitrary killings and disappearances of Falun Gong exceed by far the totals for any other victim group.

Why is the Party persecuting Falun Gong practitioners so much worse, so much more than adherents of other beliefs? Why is Falun Gong alone of all the belief systems which the Communist Party represses the victim of organ harvesting?

There are two obvious answers for organ harvesting, the large numbers and the grotesque incitement. Only the Falun Gong are a large enough number in the Chinese detention system to constitute, on their own, a captive organ donor bank throughout China. Only the Falun Gong are dehumanized so viciously that their jailers and the hospitals who pay them off do not even think of them as human.

But that does not get us very far. Why are the Falun Gong jailed in such large numbers? Why are they so dehumanized? I have a twelve suggested explanations.

1. One is simply the numbers. Falun Gong before it was banned had, according to a 1999 Government estimate, 70 million adherents. That year, the Communist Party of China membership was an estimated 60 million. In Beijing alone, before the banning, there were more than 2000 Falun Gong practice sites. Practitioners were found everywhere, at all levels of society and government and within the inner reaches of the Communist Party.

A group of that size no matter what its belief attracts the attention of a repressive government. The Falun Gong, before their banning, were not anti-Communist. But they weren't Communist either. For the Communists, that was a matter of concern. These were people who no particular fealty to the Communist Party of China.

2. When it comes to victimization of the innocent at home, the Chinese Communist government is much like other tyrannies. The chosen enemies vary from country to country, but, whatever the country, the story is much the same - innocents suffer so that despots can stay in power.

At one level, the Chinese Communist Party repression of Falun Gong is sheer totalitarian nuttiness, the manufacturing of an enemy out of thin air, a form of paranoia to which the followers of Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse Tung are prone. The Communist Party needs enemies in order to justify their continuing hold on power and the Falun Gong had the bad luck to be around in sufficient numbers and available to fill the enemy slot.

For a communist regime, far worse than having bitter enemies is having no enemies at all. Without anyone to demonize, communists are left speechless when justifying their hold on power.

3. Another trait of the Falun Gong community which led to their singling out is their principles. In short, the Falun Gong stand for three basic beliefs - compassion, tolerance and truth. Anyone who believes in any one of these principles spells trouble for the Communist Party government - a cruel, repressive, dishonest regime. Tens of millions of Chinese believing in all three principles had to give the Party chills.

The worst nightmare of a gangster is an honest person. The nemesis of the corrupt are those who will not take a bribe. The venal speak a common language with the unscrupulous. With the principled, dialogue is impossible. All that is left is force.

4. The collapse of the Soviet Union and Communism in Central and Eastern Europe haunts the Chinese Communist Party. The practice of Falun Gong went from a standing start in 1992 to numbers greater than the membership of the Party within the space of seven years, spreading rapidly throughout China immediately after the Tiananmen Square massacre, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of Communist Party control in Central Asia and Eastern and Central Europe. The Party in China feared a similar collapse, a similar loss of control.

When the Party saw its own Chinese nationals in the tens of millions engaging publicly in a form of exercise which had an underlying belief system completely divorced from Communism, its leaders fantasized the Falun Gong as the engine of their destruction. They turned a group of innocents into an enemy and launched a persecution to combat an imaginary enemy.

5. Fifth, there is the lack of structure. Falun Gong is neither a movement nor an organization; it is not even people. It is rather a set of exercises with a spiritual foundation. The exercises can be done by anyone, anywhere, at any time, though commonly they are done once daily in groups. Those who are interested can begin the exercises whenever they want and stop whenever they want. A person need not register with anyone or join anything to practice the exercises. All information about how to do the exercises is publicly available.

Those who practise Falun Gong have no organizational leadership. Li Hongzhi got things going. He has written books and given public lectures widely available in print and on the internet which have inspired individual Falun Gong practitioners. He is the founder of the practice, its first teacher, a spiritual leader, but not an organization leader.

There are some Falun Gong practitioners who have formed and joined support organizations, Falun Dafa associations. Falun Dafa associations are local or national. There is no one international Falun Dafa Association.

These associations encompass only a portion of Falun Gong practitioners. They may facilitate some Falun Gong activities, but they do not represent or lead or organize all Falun Gong practitioners.

These associations make representations to government on behalf of Falun Gong practitioners. In formulating these representations, they operate by consensus of all and any of the practitioners who volunteer to participate in the discussion about what those representations should be.

The amorphous nature of Falun Gong meant that it was impossible for the Communist Party to control it. Because other beliefs are organized, the Government of China has responded in part by attempting to take over the organizations.

There is a Chinese government appointed Buddhist Panchen Lama, Chinese government selected Roman Catholic bishops, Chinese government chosen Muslim imams. These designations mitigate the attacks the Government of China launches against these beliefs, since it does not want to undermine its own appointees.

If Falun Gong had a leadership, the Party, as it had done with the major religions, would have appointed some of its cronies and said that they were the leadership of the Falun Gong. But Falun Gong does not lend itself to this sort of usurpation.

For Falun Gong, since there is no organization and no leadership, there is no one the Government of China can appoint to head the Falun Gong. Not being inhibited from undermining its own appointees, the Government of China attacks on the Falun Gong know no bounds.

6. The mobilization capacity of Falun Gong practitioners alarmed and frightened the Communist Party. Before Falun Gong was banned in July, 1999, its adherents gathered regularly throughout China to do their exercises.

The Party, in April 1999, published an article in the magazine Science and Technology for Youth, which defamed the practice of Falun Gong. A large number of Falun Gong adherents demonstrated against the contents of the piece outside the Tianjin editor's office. Arrests and police beatings resulted.

To petition the Government Petition Office in Beijing about these arrests, on April 25th, 1999, 10,000-15,000 Falun Gong practitioners gathered from dawn until late at night outside the Party headquarters at Zhongnanhai next to Beijing's Forbidden City. The gathering was silent and without posters2.

The April 25th event was the largest gathering in Beijing since the Tiananmen square massacre. Many of the leadership in the Party had no advance warning of this event and were startled.

It is worth remembering here the April 25, 1999 letter from President Jiang to standing members of the Political Bureau of Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party about the Falun Gong gathering in Beijing that day to appeal the beating and arrest of their fellow practitioners in Tianjin two days earlier. He wrote:

7. The Falun Gong community was the first in China to take advantage of modern technology to gather in large numbers. The growth of the practice of Falun Gong and mobilization of its practitioners is directly attributable to the advent of the internet and cell phones. Through cell phones and the internet, it is possible for large numbers of people to do the same thing at the same time, be at the same place at the same time, without organization or leadership. For Falun Gong practitioners, one can say - make publicly available the exercises and beliefs, spread the technology of cell phones and the internet and they will come, without organization or leadership. This phenomenon was unknown in China before it was manifested through the Falun Gong.

Again we can turn to the words of then President Jiang. He wrote:

8. Mirror imaging worked against the Falun Gong community. Though the Falun Gong is not an organization with a leadership, the Communist Party of China is. When you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The Communist Party of China saw the Falun Gong community as a mirror of itself, organizationally similar, but ideologically different.

The absence of organization and leadership of Falun Gong has not stopped the Government of China from believing there is one. Chinese officials just think it is hidden. The very lack of visibility of leadership and organization has led the Government of China to greater suspicion, greater fears.

Then President Jiang in his April 25th letter wrote

Calling an uncoordinated mass of individuals engaged in parallel activities an organization with a leadership may on its own just be an innocent mistake. But once one starts attributing anti-state activity to this imagined organization, the mistake ceases to be innocent. The error becomes paranoic, a conspiracy fantasy.

When the Communist Party leadership saw a group of people doing the same thing at the same time, they were intellectually incapable of attributing this spontaneous activity attributable to cell phones and the internet. Many in the leadership of the Party simply had no idea of their mobilization capacity. What they saw instead is what they knew - an organization, a hierarchy, a leadership, a plan, rather than what was in fact staring them in the face.

The Party projected on to others, a disparate group of Falun Gong practitioners, its own manner of operation. The persecution of the Falun Gong began and continues with a simple mischaracterization.

9. A large measure of the persecution against Falun Gong can be attributed to petty personal jealousy of then President Jiang Zemin. Initially, it was Jiang alone in the central leadership of the Party who wanted Falun Gong banned. Others eventually fell into line because he was insistent and because he was the person in charge.

One can see this jealously in the language he used. He wrote in April 25, 1999:

He was concerned that he personally would be seen as a thumping joke.

Jiang attempted in 2002 to provide a cover for the continuation in power of the Communist Part of China after the end of Communism elsewhere with an ideology labelled "the three represents". Wikipedia, which makes every effort to be neutral, labels this ideology as "incomprehensible". Jiang was envious of Li Hongzhi, that something an outsider proposed could become so popular while his own "Three Represents" writings languished in confusion and obscurity.

10. Many Falun Gong detainees are more vulnerable than other detainees because of their refusal to self identify when arrested. Once the practice of Falun Gong was banned in 1999, hundreds of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners travelled to Beijing to protest or to unfold banners calling for the group's legalization. People came almost daily. Author Jennifer Zeng, formerly of Beijing and now living in Australia, writes that by the end of April 2001 there had been approximately 830,000 arrests in Beijing of Falun Gong adherents who had been identified.

Those who revealed their identities to their captors were shipped back to their home localities. Their families were implicated in their Falun Gong activities and pressured to join in the effort to get the practitioners to renounce Falun Gong. Their workplace leaders, their co-workers, their local government leaders were held responsible and penalized for the fact that these individuals had gone to Beijing to appeal or protest.

To protect their families and avoid the hostility of the people in their locality, many detained Falun Gong declined to identify themselves. The result was a large Falun Gong prison population whose identities the authorities did not know. As well, no one who knew them knew where they were.

There are no statistics available of practitioners who were arrested but refused to self identify. From our interviews with released Falun Gong practitioners, we know that the number of those who did not self identify is large. But we do not know how large.

The investigations which led to the report David Kilgour and I wrote had many chilling moments. One of the most disturbing was the discovery of a massive prison/detention/labour camp population of the unidentified. Practitioner after practitioner who eventually was released from detention told us about this population. A collection of some of their statements is set out in our report.

What these practitioners told us was that they personally met the unidentified in detention in significant numbers. We have met many Falun Gong practitioners who were released from Chinese detention. Yet, except for those detained during the early days of Falun Gong repression, we have yet to meet or hear of, despite their large numbers, a practitioner released from detention who refused to self identify in detention from the beginning to the end of the detention period. Though this refusal to self identify was done to protect family, friends and relatives, it left them remarkably undefended.

11. Repressed democracy activists, journalists, human rights defenders, Tibetan and Christian activists generate more sympathy than the Falun Gong because they are more familiar to the West, more in tune with Western sensibilities. The Falun Gong are recent, started in 1992, foreign, without an obvious link to global traditions.

To outsiders, there is the immediate, albeit superficial, strangeness of the name Falun Gong. The words "Falun" and "Gong" in Western languages mean nothing.

For the Communists, victimizing the Falun Gong is a crime which is easier to get away with than victimizing other, better known groups. Falun Gong victims are often people without Western connections or Western languages. It is much easier for outsiders to relate to victims who have universal labels - journalists, human rights defenders, democracy activists, than a group with a name which means nothing to most ears.

It is also harder to misrepresent the known than the unknown. When the Communists slur Tibetan Buddhists or the Christian house churches, we know that they are talking nonsense. When the Communists slur the Falun Gong, many people are not sure whether there is any basis for the charges.

The incitement to hatred against the Falun Gong, like all incitement to bigotry, has an impact. The place with the most ferocious impact is China, where the propaganda is uncontradicted. But the incitement has an insidious effect everywhere.

Even in democratic states, people may know enough not to swallow Chinese propaganda whole. But there is often a tendency to think that where there is smoke, there is fire. The Chinese noise about the practice of Falun Gong confuses and obscures. Many of those who do not accept in its entirety Chinese propaganda against the Falun Gong, nonetheless, hold the view that there must be something improper about Falun Gong behind all the Chinese government charges. Outsiders do not have either the acquired knowledge or the time and energy to do the research to contradict Chinese Communist propaganda.

12.The Communist Party fright from the rise of the Falun Gong came from content as well as form. Falun Gong is authentically Chinese, rooted in ancient Chinese traditions. It is a blend of ancient Chinese spiritual and exercise traditions.

As exercise, it is a form of qi gong, a set of Chinese exercise practices. The form most familiar to Westerners is Tai Chi. But there are many such Chinese exercise practices.

Nor does Falun Gong have just any spiritual foundation. Its spiritual formulation has direct links with Taoist and Buddhist disciplines, ancient Chinese beliefs.

The global TV network run in the main by Falun Gong practitioners is called NTD TV. NTD stands for New Tang Dynasty. The old Tang Dynasty, which ran from 618 to 907 A.D., was a particularly glorious period of Chinese history, a period to which Chinese look back with pride.

The Falun Gong, then, are an outgrowth from ancient Chinese traditions; they are its modern form. They are the face of the real China, the grass roots China, the China of the people, in Marxist terms the China of the proletariat.

It is no coincidence that the Falun Gong emerged in 1992 at the time of the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the ending of belief world wide in Communism. What was to fill the ideological gap left by the global collapse of Communism? For China, it seemed, the answer was Falun Gong.

Once the Communist state of China renounced its own socialist ideology, many beliefs sprung up to take its place. Once Communism ceased to stand for anything, the number of people believing in something other than Communism increased dramatically. But the predominance was Falun Gong, an updating and intertwining of the ancient Chinese exercise and spiritual traditions.

The threat the Communist Party of China saw from the Falun Gong in 1999, when repression was decreed, was not political; but it was and is ideological. To the Chinese Communist Party, Falun Gong was a regression, a huge leap backward, back to where China was before the Communist Party took over. For Falun Gong to prevail would mean a China that would continue as if the Chinese Communist Party never existed, aside from the scars the Party left behind.

The problem for the Communists was not just that Falun Gong is so authentically Chinese; it is also that Communism is so patently foreign. Communism is a Western ideological import into China. Communists saw a widespread, popular Chinese-based ideology as cutting out from under them the very ground on which they stood.

Tolerating the Falun Gong would not have meant, at least in the short run, the collapse of the current regime. But it would have meant the disappearance of whatever ideological presence the Communist Party still had in the hearts and minds of the Chinese people. Once there was no one left to believe in Communism, even within the Communist Party, the loosening of the grip of the Party on power could not be far behind.

One can think of ethical systems in either positive or negative terms, what they stand for or what they reject. Ethical systems are both religious and secular. For both, there is a connection between the standards and the environments in which they emerge.

The connection is most obvious for secular ethical systems. The most clear cut are the international war crimes tribunals - the International Military Tribunal, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The standards set out in the instruments governing these tribunals existed before the crimes were committed; otherwise it would violate the principle against retroactive punishment to prosecute for the crimes. Regardless, the fact of the articulation of the standards at the times and places they were set out are directly linked to immediate past events. The tribunals are a reaction to the war crimes which preceded them.

One can say that more generally about the present international human rights structure. Though the concept of human rights and its standards existed well before the Holocaust, its centrality to international discourse today and its detailed evolution are a statement in positive form of revulsion to the Holocaust.

One say something similar of historical human rights standards such as the British Magna Carta, the American Bill of Rights in the US constitution, or the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. None of these sets of standards descended out of the blue. They state rights in reaction to wrongs. Though the phrase "never again" has been associated in particular with the Holocaust, it is a philosophical underpinning to all human rights standards. Human rights standards have differed over time in detail and emphasis because what they were reacting to, because what they wanted through the standards to prevent from happening, differed.

While the link between secular wrongs and secular standards is more straightforward, one can draw the same link between secular wrongs and spiritually based ethical standards. When a spiritual system emerges, there is more going on than just a rejection of surrounding wrongs. The rejection is not the whole genesis, but it is part of the genesis.

There is a connection between Jewish slavery in Egypt and the ethical standards of the Jewish religion. A refrain embedded in Jewish liturgy is: "Remember that we were slaves in the land of Egypt." One can think of Jewish ethical standards, at least in part, as a rejection of the treatment Jews received in Egypt and a commitment never themselves to behave that way.

Similarly, one can think of Christianity as a reaction to the brutality of the Roman Empire. The cross, the symbol of the Christian religion, is a reminder and transfiguration of Roman cruelty.

The rapid growth of the Falun Gong in China in the early 90's can be explained in these terms as well, although it is not the whole explanation. It would be natural, once China was suffering from an ideological void brought about by the world wide collapse of Communism and its gutting of ideological content within China, for a spiritual system to fill the void which was grounded in ancient Chinese beliefs. With the growth of the Falun Gong, there was more going on than that. There was also a reaction to Communist Chinese wrongs.

When one reads today the ten commandments, they may seem trite. Who argues today for, say, the right to kill? One way to appreciate their significance is to consider the murderous environment from which they emerged.

As noted, Falun Gong is based on three simple ethical principles - compassion, truthfulness and tolerance. These principles too, in isolation, may seem trite. One way of appreciating their significance is considering the wrongs of Chinese Communism. If one had to describe the Communist regime in China in three words, cruel, dishonest, and intolerant would pretty much sum it up. The Falun Gong is a reaction to this cruelty, dishonesty, and intolerance, a statement that these wrongs would be inflicted, if they had their way, never again. The Falun Gong are an assertion of differentiation, a statement that they, the Falun Gong, do not want to be like the Chinese Communists.

What does all this have to do with the future of China? Friedrich Hegel explained the evolution of history as the evolution of thought. Hegel explained that thought developed as a conceptual hierarchy. Each level of the hierarchy is more sophisticated than the one before. Each level grows out of the one before. The motor or engine for development of this hierarchy is the dialectic. The dialectic is a process of thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

Karl Marx adopted this dialectical analysis but shifted it to the economic sphere. World history, to Marx, could be explained as the working of a sequence of economic theses, antitheses and syntheses.

We can think of Communism in China as a thesis, or a sequence of theses - spiritual, political and economic. Economically, the thesis of socialism has already been replaced by its antithesis, unbridled capitalism. But Communist China is still stuck in the thesis stage of its history for political and spiritual thought.

What is the spiritual antithesis of Chinese communism? It is surely Falun Gong. By asserting the values of compassion, truthfulness and tolerance, the Falun Gong have presented to China the complete opposite of what Chinese Communism has meant in practice for the people of China. Chinese Communists do not assert the values of cruelty, dishonesty and intolerance. But they have practised them. In the everyday reality of China, that is what Communism has meant; that is what Communism has brought.

Communist rule in China was founded on an economic concept, socialism, which it has abandoned. The current regime believes in nothing, has little popular support and stays in power through corruption, propaganda, incitement to hatred and brute force. A regime which has no ideological justification is fragile. But what would replace it? China is at the edge of a chasm. It may well fall into the abyss. But if it gets to the other side, what is to be found there?

The Falun Gong, despite the fears they aroused in then President Jiang Zemin, who bore primary responsibility for their repression, are not the candidate one might think of first as replacing Communism in China. Falun Gong has no political ideology nor political platform. If a revolution in China were to happen tomorrow and someone wished to hand over power to the Falun Gong, it would be first of all hard to figure out who should be given the power, since there is no leadership amongst the group. Moreover, if one were arbitrarily to pick a few Falun Gong practitioners and make them the Government of China, it would be hard to guess what they might do, aside from ending human rights violations, since there is no Falun Gong political agenda.

Nonetheless, one cannot ignore the significance of belief systems as organizing principles. A parallel is the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire. Even though Christianity began, at least from one perspective, at least in part, as a reaction to the brutality of the Roman Empire, even though the Roman Empire persecuted Christians most cruelly, even though Christianity had no political agenda and urged its followers to "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's", eventually the Roman Empire became Christian.

Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312 A.D. Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the empire in 391 A.D. The belief in Christianity had grown so strong and the belief in the traditional Roman values had grown so weak that Christianity became a better organizing idiom for the empire than the old Roman values.

Religious conversion is not only or even primarily practical. Yet when the leaders of an empire convert from one belief system to another, there is a measure of practicality in what they are doing.

One can see the same happening in China. Communism today is incapable of holding China together. At some time the leadership will realize that they need a better set of principles than they have got if they are going to maintain China as a going concern. The successors of Mao, each in their own way, have been attempting to identify those principles, without any success.

The person who got it right was Li Hongzhi, the person whose writings inspired the Falun Gong movement. Though his writings had no political content or intent, he managed to articulate a set of beliefs which reverberates with the Chinese people, the Chinese soul. At some point, the leadership of China will realize this.

Repressive regimes sometimes are dislodged. But when they are not, they rot from within. With repressive regimes, insiders victimize outsiders. But the insiders of tomorrow are the outsiders of today. Nepotism forestalls this phenomenon since the leadership does not victimize its own children. But a country as large as China can not be ruled by nepotism alone.

When the victims get to power, they abandon the ideology which victimized them and cast about for a new one. It is just a matter of time before they alight on the Falun Gong, the most compelling belief system to come out of China since the collapse of the Iron Curtain.

The Chinese leadership today treats the Falun Gong as their worst enemy, imprisoning and torturing them more than any other group, killing only them and prisoners sentenced to death for their organs. At some point, they will realize that the Falun Gong are their best friends, an authentic Chinese belief system that is capable of keeping China united, that is capable of keeping China, to use the catchword of the muddled ideology of current Chinese President Hu Jintao, harmonious.

China one day will be predominantly Falun Gong not because the current set of Falun Gong practitioners will one day take over the leadership of China but because the leadership of China will one day become Falun Gong practitioners. In the wings of the stage of Chinese history stands a Constantine.

David Matas is an international human rights lawyer based in Winnipeg, Manitoba.