Unlike the democratic systems in the West, the totalitarian Communist regime in China does not allow the formation or activity of political parties. In June 1989, hundreds of people were killed as thousands of students rallied angrily around the Tiananmen Square in Beijing, demanding political liberties and rights. In July 1999, the Chinese government and the Communist Party were once again on the alert, but this time, to handle thousands of housewives and retirees who were practicing the spiritual ritual of Falun Gong on the streets. Even though the Falun Gong does not perceive itself as a religious cult or as a political organization, it has been official banned “for practicing ‘evil thinking’ and threatening social stability” (McCarthy, p.32). As thousands of the practicing Falun Gong followers were cracked down upon by the police and intelligence officials, it became apparent that the Chinese government was effectively paranoid of the group’s activities.
Basically, the Falun Gong, also known as the Falun Dafa is a practice that is “based on Buddhism, Taoism and yoga”. Yet, it is not a religious practice, but rather, “a blend of spiritual and physical exercise” (McCarthy, p.34). The term ‘Falun Gong’ stands for the Law of the Wheel Breathing Exercise, a practice involving circular motions and the ability to control the breathing movements of the body, both which are at the center of many Chinese spiritual and physical exercises for self-control and health preservation (McCarthy, p.34).
The movement was established in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, who at 48 years, lives in exile in New York City. Hongzhi is not a politician, nor does he have any political aspirations or objectives, and as he puts its clearly, “I am just teaching people how to practice cultivation” (McCarthy, p.34). Yet, the small organization and its peaceful leader seem to have really angered the Communists for some very good reason. Yet certainly it is not the swastikas that constitute an important part of the group’s symbol, and which are derived from ancient ‘Buddhist schools of self-cultivation’ rather than from Hitler’s Nazi Party (McCarthy, p.34).
When the group was established in 1992, it had only 10,000 followers, but in the past seven years, membership has grown exponentially. While the Chinese officials claim that the group has over two million followers, Falun Gong leaders claim that there are more than one hundred million practicing members all over China (McCarthy, p.33).
But even with such a huge size, the practices of the group are not threatening by any standards, especially politically. Very few rules are applied within the group which “disapproves of smoking, drinking and the crass materialism of today’s China” (McCarthy, p.33). Such values are so ideal and private in nature that they do not impose any kind of political threat.
The Falun Gong members, on the other hand, are peaceful people who are trying to improve their life quality through self-cultivation, self-control and physical fitness. Hundreds of them could be seen practicing anywhere on the sidewalks and the squares at any time with the help of pacifying music, and peaceful as they are, the majority of them belong to the older age groups of the community. What these people get from their practice is a feeling of self-satisfaction, or as one practitioner puts it, “It changes you. You let go of a lot of human desires and become very peaceful, and then you don’t fear anything” (McCarthy, p.34).
What seems to have broken the peaceful link between the group and the Communist government is an incident that took place on April 25, when on that day, 10,000 members of the group marched peacefully in a demonstration to protest the dubbing of the group as a cult by the media. In a country where religious practice is still censored, such a dubbing could simply lead to the banishment of the group (McCarthy, p.33).
But the protestation itself did not anger the Communist government in as much as the demonstration did. After all, the march ended outside the Zhongnanhai complex, the residential haven of the Chinese Communist leadership. Yet, most seriously of all, the protestation took place while the secret service and the police were taken by surprise (McCarthy, p.33).
Practically, China is governed through secret service mechanisms. Accordingly, an incident in which ten thousand people could organize such a high profile demonstration while the preparations go unnoticed, is sufficient to arouse suspects and even to demand immediate and emergent reaction by the government (McCarthy, p.33).
Yet, some members argue that the problem could be related to ideological fears. After all, the Falun Gong makes people feel self-satisfied, independent and fearless, and this could be a real threat to a regime that is based on censorship, fear and repression (McCarthy, p.34). Such an interpretation, however, does not stand the test of time for long, especially given the fact that the group does not have a political agenda of any type.
What might really be threatening about the Falun Gong, however, is the organizational nature and structure of the group. There is no authority command, and even though the group has a leader, its gatherings, collective practices, and harmonic rituals are all done spontaneously. While the presence of a strong organized leadership would terrify the Communist government, spontaneity could even be more threatening. After all, the Tiananmen Square events started with spontaneous action from radical students and the results were destructive.
More seriously, the Falun Gong’s fast rate of growth is in itself threatening. Starting with 10,000 members and seven years later claiming 10% of the entire population of China, the group has thus made a very impressive record, but at the same time, this creates rivalry with the Communist Party and inevitably draws comparison to it. That is what the Chinese Communists do not want to see. This is in spite of the fact that many of the Falun Gong are themselves members of the Communist Party or the administration (McCarthy, p. 32).
Another factor that might have angered the Chinese authorities is the manner in which the members communicated, namely online communication. The protestation march in April was organized through e-mail, and Chinese officials suspected nothing and were not able to intercept any of the messages communicated between the members (McCarthy, p.34).
The Chinese government’s crackdown on the Falun Gong continues, and while thousands of members have been arrested, harassed and hassled by the police and intelligence services, the group remains active, especially on the Internet. Although all web sites belonging to the Falun Gong in China have been closed and censored, the World Wide Web has already boomed with Falun Gong web sites, or with sites that show sympathy with the group (McCarthy, p.34).
Evidently, the entire situation is embarrassing to the Chinese government whose human and political rights records are very poor. This incident will only make things worse, as criticisms are likely to start bombarding Beijing from all over the world. Any government that feels threatened has the right to take the suitable measures to maintain its security, but the behavior of the Communist Party and the government only reflect a lot of fear and even paranoia. In fact, the crackdown on the Falun Gong did not make things easier for the government, nor did it eliminate any potential threats. Rather, the operation has only exposed the paranoid fears of the government and senior party members, while at the same time, winning the Falun Gong and Chinese human rights activists a lot of sympathy at home and abroad.
What makes things worse for the government is that the banishment of the group on the basis that it is a religious cult might eventually turn the group into a secret organization, and that in itself could turn into a serious problem for the Communist Party. Wisdom is what the crackdown on the Falun Gong lacked, especially at a time when China is going through economic and social instability. It is under such circumstances that the Communist Party started its struggle and won power in 1949. It is under such circumstances that the Falun Gong could become the first nail in the Party’s coffin.