Falungong silent in China, thriving abroad
By Kent Ewing
HONG KONG - Over the past decade, China's leadership has stood up to a daunting
array of challenges as the nation continued its rise as a world power.
Remarkably, one of the largest has been an army of meditation and exercise
addicts whose leader claims to have supernatural powers.
Ten years ago this week the Falungong, an organization devoted to a variety of
the ancient practice of qigong or deep-breathing exercises, shook the
Chinese government to its core. In the largest demonstration since the
occupation of Tiananmen Square by student-led pro-democracy demonstrators in
1989, more than 10,000 Falungong practitioners gathered outside Zhongnanhai,
the red-walled Communist Party headquarters in Beijing. There they
demanded the release of 50 sect members who had been detained in the northern
city of Tianjin and government recognition of the group as a legal entity.
Many of the demonstrators who amassed in the streets around the Zhongnanhai
compound on April 25, 1999, were armed with the writings of their spiritual
leader, Li Hongzhi, now 57, who lives in exile in the United States. Their
protest was peaceful and painstakingly organized. That same night they returned
to the buses that had carried them to the party's nerve center and went back -
in some cases to distant provinces - from whence they came.
Chinese leaders, including then-president Jiang Zemin, were shocked by this
demonstration of mass mobilization and defiance, especially as it came so close
to the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Any group that could
muster thousands of people in protest against the central government was
destined to be banned, and within two months of its Zhongnanhai triumph,
Falungong was denounced as an "evil cult" and prohibited from operating on the
mainland, though the group still practices freely in Hong Kong.
Beijing also continued arresting - and, Falungong devotees abroad insist,
torturing - members of the movement while at the same time launching a
relentless propaganda campaign against its leader that continues today.
That campaign, by all indications, has been very effective. Falungong has
become increasingly active overseas, but appears to be a spent force in China.
Its voice has been notably silent during this important anniversary week.
If there is a moral to the Falungong story, it is at best mixed. The product of
a controversial and charismatic leader who preaches the merits of physical
suffering and claims he personally can heal the sick and lead the way to
salvation for his legion of followers, it does bear many of the hallmarks of a
But some scholars see Falungong as a significant spiritual movement within the
tradition of qigong, a complex variety of meditation practices and
physical exercises that has, over the ages, acquired many different forms and
masters. Ultimately, the goal of qigong is to tap into a cleansing
"inner energy" that can be both therapeutic and spiritually uplifting.
Early in his career as a guru, Li, who introduced Falungong in 1992 at a middle
school in his hometown of Changchun, capital of northeastern Jilin province,
was feted in China as a qigong master. He won several awards from
state-run qigong organizations and has also been recognized abroad. In
the US, the cities of Atlanta and Houston have declared him an honorary
citizen, and members of the European parliament nominated him for the Sakharov
Prize for Freedom. In addition, he has reportedly been nominated for the Nobel
In 1998, Beijing estimated that Li's followers on the mainland numbered 70
million, and Falungong claims 100 million additional members in more than 80
other countries. While that count, impossible to verify, is no doubt an
exaggeration, it is nevertheless fair to say that Li and his movement have made
a global impact.
As Li's popularity grew in China and abroad, Chinese leaders saw political aims
in his teachings that threatened the authority of the Communist Party. And,
indeed, the march on Zhongnanhai was an overtly political act meant to evoke
highly emotive memories of the student protests a decade earlier.
The self-immolation of five alleged Falungong members in Tiananmen Square in
2001 - including a 12-year-old girl and her mother - seemed undeniable
confirmation of Beijing's charge that Li presided over a dangerous cult. While
other putative Falungong members on the mainland laid claim to organizing the
fiery protest, the group's headquarters in New York City repudiated it as a
violation of Li's prohibition against taking a life, even going so far as to
claim that Chinese authorities had staged the event to discredit Li and his
This far-fetched allegation only provided additional ammunition to the
government's campaign against Falungong, further undermining the group's
Remarks made by Li have also at times appeared to validate Beijing's depiction
of Falungong as a subversive threat to the motherland. Li has called the
Communist Party "evil" and encouraged followers to sacrifice themselves for the
movement, which Chinese authorities interpret as an incitement to violence.
Meanwhile, Falungong has developed its own media arm overseas - including a
free newspaper, the Epoch Times, that is distributed in 30 countries and
published online, as well as a radio and television station. The television
station, New Tang Dynasty TV, broadcasts in English and Chinese; the radio
station, Sound of Hope, adds French, Spanish, Vietnamese and Korean to the mix
and the Epoch Times is printed in English, Chinese and 17 other languages.
These media outlets cover a broad spectrum of international stories, but one
theme is consistent: criticism of the Communist Party. Indeed, the movement has
become a sort of overseas opposition party whose persistent aim is to undermine
the Chinese leadership.
Falungong has been particularly adept in its use of the Internet - which is
what scared Beijing about the group in the first place. Its 1999 march on
Zhongnanhai was largely organized via the Internet, alerting Chinese leaders to
the threats to their authority lurking in cyber-space. Since then, Beijing has
launched a massive censorship campaign aimed at blocking websites deemed
anti-China and quickly expunging blogs and comments posted in chat rooms that
are critical of the Chinese government.
Falungong sites, of course, are targeted by censors, but so routinely are
Western news outlets such as the BBC, CNN and the New York Times. The
gargantuan project to purge cyber-space is inevitably porous, however, and bad
news filters through. Hardly a week passes without some revelation on the
Internet that is an embarrassment to Chinese authorities.
In March, for example, Chinese netizens played a key role in bringing to light
the suspicious deaths of several inmates in the country's notorious prison
system. The deaths had been dismissed by officials as accidents, but were more
likely caused by police indifference or brutality. As a result of netizen
outrage, public security officials have vowed to clean up their act. (See
Chinese prisons: Horror and reform, Asia Times Online, March 23.)
Falungong also managed a spectacular demonstration of the limits of government
censorship when in March 2002 it hijacked state television in Changchun to show
a film of protest against the ban it faces in China. The film, which continued
for 50 minutes before local authorities were able to resume normal programming,
featured Li describing the Tiananmen self-immolations as a government-staged
This audacious commandeering of a state broadcaster infuriated Chinese
officials, who then redoubled their efforts to silence Falungong in China. As
of today, they have largely succeeded, although Hong Kong residents have become
accustomed to seeing sect members pound the streets of their city demonstrating
against the central government.
Now mostly invisible at home, Falungong has continued to thrive overseas,
benefiting from the growing interest in qigong and other forms of
Eastern meditation and exercise in the West. It is also clear that Falungong
has succeeded in making its human-rights case to the Western world, with
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations Committee
Against Torture taking up the group's cause.
To its credit, Beijing has recognized that Li and his followers tapped into the
spiritual void in China created by the Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong.
The Falungong fiasco spurred the leadership to promote a revival of
Confucianism and Buddhism and to adopt a more tolerant attitude toward
The life of the spirit is now open for exploration in China - as long as it
does not threaten the life of the state.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at