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  January 31,  

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Part 3: The deeper crisis facing China

By Francesco Sisci

Although the Falungong protests were accompanied by political maneuvering, the movement's rise points to some deep changes in Chinese society.

Along with Falungong, half a dozen other sects, formerly registered under China's Sports Administration, were banned in 1999. It is hard to tell how many people followed Falungong and the other sects, but it can be safely assumed that at their peak there must have been at least 200 million followers. Most quit after the ban, many kept on practicing at home, while just some thousands went on protesting in Tiananmen Square. Nevertheless, the successful expansion of these sects illustrates the spiritual vacuum in modern China.

The old, traditional system of values, centered on the family, worship of the ancestors and respect for the state, has long vanished after decades of communist persecution, and communism itself is no longer an issue of faith as it was during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and '70s. Communism is no longer a totalitarian belief - while Mao Zedong was deified, nobody believes President Jiang Zemin is god.

Yet, spiritual needs are always there. People seek a connection with nature, with what happens after death. Falungong and other sects were able to satisfy these needs in a way that satisfied Chinese people better than Christianity could. Christianity, in fact, preaches a belief and culture that is largely alien to the Chinese mind-frame.

Falungong and other sects re-elaborated old, well-known Taoist and Buddhist routines, used the old vocabulary that people found familiar, and revamped them in a simple, persuasive way. It was an unsophisticated and simplistic "theological" effort as far as doctrine was concerned, which was quite effective in catching minds which retained superficial traces of the old beliefs.

It is interesting that many elderly military people fell for Falungong. Used to obeying orders, raised in a disciplined atmosphere, the tight hierarchy and neat, simple doctrine of Falungong was something they could relate to. For many ex-soldiers, the sect could effectively replace a Communist Party that no longer wanted to impose discipline and was setting up a modern society very different from the one they were used to in the 1950s.

Furthermore, there was an issue of morality. The party and society were corrupt, and not only in the sense that bribes were passed around. There was a "deeper" corruption: clever people could make money and become rich without defying the law. The wealth of these youngsters was itself an offense in the eyes of the elderly who had toed the party line for decades and now found themselves poor and living in rotten houses.

In a society where the only standard of success is money, millions of people who can't make it feel left out: they are "losers" who need some spiritual support and justification. While Falungong is certainly not the answer, a developing society like China, with mounting social differences and undergoing seismic upheavals, needs several religious groups to compensate for the stresses on the moral fabric. It must be "several groups", because the state must be able to control their expansion and avoid what in Europe has been in past centuries a conflict between State and Church.

In China's new atmosphere, one shouldn't rule out the rise of a faith akin to a non-belligerent Falungong, non-confrontational, tolerant and without brainwashing. Something intellectually more sophisticated than the present form of mumbo-jumbo that even forbids people to be treated in hospitals.

This brings us to the second aspect that helped the spread of these sects - the lack of proper health care in China.

Chinese hospitals are gravely overworked. The reasons are complex but, briefly, it can be said that health care in China does not differentiate enough: people with a cold or with a cancer line up in the same corridor, vexing the same doctor who gives five minutes of his time to each patient.

Furthermore, treatment is expensive and doctors do not personally follow patients. The next time a person is ill, another doctor will see him. In contrast, Falungong provided good, cheap care for its practitioners. Ill people were given great moral support, were encouraged to pray, have faith and exercise - all things, every doctors knows, that can be of great help to many people with minor ailments. No payment was required - just the purchase of a few Falungong books.

Therefore, as part of its fight against the sects the state needs to accelerate the reform of its health care system. But this will not be enough. Non-governmental organizations and proper religious organizations could step in to assist ailing people. This would take a lot of pressure off the hospitals and improve the quality of service there.

On another level, the Falungong experience also illustrates the need for more political transparency in China. The fear of a political conspiracy behind the Falungong protests was a product of the murkiness of Chinese politics. In a case like the serious lapse of security of April 25, 1999, when Falungong followers laid siege to Zhongnanhai (See Part 2: A rude awakening), it was hard to tell who was plotting what.

Political reforms and more transparency in decision-making processes do not rule out the possibility of conspiracy, but make it more difficult and easier to check.

In a country like China, with 1.3 billion people, it always will be easy to find a few thousands activists ready to embrace any given cause. As long as politics remains locked behind closed doors, both the country's leaders and the public could always suspect a plot behind any protest. And behind the curtain of clouded politics, anybody could use any given protest for his own goals.

Fast-changing China can't afford to be bogged down in such fears. On the other hand, Falungong serves as a reminder of the dangers looming for fast-changing China. In the 1970s in Iran, the world, and even the United States, came to support the Ayotollah Khomeini against the Shah. In the end, the world realized that the Shah was bad but Khomeini was far worse.

The case of Falungong was a god-sent opportunity for the Communist Party to prove that it must exercise some control over social life. Actually, the party mishandled it by embarking on a mass campaign reminiscent of those of the '70s. Such campaigns are something China must shed as it moves ahead in the 21st century.

As Falungong steps up its campaign against the state, perhaps the Communist Party should avoid stepping up its own campaign, avoid overreacting, and keep security measures low key. Even if things are very much the way Falungong master Li Hongzhi would like them to be, followers would make up only 10 percent of China's population. Hard-core, militant devotees, holding beliefs most of the population would find hard to take seriously, would number under 100,000.

Faced with these numbers, China needs only effective, modern security measures. Mass campaigns against Falungong most likely will help spread the disease, not check it.

(Special to Asia Times Online)

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