Falun Gong's Challenge to China

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There has been a developing appreciation for the role of religious practice in undermining anti-democratic secular ideologies that refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of internal opposition.

Danny Schechter

Joe Lockard

Thursday, November 30 2000, 1:07 PM


Every other version of Christianity has of late made it a fashion to apologize for the past, as if this were possible. Short of digging up and revivifying the corpses, there is nothing to be done. Religious history cannot ask forgiveness from its victims, even if given a voice and a sense of decency it would.

Yet Christianity ought not to sit in history's doghouse alone. Far from it: the offenses of organized religion are so global as to constitute a veritable catalog of political offenses against humanity. It is difficult to imagine the nasty political ideology --- imperialism, colonialism, racism, slavery, sexism, class exploitation --- to which the defenders of one faith or another have not lent their best supportive efforts in the name of putative human betterment.

Still, there is always someone trotting around the corner to proclaim "But that is not the real spirit of [insert name of religion]! That was a false version! You don't know the true power of spirituality!" Thanks, but we've seen enough and haven't gone blind quite yet.

That rejection leaves a massive problem for a politics of historical materialism, which must inevitably recognize the continuing power of religious faith, for better or worse, even while contesting its influence within civil discourse. If the last century opened with left-wing movements that indulged in the joys of atheistic anti-religiosity, the century finished with political inheritors on the secular left who were considerably chastened as to the firm entrenchment of spiritual practices. They are now far more amenable to a cooperative --- even integrative --- relationship with organized religion. Practicalism has won out.

Possibly even more than any new sense of left pragmatism, there has been a developing appreciation for the role of religious practice in undermining anti-democratic secular ideologies that refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of internal opposition. The bureaucracies of state capitalism, an adequate description of the current government of China, correctly identify religion as their most potent opposition.

While state authority can seek to shape and direct the forces of market capitalism, bending it towards reinforcement of a monopolistic political order, the immaterialism of religious faith renders that same feat of ideological control substantially more difficult in the transcendental realm. The absence of such state ideological control renders religious practice a subversive formation, which is no more than a latter-day restatement of Stalin's suspicious and lethal recognition of religion's counter-authority (and that former Orthodox seminarian knew the priesthood intimately).

Danny Schechter's Falun Gong's Challenge to China outlines the confrontation between one of the latest and largest of such confrontations. The Chinese government is in the midst of a campaign intended to establish its authority over the ideological dissidence manifest in the Falun Gong movement. Formal legal protections for religion, like so many other formal constitutional guarantees in China, have been discarded to deal with this "evil cult".

Schechter briefly lays out the spiritual beliefs of Falun Gong within the tradition of qigong, or 'life energy cultivation.' It provides a meditative exercise regime that seeks to tap internal spiritual resources for physiological effect. Thus the movement emphasizes its health benefits, to the point of suggesting that Falun Gong practice is a universal cure-all and its practitioners need no medicine.

At first the government viewed it as a health-promoting and politically benign movement. That view changed when the movement challenged the government in April 1999 in a public protest over some anti-Falun Gong material that had appeared in the state-controlled media. Surprised at the number and fervor of Falun Gong supporters, the government identified them as the nucleus of a new opposition and brought a massive set of state forces to bear on "the evil cult." Its leader, Li Hongzhi, was already living in the United States and had established the basis for Falun Gong as an exilic movement when it was made illegal in China. In China, tens of thousands of Falun Gong followers have been arrested; thousands are being held in re-education camps; several tens have died in custody. With new arrests daily throughout the country, Falun Gong has become the largest force of opposition within the country.

Official government rhetoric frequently relies on the use of "heretical" to describe Falun Gong. More than contradiction of an officially atheistic government denouncing heresy, as Schechter suggests, this seems to indicate an adoption of means of religious stigmatization for lay discourses. The designation of "heretical cult" is a mere argumentative convenience. As with most heresy claims, power is the issue and not belief.

One argument attributes the rise of Falun Gong and other spiritual movements to a direct reaction against corruption within a society that is communist in name and rapaciously capitalist in practice. Visible economic hypocrisy opens the door to honest anti-materialistic reaction. That seems a strong and compelling argument. Yet it also appears too simplistic as stand-alone analysis since it emphasizes a single -- even if correct -- political explanation above many relevant factors. The problem here is that Schechter does not provide a sufficiently detailed social investigation to understand the origins of the rise of Falun Gong. This book remains mostly at the level of surface phenomena.

Another problem is that Schechter fills many pages with uncritically reproduced testimonies from Falun Gong practitioners, often straight from Internet websites without independent authentication. The human rights issues are too important for any element of online Matt-Drudgery.

Falun Gong followers have a propensity for ecstatic description of their beliefs. Many of their reports of miraculous mind-over-body cures of illness are couched in language that by switching a few terms could just as easily be taken from nineteenth-century followers of Mary Baker Eddy. These statements range from troubling to pitiful. One practitioner in Riga asserts "All of us want to attain a perfect completion" and worries about attaining a state of metaphysical "non-leakage". Others express a desire to return to their "original true selves" through "the power of the Great Law". Another practitioner attributes to Falun Gong a power "to assimilate to the characteristics of the Universe." Nowhere does Schechter criticize this theo-gobbledegook, as if a defense of right to religious belief and critique of that belief were incompatible undertakings.

This vacation from engagement seems attributable to the book's thrown-together structure and inadequate investment in old-fashioned writing. Only about a third of the book is Schechter's own writing: the rest of this 250-page book is a reader and resource guide to Falun Gong. One of the most interesting sections of field report and analysis is lifted entirely from an Amnesty International human rights report. It is at such points where unfavorable comparison emerges between AI's deeply-informed writing and a book that perforce relies on better-informed sources.

An index, one of those useful and taken-for-granted pleasures of book culture, is missing from this volume. Indexing software is quite cheap and effective (it can even be done in Microsoft Word), so there is no good reason for its absence. Such oversights mar the production.

Falun Gong raises questions that too often get avoided. While the movement's beliefs leave many with the usual skeptical rejection of vague metaphysical jabberings, if clearing the nonsense test were an acceptable criterion for free speech, few of us would have entitlement to speak without impediment. That a movement so questionable as Falun Gong is also so clearly at the vanguard of democratic practice and assertions of freedom should shame secular democrats for the inadequacy of our own efforts.

Falun Gong's Challenge to China is available from Akashic Books.

Copyright © 2000 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.
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