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Falun Gong Hints at Things to Come

August 27, 2000|SETH FAISON | Seth Faison, a visiting fellow at the Pacific Council for International Policy, is a former New York Times correspondent in China

Over the past month, hundreds of Chinese followers of Falun Gong have risked imprisonment to demonstrate in Tiananmen Square to protest the Communist Party's yearlong crackdown on their spiritual movement. Falun Gong, rather than being just another oddity on China's colorful panorama of human rights abuses, is actually an indication that the Communist Party is slowly losing its grip on political stability in China.

No matter how hard the authorities try to stamp out Falun Gong, its followers keep popping up, willing and ready to be arrested for the cause. In contrast with China's democracy advocates--few and disorganized--Falun Gong followers number in the tens of millions and act with remarkable discipline. They are determined and stoic, eager to endure personal hardship for the broader right to practice their beliefs. It is no surprise that with China's rapid change and social dislocation, many people are searching for something to believe in. Nor is it a surprise that many are latching on to mystical teachings like Falun Gong, with its nativist blend of Buddhist and Taoist elements, or its emphasis on clean living, self-sacrifice and health through meditation and breathing exercises.

What is truly surprising, however, is how difficult the authorities are finding it to ban Falun Gong. One reason is that Falun Gong's goals are at once so basic and so vague. Li Hongzhi, who created the movement in 1992 and remains its leader from his exile in New York City, teaches that the world is in a state of perilous decadence, which needs to be countered with proper meditation and an honest code of ethics.

A second reason is that Falun Gong organizers communicate with followers through a potent combination of word of mouth and the Internet, making it difficult for the authorities to identify and arrest its nerve centers. An even larger reason, though, seems to be that the Communist monolith is not really that monolithic anymore. Top leaders in Beijing may have orchestrated their toughest-sounding political campaign in a decade, but old methods of enforcement and intimidation are no longer effective.

At one time, a demonstrator in Tiananmen Square would risk being sent to jail for a serious period and being socially ostracized by one's workplace because the state controlled most jobs. These days, legal authorities cannot bring themselves to give a harsh jail sentence to an ordinary demonstrator. It is not that police and prosecutors sympathize with Falun Gong. Rather, it is that in a society as complex as China's has become, a peaceful demonstration does not rank as a serious crime. Nor should it.

Paradoxically, efforts by China's leaders to make their economic and social system more open and normal in recent years have inevitably undermined their own authority, even when they want to grab it back. Most Falun Gong protesters have been held for a few days or weeks and then sent home with little more than a slap on the wrist. Once released, few suffer any social stigma. The Communist Party has lost its moral authority, and those who oppose it are no longer seen as enemies.

Of course, top organizers of Falun Gong--including a former vice minister--have been treated more harshly. There have also been a handful of egregious cases of torture and death for Falun Gong followers in custody. Yet those cases have been few, and any genuine effort to understand the significance of Falun Gong should look past the few to the many.

And there are many. For the vast majority of the movement's followers, Falun Gong offers an appealing refuge from the big social trends in China today, crass commercialism and the pursuit of money.

Falun Gong does not offer any political platform, and it seems unlikely to pose a direct threat to China's government. But its resilience in the face of a tough campaign points to a weakening of old methods of control. And the protesters keep on coming.

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