Falun Gong exercise

Falun Gong is a spiritual exercise group and quasi-religious movement that incorporates traditional Chinese, Daoist and Buddhist practices and beliefs. It is based on a form of qigong (deep-breathing exercises) that purports to elevate members to high planes and harness the body's energy to bring about better health through breathing, exercise and mediation. Before it was crushed by the Chinese government Falun Gong was regarded as China's fastest-growing religion. It members included factory workers, businessmen, housewives and a surprising number of Communist Party members.

Falun Gong (literally "the power of the law wheel," also called Falun Dafa) claims to have no structure and no hierarchy although it clearly did. Before the crackdown members gathered at people's homes, 39 general offices, 1900 teaching facilities and 28,000 exercise points throughout China. The inner workings of Falun Gong are shrouded in secrecy and communication is through propaganda. For its practitioners, Falun Gong is a principle. They define it as the “practice of traditional Chinese meditation, in which practitioners use five classic exercises to achieve a trinity of “truthfulness,” “compassion” and “forbearance.” The exercises are intended to dissolve blockages in the body and cleanse the spirit.

Joseph Kahn wrote in the New York Times: Falun Gong was established in 1992 and claimed 70 million to 100 million practitioners in China in the late 1990s. Because of its perceived antigovernment activities, Falun Gong was outlawed in China in April 1999, and reportedly tens of thousands of its practitioners were arrested and sentenced to “reeducation through labor” or incarcerated in mental hospitals. The constitution grants citizens of the People’s Republic of China the freedom of religious belief and maintains that the state “protects normal religious activities,” but that no one “may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state.” [Source: Joseph Kahn, New York Times, August 22, 2008]

Good Websites and Sources: Pulitzer-Prize-winning articles about Falun Gong Wall Street Journal ; Center for Studies of New Religions cesnur.org Falun Dafa falundafa.org ; Falun Dafa Info Center faluninfo.net ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia Falun Dada Clear Wisdom clearwisdom.net : Chinese Government anti-Falun Gong sites Condemn Falun Gong Cult xinhuanet.com ; China Association of Cultic Studies facts.org.cn

Falun Gong Sources: Leeshai Lemish has written four short articles, from a Falun Gong standpoint, including Being a Falun Gong Practitioner, Why is Falun Gong Banned?, China’s Other World, Falun Gong: defying the odds. Ethan Gutmann has written several articles about the persecution, which also talk about the nature of Falun Gong. Book: Falun Gong and the Future of China by David Ownby (2008, Oxford University Press).

Good Websites and Sources: Traditional Religion in China: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religion Facts religionfacts.com; Deities Worshipped by Farmers China Vista ; Mazu China Vista ; Video: “Ancestor Worship, Confucian Teaching, featuring Myron L. Cohen Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; Feng shui Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Feng Shui Crazy fengshuicrazy.comfengshuisociety.org ;Skeptic’s Dictionary on Feng Shui skepdic.com ; Qi Gong Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Classical text sources neigong.net ; Qi Gong Institute qigonginstitute.org ; Qi Gong association of America /www.qi.org ; Skeptic’s Dictionary on Qi Gong skepdic.com

Folk Beliefs and Superstitions: Chinatown Connection chinatownconnection.com ; New York Times on Earthquake superstitions nytimes.com ; Old Book on Superstitions archive.org/ or Old Book PDF Fileus.archive.org/2/items ; Five Elements chinatownconnection ; I Ching Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; China Vista chinavista.com ; Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu;

Funerals and Death: Chinese Beliefs About Death deathreference.com ; Death and Burials in China chia.chinesemuseum.com.au ; Grief in China Culture www.indiana.edu ; Chinese Funeral Customs China Vista; Lucky Numbers Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; New York Times article nytimes.com ; China View article xinhuanet.com ; News in Science abc.net.au ; Symbols Chinese Symbols. Com chinese-symbols.com ; Chinatown Connection chinatownconnection.com ; What’s Your Sign whats-your-sign.com

Good Websites and Sources on Religion in China: Chinese Government White Paper on Religion china-embassy.org ; United States Commission on International Religious Freedom uscirf.gov/countries/china; Articles on Religion in China forum18.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Council of Foreign Relations cfr.org ; Brooklyn College brooklyn.cuny.edu ; Religion Facts religionfacts.com; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy stanford.edu ; Academic Info academicinfo.net ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies sino.uni-heidelberg.de

Books: 1) James Watson and Evelyn Rawski, eds., “Death Ritual in Late Imperial and Modern China” (Berkeley, 1988); 2) the chapter by Maurice Freedman in “The Study of Chinese Society,” ed. G. William Skinner (Stanford, 1979), pp. 296-312; 3) Laurence Thompson, “Chinese Religion” (Belmont, 1979), Chapter 3; 4) C. K. Yang, “Religion in Chinese Society” (Berkeley, 1961), pp. 40-43, 52-53; 5) Henri Doré (1914-1933), “Researches into Chinese Superstitions,” trans. M. Kennelly, 6 vols. (Shanghai), vol. 4, pp. 417 ff.]; 5) Addison, James Thayer. “Chinese Ancestor Worship: A Study of its Meaning and its Relations with Christianity” (London: The Church Literature Committee of the Chung Hua Sheng Kung Hui, 1925); 6) Graham, David Crockett. “Folk Religion in Southwest China” (Washington: The Smithsonian Institution, 1961); Hsu, Francis L. K. “Under the Ancestor’s Shadow” (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971); 7) "The Way of Qigong" by Kenneth Cohen (Ballantine Books); 8) "Astrology: A History" by Peter Whitfield (Abrams, 2001). You can help this site a little by ordering your Amazon books through this link: Amazon.com.

Is Falun Gong a Cult?

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Falun Gong members
When Falun gong was thriving in China many members met at parks and plazas at dawn for study and exercise sessions led by "tutors." The tutors were grouped into stations. They met regularly to discuss the direction of the movement and plan large events. Station "chiefs" kept in contact with the Falun Gong Data Research Society in Beijing, which responded to orders from the group’s founder and leader.

On Falun Gong being labeled a cult Falun Gong member J. Zhang wrote me in an e-mail: "This is not a mainstream view, or even an accurate one. Most scholars have rejected this as a label that was made up by the CCP. In fact, the CCP labelled Falun Gong (xie jiao), which is something like "heretical teaching" or even "evil religion", four months after the persecution began. They already started persecuting and had some other excuses, in July, but then In October, they brought out the xie jiao label. Very clever. Then they were even more clever: they translated it into "evil cult" in English--doesn't that sound so much nastier? I don't think you should buy into this language in that way. It makes the article altogether seem biased. The key is that there are no leaders or structure or organisation in Falun Gong, it is a website with the teachings,and then people do as they please. Anyway, my point is just that the 'cult' label is propaganda, plain and simple, it is meant to slander and discredit, and the CCP has been doing it to "righters," "capitalist roaders," "splittists", etc. etc. for a long time. Imagine starting an article on Lin Biao that he was "a KMT spy who was thoroughly exposed..." -- can you imagine? This is similar. So that is one thing.

On Falun Gong being put in the section "Superstition, Cults and Sects" rather than the section on religions, J. Zhang wrote: “Those terms are negative. By putting Falun Gong in there, you are making an implicit negative assessment, that doesn't seem fair to readers, whose opinions on the matter will already be colored by this choice. Further, if Falun Gong was not persecuted, I am sure it would be regarded as "legitimate" as any other peaceful belief system. So in a sense that is also an unfortunate political statement, and one on the side of the oppressor. Sorry to put it bluntly like that, but that's my view.

Li Hongzhi and the Founding of Falun Gong

Li Hongzhi

The leader of Falun Gong is the baby-faced Grand Master Li Hongzhi. The son of a surgeon and a gynecologist, he was born in Gongzhi Ling, an industrial town in northeastern Jilin province in 1951. According to Beijing sources, he changed his birthday to match that of Buddha (Li contends that the mix up was the result of a bureaucratic error during te Cultural Revolution).

In 1991, Li quit his job as a watchman in grain company and became an officially recognized qigong master. According to Beijing sources before his watchman job he worked at an army stud farm and once played trumpet for a theatrical troupe. In his free time he studied Buddhism and Taoism.

Described as more individual than charismatic, Li founded Falun Gong in 1992 as a qi gong group. His first nine-day lecture series earned him a small fortune.

Li established Falun Gong in Changchun, a dirty industrial city about 500 miles northeast of Beijing. His four deputy directors were all members of the Communist Party. Li traveled throughout China and later the United States and elsewhere, giving lectures and spreading the message of Falun Gong. The message was also spread through audio and video cassettes. The lectures and cassettes also earned Falun Gong lots of money.

One Chinese man who attended a Falun Gong lecture led by Li told the New York Times, Li “is like qigong masters everywhere but claims to be one level above them. He treats it like a religion. He has a complete philosophy of life and death."

The government revoked Li's master of qigong status for spreading superstition. Li moved to the United States in 1995 claiming he was persecuted in China. He now lived in Queens, New York and has a Green Card.

Falun Gong Members

Estimates of Falun Gong numbers range from between 2 million (the Chinese state estimate) and 100 million (Falun Gong estimate with 70 million in China and 30 million outside China). At its height it probably had between 10 million and 20 million members, with several million of them members of the Communist Party.

Falun Gong was embraced in rural areas, with villagers doing exercise in the village square. Many villagers found comfort and fulfillment in the exercises and group’s beliefs.

Many members were middle-aged women or retirees in their 50s and 60s who had grown up with Communist ideology and had become disillusioned with it. Several retired generals, including one of the last living Field Marshals, and several members of the standing committee of the of the Politburo had ties with the Falun Gong.

Massive Falun Gong gathering in Guangzhou in the 1990s

Many members claimed that Falun Gong helped them fill a spiritual void and overcome physical and emotional problems. One follower told the Los Angeles Times, "It gave me something I was looking for. It elevated me to a higher level." Another member told the Washington Post, "I joined because they offered me some hope. They told me that I didn't need to take medicine anymore if I would only believe. Well, my factory's hospital had gone out of business so I thought I'd try it."

The message of Falun Gong had been spread by word-of-mouth, through lectures and videos, and through the official Falun Gong website (www.falundafa.org). Anyone could join and the cost for the lectures, video cassettes and books was relatively low. Some accused the group of using brainwashing techniques. Families of Falun Gong members said the members became withdrawn and moody after joining the cult. Some gave up promising jobs

Falun Gong has been very sensitive about being criticized. In some cases, people who said bad things about the group received the Falun Gong equivalent of a curse---an energy wheel that goes backwards---and were pressured into recanting negative statements made about the group. After a Beijing television station did a negative piece about the group hundreds of Falun Gong members protested outside the television station. The reporters who did the piece were fired and a more flattering piece was run.

Falun Gong Beliefs and Practices

The main Falun Gong text is Zhuan Falun ("Rotating the Law Wheel"). It describes the "wheel of law", a mystical orb of energy that spins in the lower abdomen and produces good health and has supernatural powers. Falun Gong also incorporates Buddhism and Taoism and some wacky beliefs. Followers are encouraged to practice "truthfulness, benevolence and tolerance." In some of his texts, Li blames the world's problems on invasions by aliens.

The Zhuan falun offers moral guidance and metaphysical speculations as well as exercise routines. People who follow the routine religiously are said obtains a “third eye” that allows them to see other dimensions and escape the world of atoms and molecules.

Falun Gong powers have been credited with curing cancer, making the blind see and turning white hair into black hair. Li himself is believed to have miraculous healing powers. It is said he can control people from a distance and he possesses the ability to became invisible and fly. Some Falun Gong members claim that pictures of Li kept in their house occasionally emit light.

Falun Gong exercises

Falun Gong members gather in parks and do slow tai-chi-like exercises to the sound of slow, mellow Chinese music. They also mediate in a variety of positions. Favorite positions include standing and reaching for the sky, standing up and making an "O" sign with the arms and sitting down in lotus position and holding an invisible box on the top and bottom with parallel arms. Describing a Falun Gong gathering in Beijing, Ray Fang wrote in U.S. News & World Report, "Every Sunday, thousands of people line up in neat rows on a plaza in a western corner of the city. At precisely 7 a.m., the tape-recorded voice of Grand Master Li Hongzhi echoes through loudspeakers, and the assembled masses raise their arms together. With their eyes closed, yet in perfect unison, their hands sweep slowly in a circle and come to rest in a prayer position.”

Falun Gong members also take part in revival-meeting-like "exchanges" in which they stand up before a group, describe a past sin or illness, give thanks to the healing power of Master Li and then claim to be cured or reformed. Ray Fang wrote in U.S. News & World Report, "Some in the audience weep as Li Jining, 40, recalls the he was a successful composer until he came down with a cancer-like illness that left him in a body cast, contemplating death. Then he picked up Master Li's book...and felt instantly “like someone had put a plastic shield around me.” Within months, he says, he was cured." A drug addict said he picked up a copy Li's book, which belonged to his aunt, read the book over and over again for four days straight and overcame his addiction.

Describing a Falun Gong meeting at a private home, Tyler Marshall wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "Most of the 2½ hour session at Mrs. Chan's was consumed by a rapid-fire group recitation of texts dealing with personal self-improvement written by the Falun Gong founder."

Falun Gong 1999 Protests

April 1999 Zhongnanhai protest

On April 24, 1999, about 10,000 members of Falun Gong peacefully protested outside Zhongnanhai---the Kremlin-like fortress where most of the Communist leaders live---demanding that Falun Gong be a recognized and sanctioned by the state as an official religion. The protest was a response to criticism of teh group in the press and on television. Falun Gong member Jiang Chaohui said, "What we want is not much---we just want a peaceful place to practice."

The demonstration was largest show of civil disobedience since Tiananmen Square. Falun Gong members stayed for 13 hours with the aim of showing "their tolerance and forbearance.” Standing up to eight abreast, they formed a 1.2-mile line around the northern and western boundaries of the compound. Most of them just stood there quietly or mediated. There were no banners, chants or scuffles with police. But the group did demand a meeting with prime minister Zhu Rongji. This meeting took place in the evening. Zhu assured the Falun Gong members that the group would not be outlawed. After that the crowds quietly dispersed, leaving not one scrap of litter behind.

Joseph Kahn wrote in the New York Times, “On an April day in 1999, some 10,000 practitioners of the quasi-religious Chinese exercise society Falun Gong gathered outside Zhongnanhai, the tightly guarded compound in Beijing where China’s leaders live and work. The demonstrators staged a silent protest against negative media coverage and dispersed without a fuss. But it was the largest and most disciplined civil action in the Chinese capital since the student-led democracy movement a decade earlier. Seemingly overnight, the group and its enigmatic founder, a onetime trumpet player and grain purchase agent named Li Hongzhi, had emerged from obscurity to challenge the ruling Communist Party. At least that is how China’s authoritarian leaders saw it. Within a few months, the police had imprisoned tens of thousands of Falun Gong followers. The group claims that some 3,000 of its members were tortured to death in custody. [Source: Joseph Kahn, New York Times, August 22, 2008]

Banning of Falun Gong in China After Beijing Protest

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Anti-Falun Gong poster
Three months after the protest in July 1999, Falun Gong was banned. The government accused the group of being an "evil cult" with "superstitious, evil thinking" intentions that ‘sabotages social stability." Authorities also claimed Falun Gong brainwashed members, bilked them of their money and gave them false hopes. Some Chinese leaders reportedly considered Falun Gong to be the No. 1 most serious threat to Chinese security---more of a threat than people calling for independence in Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang. A front page commentary in the People’s Daily read: “We must be fully prepared with powerful countermeasures for the bitterness and complexity of struggle against this evil force.”

Joseph Kahn wrote in the New York Times, “The rise and fall of Falun Gong, and its subsequent transformation in exile into a well-financed and ubiquitous nemesis of the Communist Party, is probably the most mysterious chapter in the history of China over the last 30 years, its age of reform. Diplomats, journalists and China specialists have had difficulty explaining the mass appeal of Li, who even before the 1999 protest was more invisible than charismatic. Like the Communist Party, Falun Gong shrouds its inner workings in secrecy and communicates through propaganda. Equally perplexing, the ruling party’s reaction to Falun Gong seemed wildly disproportionate to any threat that the group, made up largely of retired men and women who practiced exercises in public parks, could pose to the Chinese state. [Source: Joseph Kahn, New York Times, August 22, 2008]

Ethan Gutmann wrote in Focus Quarterly, “According to Chinese state security in 1999, Falun Gong numbered 70 million---far greater than the Tiananmen movement. In contrast to the elite students of Beijing, Falun Gong's demographics ranged from illiterate peasants to professors, entrepreneurs and high-ranking party members, as if they had been selected for a nation-wide Chinese focus group. The viral spread of Falun Gong had been eerily similar to the rise of the Chinese Communist Party---a major factor in Jiang Zemin's original decision to eliminate the movement. The party grasped that authoritarian societies do not fall in a moral vacuum, and Falun Gong represented a powerful revival of traditional Chinese and Buddhist values. The movement's claim to be strictly non-political and non-violent had no mitigating effect; the Party knew that all resistance in China has political ramifications, and non-violent resistance has tremendous historical power. If the CCP fell, Falun Gong would---reluctantly perhaps, but inevitably---become one of the key actors in a post-CCP China. And with the revitalization of Falun Gong in the West, that threat only increased over time. [Source: Ethan Gutmann, Focus Quarterly, Winter 2011]

Booking burning sessions were held with Falun Gong texts. Falun Gong members were encouraged to recycle their books and read materials with a scientific foundation. In many ways the campaign was geared towards party members. One human rights activist told Newsweek, “So many party members believe in Falun Gong that” the government “wants to scare them.”

Crackdown on Falun Gong Members in China

Falun Gong reacted to the ban by gathering in large numbers in Tiananmen Square in quiet acts of civil disobedience. A large protest was held in October 1999 after leaders of the group were arrested. More members were arrested. In many cases, police approached the members who were protesting and asked them if they were cult members. If they said yes they were arrested and taken away.

Describing the scene at Tiananmen Square protest in October 2000, Reuters reported, "'Falun Gong is good,' shouted one elderly man before seven plainclothes officer wrestled him to the ground, punched and kicked him, and carried him to a police minivan...Seconds later, a group of three elderly women tried to unfurl a red banner, but police ripped it from them and bundled them in a van, pulling one by the hair and punching another...Chinese tourists milling around the square...rushed from one incident to the next in large crowds to watch the action."

In what was the biggest crackdown since Tiananmen Square in 1989, police detained tens of thousands of people with connection to Falun Gong. Most were detained only briefly in stadiums and released. An estimated 5,000 members were sent to labor camps and mental hospitals. Some members received prison sentences of up to 15 years. Thousands are said to have been severely beaten. One woman died under mysterious circumstances in a police car only an hour after she was arrested.

At least 100 Falun Gong members are believed to have died while in detention at labor camps. At least ten members of Falun Gong died in a reeducation camp near Harbin in northern China in 2001.The government reported that many of them died in a mass suicide. Falun Gong said they were tortured to death.

Falun Gong members were arrested for things like obstruction of the law and stealing state secrets and “using a cult to sabotage implementation of the law.” Many members said they were beaten and tortured while in detention. One member told Newsweek, she was beaten by police in a car after her arrest, and later was stepped on and insulted by policewomen and fed water used to wash the feet of mental patients.

Chinese who tried to access Falun Gong web sites were tracked by the government; Falun Gong tutors were kept under surveillance by neighborhood and work committees; local Falun Gong leaders were given up to the Public Security Bureau by informants and then rounded up and jailed or sent to brainwashing classes.

Background Behind the Harsh Crackdown on Falun Gong

Falun Gong poster

For historians the crack down was not a surprise. In “Falun Gong and the Future of China,” David Ownby, a historian of China at the University of Montreal, argues that however extraordinary the demonstrations seemed at the time, both the popularity of Falun Gong and the party’s determination to wipe it out were predictable to students of Chinese history. The most threatening group nearly toppled the Chinese government during the Taiping Rebellion in the mid 19th century.

Joseph Kahn wrote in the New York Times: Since the emergence of the White Lotus Society in the 13th century, ordinary Chinese, particularly women and the poor, have found solace in sectarian movements whose features have remained consistent, Ownby argues. He calls the sects “redemptive societies.” They are organized around charismatic leaders who preach that salvation can be attained through cultivation of body and mind. Believers are said to acquire paranormal powers, like the ability to levitate and to cure diseases. [Source: Joseph Kahn, New York Times, August 22, 2008]

Chinese political leaders, who have rarely tolerated independent religious activity, repressed the sects. White Lotus societies were associated with rebellions in the 13th and 18th centuries and became an all-purpose designation for subversive groups, so much so that Ownby argues that the term long persisted because of “the paranoid imagination of the late imperial state.” The republican and Communist governments of the 20th century inherited this antireligious bias. Both permitted five religions---Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, Catholicism and Protestantism---provided that they submitted to strict state supervision. When spiritual entrepreneurs tried enticing followers on their own, they were banned. [Ibid]

“China is largely blind to its own religious history, having adopted an overly restrictive definition of religion in the early 20th century and having attempted ever since to make reality fit the mold,” Ownby writes. Communist officials made a partial exception in the 1980s. They allowed populist exercise groups to emerge under the umbrella of qigong, a mystical mix of meditation, breathing and visualization that was thought to offer an inexpensive way to treat diseases like hepatitis, asthma and diabetes. [Ibid]

Li founded Falun Gong under the qigong banner in 1992. It proved a hit. His first nine-day lecture series earned him a small fortune. His “Zhuan Falun,” the group’s bible, offered not only exercise routines, but also a moral code and metaphysical speculations. He claimed that people who followed his cultivation formula acquired a “third eye” that allowed them to peer into other dimensions and escape the molecular world. Falun Gong grew quickly, claiming millions of followers. But by 1995, Chinese authorities had become wary of big qigong groups. Li moved to the United States, where he continued to direct a remarkably resilient Falun Gong empire even as he largely disappeared from public view. When Chinese state-run media began warning about the evils of sects like Falun Gong, the group staged demonstrations that culminated in the April 1999 protest. [Ibid]

Falun Gong Self-Immolations and Arrests in China

Falun Gong symbol

Several Falun Gong members set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square. In January 2000, two women, their daughters and a man set themselves on fire. One woman died and four others were badly burned. One of the survivors, according to Beijing sources, said she set herself on fire to reach a paradise "built with gold." She was severely burned on her face, head and hands and lost most of her fingers.

A month later a man traveled 800 miles form southern China to Beijing and burnt himself to death. According to state sources a note found near the charred corpse said that the followers must sacrifice themselves for the cult. The government widely publicized the events as an illustration of Falun Gong's extremism. Members of the group said self immolations went against the teachings of Falun Gong and claimed the incidents were staged by Communist officials.

On the self-immolations J. Zhang wrote in his e-mail: “The immolation is not proven to have been done by practitioners. Philip Pan went to investigate and found that two of them were not practitioners at all, then there are the numerous inconsistencies regarding the reportage, the filming, the aftermath, etc. etc. The story you cite about "one month later" seems really made up--someone killed themselves and the police produce a note.” We know how reliable the police are in China, especially when it comes to something like this. If you consult Ownby you'll see he does not use that.

The crackdown continued. In November 2001, 35 Western practitioners of Falun Gong were arrested and deported after staging a protest in Tiananmen square. In February 2002, two foreign members of Falun Gong were arrested in Tiananmen Square after they unfurled a banner and shouted some slogans. In May 2003, an American linked to Falun Gong was sentenced to three years in prison for breaking into Chinese television signals to show videos protesting the ban on the group.

Members of Falun Gong were given sentences of six years on charges of “using a cult organization to harm the implementation of the law” for handing out flyers. In May 2004, a Hong Kong Falun Gong follower was sentenced to three years in prison for distributing leaflets that addressed persecution of the group in China. She was caught and tried in a secret court in the Chinese border city of Shenzhen.

Torture and Falun Gong in China

Falun gong members have been fired from their jobs and forced to take months of “deprogramming” classes. In some cases they have been sent to mental hospitals. Explaining what happened at his brainwashing class, one Falun Gong leader told the Washington Post, "They said if they didn't achieve their goals, if we didn't give up our beliefs, we'd be taken to a labor camp."

Activists say that scores of Falun Gong members have died in police custody from beatings and abuse. One Falun Gong leader told the Washington Post after his release: "I am a broken man. I have rejected Falun Gong...Now, whenever I see policemen and those electric truncheons, I feel sick, ready to throw up." Another member said, "I cursed Falun Gong but the police said it wasn't enough. They continued beating me for three more days until they were satisfied." Chinese authorities denied mistreating anyone, and said many of those who died did so from hunger strikes and refusing medical attention.

One Falun Gong member was reportedly hanged from overhead pipes intil his legs rotted. There were also reports of members being raped in police custody and starved and then forced fed until they vommitted.

Charles Lee, a California businessman and U.S. citizen who was jailed for three years and released in 2006 for participating in Falun Gong activities in China said that while in prison he was beaten, deprived of sleep and food and handcuffed in painful positions. He said the government tried to “brainwash” him and subjected him to "forced slave labor in harsh conditions.”

There have been unconfirmed reports that the Chinese government practices organ harvesting on Falun Gong members.

Propaganda, the Media and Brainwashing and Falun Gong in China

The government also launched a propaganda campaign against Falun Gong to portray it as an "evil cult." Images of the burned woman and her daughter were shown continuously on television along wiith reports that 1,700 Falun Gong members died after they "went insane, committed suicide or refused medical treatment."

Public exhibits linked Falun Gong with groups like David Koresh's Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas; Jim Jones' People Temple (the group that committed mass suicide in Guyana) and Aum Shinrikyo (the group responsible for the sarin gas attack in Tokyo). Falun Gong leader Li was personally attacked with assertions that he made huge profits from selling books and tapes and used this money to buy “luxury houses and limousines.”

Beijing approved the publication of comic books that mocked Falun Gong and Li. A television documentary warned that practicing Falun Gong could cause paranoia, hallucinations, “sickness, handicaps and even death” and then went on to show images of cult members who had allegedly killed themselves and showcased one man who was reportedly cut open by members of the group looking for a “wheel of law” inside him.

On the way Falun Gong is presented in the media J. Zhang wrote: “An understanding of Falun Gong [is often] derived mostly from unsympathetic journalists and third parties, rather than, you know, actually sitting down with a practitioner and talking to them about their experiences and what it's like. I just feel that stigma that the CCP placed on it, which is so hard to shake, is just a big shame. Everyone likes to use these terms to create distance and construe Falun Gong as some "other," something somehow hard to understand, not normal, not what it says it is, etc. etc., rather than just as we are: people who are in our own journeys for something good. It's pretty simple, and it was simple until 1999, but when you pile on all the persecution, propaganda, and the mess it brings, things obviously get complicated.

Chinese Government Cyber Attacks on Falun Gong

The Chinese government set up a well-equipped, secretive government entity known as 6-10 Office to monitor the cyber activities of Falun Gong. Hao Feng jun, a Chinese intelligence official who defected in 2005 to Australia, told Ethan Gutmann of World Affairs: “Practitioners of Falun Gong thought of themselves as protected by the amorphous floating world in which they traveled---a world without membership lists, central authority, or hierarchy. Yet they were being watched, infiltrated, and studied. After the 1999 crackdown, hardcore practitioners were relentlessly persuaded, drugged, starved, or tortured and discovered that they knew more names, connections, address- es, and distinguishing characteristics of their fellow congregants than they had ever realized.” [Source: Ethan Gutmann, World Affairs, May-June 2010]

“Before 1999, Falun Gong practitioners hadn’t systematically used the Internet as an organizing tool. But now that they were isolated, fragmented, and searching for a way to organize and change government policy, they jumped online, employing code words, avoiding specifics, communicating in short bursts. But like a cat listening to mice squeak in a pitch-black house, the Internet Spying section of the 6-10 Office could find their exact location, having developed the ability to search and spy as a result of what Hao describes as a joint venture between the Shandong Province public security bureau and Cisco Systems. What emerged was a comprehensive database of people’s personal information---including 6-10's Falun Gong lists---and a wraparound surveillance system that was quickly distributed to other provinces.” [Ibid]

“However, as the internal war with Falun Gong dragged on, and as its overseas practitioners kept bringing graphic results of torture to the attention of the international legal system, the party felt that it had no choice but to widen the campaign. According to Hao, this explains why the first examples of hacking leading to widespread, sustained network disruption outside China were not aimed at the Pentagon or Wall Street. China’s first prolonged denial of service attack---essentially exhausting the bandwidth capability of a Web site until it becomes unavailable---was carried out from servers in Beijing and Shenzhen against Clearwisdom.net, the main Falun Gong practitioner site, hosted by servers in North America. The technical signature suggested a primitive, neophyte army; on the American side, not long after the attacks took place, the origin was traced directly back to the address of the Public Security Bureau in Beijing.” [Ibid]

The Chinese authorities called it the Golden Shield, and Hao used it on a daily basis. As far as following practitioners, Hao said, “The Golden Shield includes the ability to monitor online chatting services and mail, identifying IPs and all of the person’s previous communication, and then being able to lock in on the person’s location---because a person will usually use the computer at home or at work. And then the arrest is carried out.” [Ibid]

Chinese Government Attacks on Falun Gong Outside China

Protest by European Falun Gong members at Tiananmen Square

Ethan Gutmann wrote in World Affairs,”China’s operational landscape widened. In 2004, a car full of Falun Gong legal-activist practitioners on their way to serve papers against party officials in Pretoria, South Africa, was strafed in a drive-by shooting on a highway outside of the Johannesburg airport. Break-ins and vandalism at the Hong Kong and Taipei offices of a Falun Gongassociated newspaper, Epoch Times, followed. In 2006, the North American Falun Gong system administrator was rolled up in a carpet and beaten while mainland agents ransacked the files and computers in his suburban Atlanta home.” [Source:Ethan Gutmann, World Affairs, May-June 2010]

“The 6-10 Office also created fake refugees---young, trained to mimic Falun Gong behavior, and holding paperwork confirming time spent in laogai, China’s penal system. No matter how clever the Australian or the American government is, Hao told me, they have no way to distinguish the real [Falun Gong refugees] and the police officers. To create friction between dissident groups, the refugee-bots planted themselves in dissident media centers in New York and Washington. Even if many were ultimately unmasked, they created havoc for internal network security.”

“This picture was confirmed in my conversations with Han Guangsheng, a former chief of the Justice Bureau in the city of Shenyang who had spent most of his time working in a labor camp overcrowded with Falun Gong practitioners. When I interviewed him in Toronto in 2007, he confirmed that State Security had shifted its attention toward the over- seas Falun Gong threat. Yet he also felt that the shift was not just about defeating Falun Gong, but about widening China’s internal wars into the Chinese diaspora and generating a campaign to turn anyone of Chinese blood into a de facto supporter of the Chinese Communist Party.

“I also talked to Chen Yonglin, who was a Chinese diplomat based at the Sydney consulate until 2005, when he suddenly requested protection from the Australian government. We met in a private home in the suburbs eighteen months later. Careful and media-savvy, Chen began by authenticating his point that there were a thousand or more Chinese agents on Australian soil and then went on to explain that the vast majority were employed not to go after military technology, but to monitor Falun Gong and other dissidents in the Chinese communities of Melbourne and Sydney.

“Yahoo’s lawyers recently informed me that there had been a rare and unusual security breach into my e-mail account. That is consistent with the smash-and-grab of files in my car while I was interviewing Falun Gong practitioners in Montreal, and the questioning and forced deportation of my research assistant when he tried to enter Hong Kong. He was recently on a tour bus in Montreal with Falun Gong members who discovered that their tires had been carefully slashed to induce blowouts when the bus had reached highway speed. According to Google, the Gmail break-ins (which may indeed have been facilitated by employees) were not aimed at individuals with military or business connections, but at Chinese journalists and Western human rights activists.”

Decline of Falun Gong in China

Li Hongzhi

The government crackdown on Falun Gong seems to have been successful in achieving its goals. Since the ban there have been no more large exercise gatherings in parks and ithe majority of members, it seems, have left the movement. Many Falun Gong members were not committed enough to the group to risk imprisonment and persecution. As a result Falun Gong has declined in popularity and influence.

Falun Gong members that have remained are hardcore members, some of whom have been willing to put themselves at risk and stand up for their rights and the rights of Falun Gong. Many of those who have refused to renounce Falun Gong have been fired from their jobs, are monitored by neighborhood "work units," and harassed by police. Many would be homeless were it not for handouts from other Falun Gong members.

Falun Gong in China now largely exists in the form of loose underground cells with interchangeable volunteers. Members meet secretly at bars and restaurants. They don’t use cell phones or e-mail because they can easily be monitored by authorities. They prefer public phones and pagers. Meeting between members last just a few minutes and calls are equally short and filled with coded messages. When confronted by police the often give themselves up because Falun Gong “frowns upon lying." Some Falun Gong leaders are still in jail.

On Falun Gong being described as a "loose underground cells with interchangeable volunteers" J. Zhang wrote: --whoever describes a group of peaceful meditators that way!” We just read a book and practice exercises, for goodness sake. It's unfair to call us "cells" and "interchangeable volunteers", there is no one to "change" us, there is only "us"), but I do not want to get into that.

The struggle continues mostly outside China. Large demonstrations supporting Falun Gong have been held in Hong Kong and Washington D.C. (See Hong Kong). In May, 2002, a loan protester raised a Falun Gong banner in Tiananmen Square to mark the anniversary of the cult.

In July 2004, China’s state television broadcasts were interrupted for nearly 15 minutes by an unauthorized broadcast in support of Falun Gong. The interference occurred on signals for APSTAR 6 satellites and affected 25 channels, including the 12 operated by state-run CCTV.

Falun Gong Today

The decade-long ban on Falun Gong was still in place in 2009. According to Falun Gong, 87,000 cases of torture have been recorded and more than 200,000 practitioners have been detained and 3,000 have been tortured to death in custody.

In China, people can be arrested for simply possessing Falun Gong materials.

In November 2008, the artist Xu Na, a Falun Gong member, was given a three-year sentence for “using a cult organization to undermine implementation of the law.” Xu and her husband were detained during a pre-Olympic sweep of Beijing in January 2008. The Falun Gong organization claims that Xu’s husband, the musician Yu Zhou, died in police custody 11 days after his detention.

It is hard to understand why the government cracked down so hard in Falun Gong as it was made up largely of retired men and women who just wanted to perform their exercises in peace. In the 1980s populist exercise groups were allowed to merge under the umbrella of qi gong.

The U.S. State Department didn’t win any friends in Beijing when it decided in May 2010 to give $1.5 million to the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, a Falun-Gong-backed group that had developed software to skirt Internet censorship around the globe.

In November 2010, a Falun Gong member was granted refugee status in South Korea.

Chinese Government Repression of Falun Gong

In 1999, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress adopted a decision, under Article 300 of the Criminal Law, to ban all groups the Government determined to be ‘cults,’ including the Falun Gong. The Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate also provided legal directives on applying the existing criminal law to the Falun Gong. The law, as applied following these actions, specifies prison terms of 3 to 7 years for ‘cult’ members who ‘disrupt public order’ or distribute publications. Under the law, ‘cult’ leaders and recruiters may be sentenced to 7 years or more in prison. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>]

Prior to the government’s 1999 ban on Falun Gong, a self-described spiritual discipline, it was estimated that there were 70 million adherents. [Source: “International Religious Freedom Report for 2013 China”, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State, state.gov ]

According to the U.S. State Department: In September Falun Gong practitioner Yu Jinfeng was reportedly arrested and then taken to a former reeducation-through-labor (RTL) facility. Her lawyer, Tang Jitian, was refused access to Ms. Yu and then detained for five days. Li Chang, a Falun Gong practitioner serving an 18-year sentence for reportedly holding a leadership position in Falun Gong and organizing a peaceful protest in 1999, remained in prison. Yu Changxin, a Falun Gang practitioner who was sentenced to 18 years in prison in 2000 on charges of using a heretical sect to obstruct justice, remained in prison. [Source: “International Religious Freedom Report for 2013 China”, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State, state.gov/|\]

610 Office, a Chinese government agency involved in cracking down on Falun Gong

According to Legal Daily, a newspaper published under the supervision of the Ministry of Justice, the MPS directly administered 24 high-security psychiatric hospitals for the criminally insane (also known as ankang facilities). Unregistered religious believers and Falun Gong adherents were among those reported to be held solely for their religious association in these institutions. Despite October 2012 legislation banning involuntary inpatient treatment (except in cases in which patients expressed an intent to harm themselves or others), critics stated the law did not provide meaningful legal protection for persons sent to psychiatric facilities. Patients in these hospitals reportedly were given medicine against their will and sometimes subjected to electric shock treatment. /|\

International Falun Gong-affiliated NGOs and international media reported detentions of Falun Gong practitioners continued to increase around sensitive dates. Authorities reportedly instructed neighborhood communities to report Falun Gong members to officials and offered monetary rewards to citizens who informed on Falun Gong practitioners. Detained practitioners were reportedly subjected to various methods of physical and psychological coercion in attempts to force them to renounce their beliefs. It remained difficult to confirm some aspects of reported abuses of Falun Gong adherents. Reports from overseas Falun Gong-affiliated advocacy groups estimated thousands of adherents in the country had been sentenced to administrative sentences of up to three years in RTL camps. /|\

According to an April 2012 investigative article published in a mainland Chinese magazine, officials at Liaoning Province’s Masanjia Labor Camp subjected prisoners to forced labor and abuses, including torture with electric batons, forced feeding, and prolonged solitary confinement. In November the international press reported the Masanjia Labor Camp had been closed, with its last group of detainees having been released in mid-September. Officials did not confirm these reports. Overseas Falun Gong advocacy groups stated the majority of prisoners at Masanjia were Falun Gong practitioners. Individuals belonging to or supporting other banned groups were imprisoned or administratively sentenced to RTL on charges such as “distributing evil cult materials” or “using a heretical organization to subvert the law.” /|\

On numerous occasions since his detention in 2009, prison authorities tortured Wang Yonghang, a lawyer who openly advocated for religious freedom and defended Falun Gong practitioners. He was serving a seven-year sentence for “using a cult to undermine implementation of the law.” In 2012, he was reportedly suffering from multiple ailments, including tuberculosis, internal fluid buildup, and paralysis below the waist. In early 2013, it was reported his health had deteriorated further and authorities refused to allow visits or provide his family with updates regarding his condition. /|\

Although Zhu Yubiao, a lawyer who had represented Falun Gong and under arrest since August 2010, was scheduled to be released in August 2012, authorities instead transferred him to Sanshui Law School in Foshan, Guangdong Province, where Falun Gong practitioners are reportedly forced to attend mandatory study sessions. Family members said Zhu began a hunger strike August 20, 2012 to protest his ongoing detention. No new information was available by year’s end. In November 2012, Beijing police arrested Zhang Fengying during a grocery shopping trip after she spoke to local residents about the benefits of practicing Falun Gong, according to her daughter. A court later charged Zhang with “using an evil cult” to undermine law enforcement. On January 22, authorities transferred her to the Tiantanghe Women’s RTL Camp in Beijing for two years of forced labor. /|\

According to the law inmates have the right to believe in a religion and maintain their religious beliefs while in custody. In practice, some prisoners and detainees of faith have been told to recant their beliefs, particularly Falun Gong practitioners, who reportedly endure “thought reform,” or are not provided adequate access to religious materials, facilities, or clergy. Some critics state amendments to the mental health law still do not provide meaningful legal protections for Falun Gong practitioners, members of unregistered religious organizations, and others sent to psychiatric facilities for political reasons. /|\

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; BBC; Landsberger Posters http://www.iisg.nl/~landsberger/

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2016

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