Fa Lun Gong and Religious Freedom

Article excerpt

If 10,000 Buddhists sat down in Times Square without a permit, what would New York do?

There has been a lot of media coverage lately of Zhong Guo's attitude toward political and religious freedom. Articles written for state television and papers in Zhong Guo (People's Republic of China) have attempted to reassure "outsiders" that these two aspects of the Chinese constitution are taken very seriously by the Central Committee. At the same time, stories on national television and in papers in the United States have warned the Chinese government to practice what it preaches, or else face the consequences of a trade embargo.

The prosperity and general openness dominant in places like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Xiamen (where I am writing this essay) are not representative of most of Zhong Guo. In other parts of the country, poverty and bureaucratic inefficiency remain as legacies of the Cultural Revolution, thirty years of a planned economy based in state enterprises, and centuries of feudal stagnation. These two factors provide a basis for discontent and despair among the one billion Chinese who live below the standard set by the nation's prosperous cities. To achieve that standard will take longer than expected, given the Asian economic crisis.

It is the Central Committee's awareness of this brewing discontent that drives it to respond as it did to two situations that dominated the news in 1999: the Taiwanese leader's vow to move toward a "state to state" relationship with the mainland, and activities of the Fa Lun Gong sect. Although the Committee's responses appear negative to an outsider steeped in post-Enlightenment European values, they are valid and traditional in the Chinese context. Both of these situations involve political and religious freedoms, which are intertwined in Zhong Guo, even though what outsiders call the separation of "church" and "state" is assumed. The 1989 Tiananmen Square event, resulting in a still unknown number of deaths among dissident students, has been used by the West as proof that political freedom does not exist in Zhong Guo. Suppression of the Fa Lun Gong sect is now being cited as proof that religious freedom exists only on paper.

Religious freedom in Zhong Guo is part of the legal framework set up by the Communists in 1949, meant to allow all in the country equal opportunities to serve the state. Women and men have equal rights. Christians and Buddhists have equal rights. Minorities and the dominant Han Chinese have equal rights. No one was excluded from the wide embrace of the Party. All were invited to join in the longer march toward making Zhong Guo independent and strong. After more than a hundred years of internal strife and external attacks by the wolves of trade and religion, Zhong Guo built an impassive wall which became its face to the "outside" and turned inside to re-create itself. By 1978, it was ready to open a few small doors and windows in that wall, allowing the "outside" to peer in and its own people to peer out. If face met face, the hope was that learning would take place both ways.

However, twenty years later, few Chinese understand the "outside," and even fewer "outsiders" understand Zhong Guo. Even those with a strong grasp of its history and language do not appear to comprehend the reasons Chinese act as they do, on an individual or national scale. But Chinese do not understand Americans either. Too many things have happened lately which are tearing away the fragile trust between the PRC and U.S.A. American planes bombed Zhong Guo's embassy. The Cott Report levied accusations of nuclear spying (but what government does not have spies?). The U.S.A. is playing both sides of the fence over Taiwan. The dispersal of the Fa Lun Gong has been interpreted as suppression of religious freedom. There seems a concerted campaign by anti-Clinton forces in Washington to give Zhong Guo a "bad face."

As a result, many Chinese believe that their wish to cooperate with the U. …