Falun Gong Rising
Every morning in public parks around the world, members of the Falun Gong devotional sect perform a series of five exercises in order to channel their qi, or vital energy.
And every few days in China, about a dozen members publicly unfurl banners emblazoned with Falun Gong symbols, protesting the government crackdown on their movement--only to be beaten and dispersed by the police moments later.
This dichotomy of spiritual practice on the one hand and political protest and persecution on the other has become central to the identity of Falun Gong. Despite its apolitical nature, Falun Gong has been subject to an intense government crackdown. Nevertheless, it has survived. Though Falun Gong will probably not directly effect political change in China, its situation is at the very least an ominous symbol of future troubles for the Chinese state.
Falun Gong, sometimes called Falun Dafa, was founded in 1992 by Li Honghzi, a railway official, during a rise in the popularity of qigong movements, which all aim to control the qi. In Falun Gong ritual, the Falun is a swastika surrounded by four rotating yin-yang symbols. It is physically situated in the lower abdomen and is the center of one's spiritual and physical energy. Through the five physical exercises and the devotion to the principles of truth, benevolence, and forbearance, one can awaken the Falun's energy--the qi--and achieve physical and mental well-being.
The Chinese government initially supported Falun Gong and other qigong movements because they were unique to China and thus helped the country tout the superiority of its indigenous traditions. Matters turned sour only in April 1999, when a professor named He Zuoxiu wrote an article in the newsletter Science and Technology for Youth warning of "deceitful lies" propagated by some qigong movements, including Falun Gong. Though only an independent opinion, his article provoked, a demonstration of 10,000 Falun Gong members who gathered outside the Beijing leadership compound and demanded an official apology.
Terrified by the mass mobilization, the Chinese government outlawed the group, and since then it has subjected Falun Gong to innumerable crackdowns, disseminated anti-Falun Gong propaganda, and designated the group a xiejiao, or "evil cult." The repression has sent thousands of Falun Gong members to forced-labor camps and has resulted in the deaths of at least 100 members. Yet despite all of the state's efforts, since 1999 the group's membership has skyrocketed, with a worldwide membership of somewhere between two million (the Chinese government's estimate) and 100 million (Li's estimate, which includes 30 million Communist party members) practicing the exercises worldwide.
The Chinese government's persecution has fueled Falun Gong's evolution from a simple spiritual practice to an avenue of protest in China. Following the April 1999 demonstration, the group has become increasingly politicized simply in order to fight for its existence. The change in Falun Gong's rhetoric exemplifies this transformation. In July 1999, Li said, "We are not against the government now, nor will we be in the future.... Falun Gong is simply a popular qigong activity. It does not have any particular organizational structure, let alone any political objectives. We have never been involved in any anti-government activities." By contrast, since October 2000, Li's essays written from exile in New York City have referred consistently to the Chinese government as "evil," and he has bitterly assailed the "depraved" disciples who relent in the face of official persecution. …