Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.
Editor, Cultic Studies Review
The Chinese government has been harshly criticized for its treatment of Falun Gong members. The government and some western family members of Falun Gong practitioners say that Falun Gong has harmed thousands of citizens and poses a threat to public order. Passion is so high on both sides of this controversy that an objective evaluation is difficult to make. This paper approaches the controversy by asking questions directed at the Falun Gong organization and the Chinese government in the hope that the answers might contribute to a productive dialogue.
Falun Gong members are passionate in their criticisms of the Chinese government and have compiled impressive documentation of abuses. Yet many individuals in China, and some family members of Falun Gong members in the U.S., are equally passionate in their condemnation of Falun Gong, and they also point to documented abuses, medical neglect in particular.
The high level of passion in this area makes it difficult to assess the controversy objectively. Doing so requires a deep appreciation of Chinese culture and accurate, reliable information about what is really going on in China. Few of us possess the former and quite possibly none of us knows all the vital facts concerning the contemporary scene vis a vis Falun Gong. It seems to me, then, that we should approach the subject in a spirit of dialogue, rather than ideology or cultural egocentrism. We certainly can have and should share opinions. However, let us not hang on to our views so firmly that they become incorrigible. With this caveat in mind, I wish in this paper to share my reflections on the following questions:
What prejudices can interfere with our attempts to seek a balanced and informed perspective on the conflict?
To what extent has Falun Gong harmed Chinese individuals, families, and society?
How much of a threat does Falun Gong pose to the stability of the Chinese government and how should the government respond?
Cleaning the Lens of Our Prejudices
I here use the term “prejudice” in the sense of “any preconceived opinion or feeling, either favorable or unfavorable” (Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition, 2001). Several kinds of prejudices can distort our thinking on the conflict between China and Falun Gong.
China is a Gulag
Many people perceive China to be such a heavy-handed totalitarian state that to live in China is tantamount to living in a gulag. This view fosters a presumption of deception toward the Chinese government: Whatever the government says must be a lie, and whatever the government’s enemies say about it must be true.
Certainly, China is still a long way from being as open, tolerant, and free as the United States and other democracies. But is it so bad as to warrant a presumption of deception? Economically, China has made remarkable strides in recent years, progress that could not have occurred without an increased level of political freedom and respect for the rule of law. Although the Tiananmen Square episode remains a vivid memory for most who watched it unfold on television, the recent peaceful protest marches in Hong Kong suggest to some that Hong Kong may accelerate China’s movement toward greater freedom, rather than have its own freedom suppressed by the Chinese government.
Now, let me not be misunderstood. I am not saying that China is a “worker’s paradise”! Political freedom, however, does indeed appear to be increasing, even if not as rapidly as many want. Nonetheless, there are still many human rights problems. A number of independent agencies support Dr. Robbins’ assertion that some adherents of Falun Gong and other religious groups are indeed brutally targeted by the government (e.g., Chinese crackdown on religion, 2001, 13 December; U.N. human rights boss blasts China, 2000, 29 February; Up to 1200 temples destroyed in Chinese Crackdown, 2000, 13 December).
The Chinese government can surely be criticized. But that does not mean that the government’s claims, or claims by people in mental health agencies, for example, must always be contradicted. We should approach their allegations with skepticism, not a presumption of deception. And we should hope that China continues its movement toward political transparency, the need for which became acutely clear during the SARS epidemic. Otherwise, we run the risk of falling into an ideological hole in which we automatically assume that allegations 1, 2, 3 ….n are all false simply because they are made by people working for or dependent upon the government. Let us look at the claims skeptically, but also individually.
Cults are Good
Where some approach China with a presumption of deception, others approach cults with a presumption of benevolence (I here use “cult” in the more general sense of a charismatic group, not the pejorative sense). Cult members mean what they say, and since what they say is almost always warm and fuzzy, cults must be good. Falun Gong members say that the movement is about truth, compassion, and forbearance. Since no sensible person opposes these aspirations, Falun Gong must be “good,” if one accepts its claims uncritically.
Ironically, some who seem inclined toward a presumption of benevolence with regard to cults and cult members demonstrate a presumption of deception when those very same cult members become ex-members and say bad things about their former groups. They are now said to be apostates telling “atrocity tales” that are motivated by sour grapes and a desire to save face.
The presumption of benevolence transforms into a presumption of persecution when a cultic movement commits violent acts. Why do “good” groups do “bad” things? The simplistic answer some offer is that “bad” people, “bad” movements, or “bad” governments persecute the groups unjustly and “drive” them to violence. Of course, there is an element of truth to this assertion, for sociology has a rich literature on deviance amplification. An element of truth, however, isn’t the whole truth, and we should eschew simplistic interpretations.
Cults are Bad
The same mentality, but pointing in the opposite direction, can be found among some cult critics. If a religious group is new, out of the mainstream, and centered on a charismatic leader, it must be a cult and ipso facto must be bad. Nothing group members say can be believed. Everything the group’s critics say is accepted. Obviously, when this attitude characterizes people in positions of power, unfair treatment of groups labeled “cults” is to be expected.
A Middle Road
It is easy to listen to what the Chinese government or Falun Gong has to say and dismiss it all as lies unworthy of serious consideration. We can then experience the satisfaction of thinking that we understand or that we are part of a noble cause, whether that cause is to protect people from an evil cult or protect a persecuted cult from an evil government. So long as we see events through the lens of our black-and-white prejudices, everything is crystal clear and our vision seems to be exemplary. Such clarity is comforting.
If, however, we put aside our prejudices, our vision suddenly becomes blurry. The clarity and confidence we once had is now seen to be an illusion. We realize that understanding will take a lot of time and work. We have to question everything the Chinese government or Falun Gong tells us. On the other hand, we cannot dismiss what they say out of hand. Instead, we have to examine the evidence critically and laboriously.
Falun Gong and Harm
Since I am trying to put aside my prejudices, I trust that the reader will treat my words as the observations of a man with blurry vision. I don’t claim to have in-depth knowledge of the subject. Our electronic files, for example, contain over 1000 articles (mostly newspaper) on Falun Gong, only a small fraction of which I have read. And I am only superficially familiar with the scholarly literature. Hence, I will examine the issue as one who questions rather than one who answers.
Let me begin by giving Falun Gong the benefit of the doubt and presuming, at least for now, that initially it was a more or less benign qigong movement, “a general term designating a system for improving and maintaining good health based on ideas found in traditional Chinese medicine and culture” (Rahn, 2003, paragraph 1). Rahn says, “The qigong boom in China was massive. It began in the late 1970s and by 1986 there were over 2,000 qigong organizations. To regulate these groups, the government established the Chinese Qigong Scientific Research Organization” (Rahn, 2003, paragraph 25).
Falun Gong was certainly a major player in this qigong boom. Estimates of its popularity, however, vary considerably. An enemy of the group estimated it had 20,000,000 followers, while Li Hongzhi claimed 100,000,000 followers, including 70,000,000 in China (Ching, 2001). According to Ching (2001), even The People’s Daily said the group had a following of 2,100,000. Rahn (2003) cites sources claiming that 400,000 Communist Party members in China are Falun Gong members.
These huge numbers suggest to me that even were Falun Gong a completely benign group, we could expect many reports of harm, given that its basic practice consists of meditative exercises and a core belief is that faith can heal the body. Consider as a comparison a U.S. study that identified 172 children who died in faith-healing sects (with a combined membership that is only a tiny fraction of Falun Gong’s), 140 of whom died from “from conditions for which survival rates with medical care would have exceeded 90%” (Asser & Swan, 2000, p. 1).
Ching (2001) says, “Qigong is practiced to cease human thinking” (paragraph 14). If that is so and qigong does produce dissociative or altered states of mind, then one would expect a small but noticeable percentage of adherents to have adverse psychiatric reactions. There is some empirical evidence of harm associated with meditation (Otis, 1985; Perez-De-Albeniz & Holmes, 2000). Even relaxation exercises practiced in a psychologist’s office can occasionally produce what has been called “relaxation induced anxiety,” and very occasionally it can result in psychotic episodes (Heide, 1985; Heide & Borkevec, 1983; Heide & Borkevec, 1984). So far as I know, reliable statistics on the prevalence of such adverse effects are not available. However, even if the incidence were only one in one thousand, we could expect 2,000 to 100,000 such adverse reactions to meditation associated with Falun Gong, depending upon whose membership estimates one accepts. Even the low estimate would probably spark considerable public concern, since family members of adversely affected practitioners would probably place the blame on Falun Gong, even if the adverse reactions were nothing more than statistical aberrations reflecting the great variety in human psychological makeup.
A number of sources cited by Luo (2003) clearly suggest that Li says that practitioners of Falun Gong would not need medical care. Yet our informal conference discussion with Falun Gong members, several of whom were medical research professionals, indicated that some followers exercise common sense when applying the doctrines to their own lives. One medical researcher, for example, said that he of course takes his children to a pediatrician for immunizations and medical care when they are sick. Another said that he would of course take insulin if he had diabetes.
I don’t think these people were lying. If they applied common sense to Li’s doctrines they might reason as follows: “A person who is fully developed spiritually would as a result have a healthy body and not need medical care. I am not fully developed spiritually. Therefore, I may sometimes need medical care.” Falun Gong would not be the first faith-healing group to which such reasoning could be applied.
But some will not apply common sense to the doctrines. How many diabetics, for example, delude themselves into thinking that they don’t need insulin because they practice Falun Gong? How many people, like Samuel Luo’s step-father (Luo, 2003), have strokes and don’t seek medical care? Given Falun Gong’s huge following, there are probably tens of thousands of followers who reject needed medical care. Even though Falun Gong might claim that responsibility for such medical harm may lie with the irrational practitioner rather than the organization, family members will understandably blame Falun Gong. Moreover, the government’s public health authorities are sure to become alarmed, especially when an epidemic such as SARS threatens public health.
Thus, given its system of beliefs and practices, one would expect even a completely benign Falun Gong to be associated with harm among its members, even if it didn’t cause the harm. Hence, the government wouldn’t have to lie in order to compile evidence of harm associated with the organization, although the government could inflame the situation by simplistically imputing evil motives to Falun Gong merely because some practitioners get hurt.
If Falun Gong were not as benign as it claims to be, one could expect higher levels of harm among its members, for group pressures aimed at enforcing conformity with group doctrines would magnify whatever baseline level of irrationality might characterize the population of practitioners. Certain quotes from Li, such as the following from the New York Times, can lead one to suspect that there may be more causality in the associated harm than the Falun Gong organization is willing to acknowledge: “Other segments are said to show him urging practitioners to forgo medical care with admonitions like this: `If you go to the doctor it shows you don’t trust me'” (Rosenthal, E., 1999, 5 November, paragraph 9). Li even seems to place the blame on practitioners if the practice doesn’t cure them of ailments, a reproach that can have a devastating effect on psychologically vulnerable individuals:
…so many people who had severe health problems or incurable diseases before they learned the Fa became well after learning Dafa, so why is it some students are going the other direction and can’t sustain themselves?…Yes, the old forces have arranged for some people to get in, but why is it that most people can do it now, but you can’t? Haven’t I taught the Fa to you?! When problems arise, when something doesn’t feel right, you have to look at yourself! Look at where you were wrong and allowed the evil to take advantage. If you were wrong you should recognize it and do better. Don’t forget, you are all Fa-rectification period Dafa disciples! (http://www.clearwisdom.net/emh/articles/2003/5/6/2003nyjiefa.html)
The members I met at our conference seem, for the most part, to be well-intentioned. However, many of us who participated in the discussion felt very strongly that they were “spinning” us, that they had a public relations agenda. Their goal seemed to be to portray Falun Gong as a spiritual exercise aiming to promote a love of truth, compassion, and tolerance (this triad seems to vary; sometimes, for example, it is expressed as truth, benevolence, and forbearance). I encountered resistance when I pressed them, for example, on the nature of their relationship to Li. Their agenda seemed to be to enhance Falun Gong’s image so as to marshal western sentiment against the Chinese government, an understandable agenda given the reports of human rights abuses in China, and to avoid anything that might discomfort a western audience, such as their views on Li Hongzhi.
Nevertheless, an agenda that calls for “spin” will cause some to wonder what the members of the organization “really” believe and to suspect that “spin” is necessary because the truth may not go over that well. I, for example, would like Falun Gong to answer the following questions:
Do any of Li’s teachings or the organization’s writings on healing encourage practitioners to take a common-sense, rather than a fanatical, attitude toward the teachings on healing and/or provide guidelines on when to go to a doctor? If so, which writings?
What has the organization done to make sure it’s members pay attention to such caveats, if they indeed exist?
Is there any internal dissent within the Falun Gong organization? When my colleagues and I first began to dialogue with members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) several years ago, we were struck by the fact that the ISKCON Communications Journal had published articles critical of events, practices, and beliefs within ISKCON, e.g., the treatment of women and children, the structure of the guru system. This internal dissent was an important factor in convincing some of us that the reform movement within ISKCON is genuine, and it strengthened our commitment to further dialogue. Dissent is an essential aspect of any organization that permits its members to think for themselves. Is there evidence of such internal dissent within Falun Gong, or are members only likely to hear that all is well within Falun Gong and all “bad” events are due to negative “outside” forces?
When practitioners perform their qigong exercises, what goes on inside their minds, and what is supposed to go on? I have heard, for example, that some practitioners “claim that while practicing the exercises they can see gods, the F.G. paradise and things in the other world” (Luo, Samuel, personal communication, June 28, 2003). On the other hand, as noted above, Ching (2001) says that qigong seeks to cease human thinking, implying an affinity with the mind-emptying forms of meditation in Buddhism. Some meditative disciplines are aware of the risk of adverse psychological effects. Has Falun Gong demonstrated any such awareness and has it done anything to try to minimize this risk among its followers?
Who exactly is Li Hongzhi and what is his relationship with his followers? During the discussion at our conference, I pressed some of the Falun Gong members on this question. They had been emphasizing the “exercises.” But when the issue of the Chinese government’s claim that Li had committed fraud came up, I asked them if their relationship to the exercises would change if it turned out that the government was correct. My reasoning was that if they indeed practice Falun Gong because of the beneficial effects of the exercises, then it would not matter if Li were a crook. If, for example, it were demonstrated that Dr. Atkins had committed grand larceny when he was alive, the effectiveness of his diet would be neither diminished nor augmented for the people who follow it. My question, however, encountered noticeable resistance because, it later turned out, Li Hongzhi is much more than a teacher of valuable spiritual exercises. One of the members in a private conversation acknowledged that he sees Li as a god man, although he was quick to point out that the term doesn’t have the same meaning for him as it probably does for a westerner. Whatever Li’s status, he certainly talks as though he thinks he is godlike, if not God:
I’m now talking about it from yet another angle, which is, I’m explaining to you why I didn’t do it inside the Three Realms when Fa-rectification began. Some students are thinking, “Master doesn’t acknowledge the old forces’ arrangements. So why doesn’t Master instantly destroy the old forces?” Master is able to do that, and no matter how large they are, Master could still do it. But have you thought about this: if I were to redirect the enormous, gigantic energy in the Fa-rectification back here into the Three Realms to do things, it would be like hitting a mosquito with an atomic bomb, it’d be a clumsy use of force. (Hongzhi, 2003, February 15)
In my opinion, Falun Gong members have a right to believe Li is a god man or even God. There are scores of people today whose followers deem them god men. However, if Falun Gong members expect to be taken seriously in their cultivation of “truth,” they ought not to hide their beliefs simply because they might be unpopular and incompatible with a public relations message focused more on “effect” than “truth.”
Falun Gong and Political Stability
There is little that I can say about this subject that Patsy Rahn (2003) has not said in her fine article in this issue. Rahn discusses the “ruler-sectarian paradigm” as the historical context of the conflict between Falun Gong and the Chinese government: “The pattern of ruling power keeping a watchful eye on sectarian groups, at times being threatened by them, at times raising campaigns against them, began as early as the second century and continued throughout the dynastic period, through the Mao era and into the present” (Rahn, 2003, paragraph 10). There really is nothing new in the Falun-Gong-government conflict, except perhaps the level of support Falun Gong has mustered outside of China.
Rahn presents a set of important questions to the Chinese government:
…is the ruler-sectarian paradigm still valid in the twenty-first century? Do “heterodox” sectarian and religious groups with certain characteristics actually pose a threat and if so, what is the best way to occlude that threat? This over-riding question includes other questions: Is the use of intense national campaigns productive or counter-productive? Is the goal of “keeping stability” legitimately achieved through intense campaigns if they cost the credibility and trust of the Chinese people? Are these campaigns believable anymore to the Chinese people? Is the crisis-management style of legitimating “ruthless and radical” actions against perceived “contradictions between the people and their enemies” still valid in the post-Mao era? (Rahn, 2003, paragraph 76, under heading, “The Chinese Government”)
I would add the following questions for the Chinese government to consider:
Given the virtual universality of religion in human culture, is it wise or even feasible to enforce atheism as the “official” state policy, a kind of official state “religion” without ritual? Might it be more effective to keep the state neutral in fundamental beliefs about the cosmos, as is the case in most western democracies, some of which ironically may have higher percentages of atheists than China? This question may be derivative of perhaps a more fundamental question, namely, is it in China’s best interests to abandon Marxist ideology, as happened in the former Soviet Union?
Is Falun Gong representative of a wider problem in China (and many other countries, including the United States), namely, the widespread adherence to magical and quasi-magical belief systems and irrational, subjectivist approaches to life?  If so, is Falun Gong serving as a scapegoat that deflects attention and resources from the more fundamental social problem?
My main fear when I look at the conflict between Falun Gong and the Chinese government is that the ruler-sectarian paradigm may have reached a point of no return where there are only bad outcomes. If Falun Gong is squashed, many more innocent people will be hurt, China’s standing in the community of nations will deteriorate, and civil unrest could grow beneath the repression. If the government were overthrown by an irrational, religious-political movement (which wouldn’t necessarily have to be Falun Gong), the entire world will have reason to worry. China is one of the most powerful nations on Earth, and it has a massive arsenal of nuclear and biochemical weapons. Certainly, we don’t want to see this arsenal come under the control of a leader with dangerous religious delusions. Some believe that North Korea is particularly worrisome for this reason (Centner, 2002). Hence, I sympathize with those Chinese who fear the rise of religious-political movements. But my heart also goes out to those Falun Gong members who have been beaten or have seen or heard reports from abused family members.
Both sides in the controversy need to put their passion aside. Falun Gong should pay more attention to reports of harm associated with its practices or the organization and actively seek to minimize such harm. The Chinese government should accelerate its movement toward transparency and disown and prosecute those who brutalize people in the name of preserving public order. The short-term benefits that repression brings to government officials and law enforcement authorities may have long-term costs that can only be avoided by taking the risk of granting more freedom now.
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Rosenthal, Elizabeth. (1999, 5 November). While defending crackdown, China admits appeal of sect. http://search.nytimes.com/partners/iib/services/bin/fastweb?getdoc+iib-site+iib-site+66+0+wAAA+cult (also available in AFF electronic file).l
U.N. human rights boss blasts China. (2000, 29 February). Associated Press. http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/i/AP-Hong-Kong-China-Human-Rights.html (also available in AFF electronic file).
Up to 1200 temples destroyed or closed in Chinese crackdown. (2000, 13 December). http://asia.dailynews.yahoo.com/headlines/asia/afp/article.html?s=asia/headlines/001213/asia/afp/Up_to_1_200_temples_destroyed_or_closed_in_Chinese_crackdown.html (also available in AFF electronic file).
 In the text of the Chinese Parliament’s resolution banning “heretic cults” one paragraph acknowledged this broader problem: “Long-term, comprehensive instruction on the constitution and the law should be carried out among all citizens, knowledge of science and technology should be popularized and the national literacy level raised.” (BBC News, 1999, 30 October). Many of us concerned about cult-related harms, including many deeply religious people, have advocated preventive educational programs designed to strengthen the capacity of young people to recognize sophistry and its effects. Religion is not necessarily anti-rational and anti-science; indeed, many pioneers in the history of science were clerics. However, when a religion is so subjective and irrational in its epistemology that no line of reasoning or empirical evidence can alter the leadership’s thinking on even minor matters of doctrine, only three ways of managing disagreements between leadership and members remain: coercion, emotional manipulation, and ostracism. Such a “cognitive climate,” in my opinion, puts a group at higher risk of developing cultic dynamics of control.