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The Conundrum of Falun Gong

A little over nine years ago, when I was studying at a graduate school in the serene and rural heartland of the US, I first heard of the Chinese term “Falun Gong” through an MBA student from Beijing. The tall, hefty guy kept a very short crew-cut favored by typical Beijingers of his gender and age, which, in combination with the swastika symbol that hung on the wall of his apartment, sent a chill down my spine: a Nazi skin-head from China?

As embarrassing as my first encounter with Falun Gong was, it turned out to be a productive learning experience. The unusually soft-spoken and self-effacing youngster, a rarity among people brought up in the buzz and panache of China’s capital, convinced me that the sign of the swastika (a word that I had always thought to be German) had originated in India, and had been a symbol of Buddhism for thousands of years. He also did a demo of the Falun Gong exercises, which convinced me the practice was one of the numerous Qi Gong exercises prevalent in China.Apparently none of these things would lead me to imagine that Falun Gong would one day become a phrase so rich in its symbolism of thereality in China, and a force that seems uniquely capable of unsettling the ostensibly monolithic Communist regime in China.

Perhaps, it was because those closest friends of mine signing up for the Falun Gong Club (that the Beijing MBA later set up) were people who had supported me through the most grueling period of the freshman year in a foreign land, and who now formed a group making a pleasant scene,exercising slowly at dawn and dusk on the ever-verdant lawns of the school. Or, it was because the letters from my Mom informing me,excitedly, of her new-found passion in Falun Gong, and its associated health benefits. Falun Gong, still a conundrum in my mind, has never bothered me, just as Christian teachings are to me as foreign and mysterious as they are distant and innocuous. So what? Such things are about individuals’ spiritual yearnings; as long as they operate within those well-defined boundaries, why be concerned? Even scientists, as argued by Tomas Kuhn in Structure of Scientific Revolution,are practitioners of an elusive religion predicated on flimsy Darwinian beliefs that there is no God, and that man is, ultimately, all-knowing.

Several years later, just as the Falun Gong were forced into China’s political landscape and then, onto the world stage, I had to confront the conundrum of Falun Gong again. To be sure, from that point forward,concomitant with a ruthless campaign by the government to root it out, Falun Gong has been assigned a variety of secular roles by the press and pundits who, for better or worse, tend to take things for granted and sometimes, prefer to live in a world of whim.

Before the simple truth of the Falun Gong has been willingly accepted by pundits, its enigma is sustained by various speculations and practical concerns. To historians and political scientists, Falun Gong represents the continuation of cataclysmic rebellions in Chinese history based on occult teachings, such as the Taiping, Yellow-Turban,or the White-Lotus. To politicians in the West, Falun Gong is a thorny issue, right up there with Tibet and Taiwan, which complicates the relations with the resurgent China. To reporters hard pressed to give a meaningful definition, Falun Gong is a “spiritual movement based on a mixture of teachings from Buddhism, Taoism, and ideas of its founder, Mr. Li Hongzhi, a previous government grain clerk”—to quote that boilerplate paragraph embroidering every Falun Gong story. If it is not already a maelstrom, consider the accusation by the Chinese government:” Falun Gong has fallen prey to, and become an instrument of overseas anti-China forces.” There were also Chinese government reports that Falun Gong had received tens of millions of dollars from the US government for its operating budget.

Without any doubt, Falun Gong has captured people’s imaginations in many ways, as it did bring in some fresh air, amidst the exasperatingly mundane and monotonous news coverage of China that is dominated by empty economic statistics and archaic court intrigues. While those numbers, ranging from GDP per capita to the market share for automobiles, along with the endless speculation about successions and power struggles behind the scenes, are useful to the extent that they give us an idea about China’s appetite for economic growth, and its tolerance for political autism, Falun Gong tells us something even more important, something that would not be exposed otherwise: something that would take the punch out of any forecasts. That is, while all this is going on, what on earth is going on in Chinese people’s minds? Note that the Chinese civilization has been one of the world’s most ancient and inward-looking; the past repeatedly reveals that no prediction about China’s political and economic future is worthy of the effort, if it ever fails to factor in Chinese culture and spirituality.

Unfortunately, because people are trying to fit Falun Gong into their existent cognizant frameworks, it has been either taken strictly at its face value, as a potent threat to the communist rule, or written off too quickly—as a spent force amidst superficial signs of dwindling public protest. As a result, the old, simple riddle of Falun Gong has taken on some new quality—a heavy coat of mystique, if you will—at a time when it should be better understood, given the amount of attention it has attracted.

People forget that the practice has captivated tens of millions of Chinese, many from within the country’s elite class. It is, by itself,a force that is enduring and innate to the country, and a prism through which a true China, a China devoid of its pretentious economic cocoon and political maneuverings, will emerge. Regrettably, Falun Gong’s original teachings, conveyed in plainest Chinese language and concepts,have been distorted way out of proportion, to become a hodgepodge of ill-conceived ideas that are inexplicable, incomprehensible, and eventually indefensible.

Religious scholars, drawing ludicrous parallels between Falun Gong and violent uprisings in Chinese history, are too eager to show off their textbook knowledge, rather than spending a quiet afternoon reading through Falun Gong books; political scientists are interested in the organization of the Falun Gong in combating Chinese authorities;communication experts are studying Falun Gong’s use of the Internet in its campaigns; media pundits are shocked at the news organizations allegedly having ties with the Falun Gong¡­

So much has been done with so little coherence and substance, that five years after Falun Gong has become a mainstream topic, specialists in the field have still not graduated from Falun Gong 101. “What is Falun Gong really about?”—they are constantly asking and being asked. So far,the only consensus seems to be the vapid definition of Falun Gong as a”spiritual movement”, but what kind of spirituality it stands for, and where it is moving towards and from, no one seems to know or care.

To modern-day journalists and scholars, Falun Gong is probably mawkishly nostalgic, as the whole society has become less interested in moral imperatives that could have been successfully implemented as late as in the 1980s, an era when everyone was aligned with South Africa’s blacks against apartheid. Indeed, in today’s world, major challenges are couched in neutral and technical terms, such as “poverty”,”diseases”, “environmental control”, etc., obliviously disregarding the human factors, such as tyranny and non-accountability, which are the real reason behind those disasters.

Over the incessant din of MTV and Hollywood melodrama, gross human rights violations abroad are lost in translation; even the most recent genocide of millions in Rwanda hardly stirred anyone. To steal people’s attention, or fantasies, the line between good and bad has become evermore blurred, and the West, surfeited with creature comforts, is increasingly relying on such absurdities as “reality shows” to alleviate the boredom of having too much too easily. Consequently,people are focusing on the less than 1 percent of juicy, “esoteric”stuff about Falun Gong, while turning a blind eye to the more than 99%of Falun Gong teachings that exhort people to behave like a saint. I remember reading Falun Gong’s guide book many years ago; none of the stuff that has been hyped by the pundits, such as “aliens” and”levitation”, at that time caught my attention as anything germane to the practice, and I don’t think my Mom, like millions of people of her age and health condition, switched to Falun Gong from other fitness practices in pursuit of such unconventional material.

Let’s face it; every spiritual group offers something nonstandard.Sadly, it is perhaps inevitable that Eastern thoughts and ideas rooted in their long but not-well-understood traditions are being subjected to more than their fair share of skepticism in the West. This, however, is no excuse for setting up an uneven playing field, in spreading spiritual messages and salvation. Just to help put this issue into better perspective, consider China’s underground churches, which have been prominently featured in the news and in each of the past five years’ Human Rights White Papers released by the State Department.China’s oppression of those church-goers could be labeled as controversial too, if a similar logic is applied. At any rate, those poor churchmen defying the same oppressor as that of Falun Gong believe in a human being who, not to mention his many other magical powers,came back to life in five days from his demise, and it’s their desire to ascend ultimately to a place loaded with small kids wearing wings.Sound a little “New Age”?

Let’s just stop here, just in case some fiery words, such as”chauvinistic” and “discrimination”, have to be dusted off for use. On the other hand, for those who think Falun Gong is controversial only because the Chinese government should be given the benefit of the doubt as a worthy party to the debate, there would be many more things in China that should have been described as “controversial”, including the well-known incident of Tiananmen Massacre, which, the Chinese government, to this day treats as never having happened. By the same token, I never doubted that the more recent Tiananmen tragedy,featuring self-immolations of a group of “alleged” Falun Gong practitioners, a little over three years ago, was anything but a show put on by the Chinese regime. My logic is very simple: if the Chinese government said there were no killings while there were actually hundreds of people being slaughtered, right in front of CNN’s camera,and when the same government publicizes self-immolation year after year, then there must have been no self-immolation in the first place.Case closed.

The true conundrum about Falun Gong is not about its teachings or theories, which really have been in the kernel of every school of spiritual thought in China, before they were all shut down by the atheist communists. (From my point of view, Falun Gong is a collective,natural re-awakening of Chinese people to their spiritual roots, which,despite the disruption of a half-century hiatus, due to communist rule,has constituted the theme of their thousands-year-long history). The conundrum is the awkward piggybacking of irrelevant issues on to Falun Gong, which has rendered impossible a neat examination of this new school of thought with its claimed basis on ancient values. It is the lukewarm reaction to the deadly campaign by the Chinese authorities against a harmless, civil organization. And it is the scant interest shown in the implications of Falun Gong as a social phenomenon of China that offers insights into its present and future. Indeed, for those who had hoped that China’s economic liberalization would bring about progress in its political reform, persecution against the Falun Gong has shown otherwise. More deplorably, the success of the government’s campaign will only embolden them to be more of a reactionary force in China’s struggle to rekindle the fire of democracy that was smothered in 1989. I am sure somebody in Zhongnanhai is thinking now: If we can get away with genocidal crimes against Falun Gong, then we should have a free hand with Tibet, democracy activists, and probably Taiwan.

Even today, when Falun Gong’s official site ( collected detailed information on more than 1,000 Falun Gong deaths in China, those tragedies, often not reported, or significantly under-reported, are still defined as “alleged” in every Falun Gong news story. I find this hard to understand, because a distinguished reporter, Mr. Ian Johnson with the Wall Street Journal, had won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize by documenting the untimely demise of Ms. Zixiu Chen, a hale and hearty 58-year-old Falun Gong practitioner from Weifang, Shangdong Province. To bend her will, she had been forced to walk barefooted in snow, and tortured with a cattle prod. According to Mr. Johnson, she died with a mangled, bruised body, within three days of her detention. Other articles by Mr. Johnson reported more deaths that year in that Chinese city, within a short period of time.

In fact, Mr. Johnson himself has been an unwitting victim in China’s persecution. In his nomination letter for Mr. Johnson for the Pulitzer Prize, Mr. Paul Steiger, a Columbia Professor and a member of the selection committee, wrote, “There is another story, though, that did not appear in The Wall Street Journal,but that is just as compelling: Chinese security agents worked relentlessly to prevent Mr. Johnson from exposing their techniques.They tailed him in the cities and in the countryside, restricting his movements and even following him into stores, where he attempted to setup accounts for telephones or pagers…Mr. Johnson got threatening phone calls, and, at one point, he was detained by the police.” China,according to Mr. Steiger, even mobilized diplomatic means to stop Mr.Johnson, while “The Journal received official complaints from the Chinese government”.

We may have to live with the fact that it would be hard to require every author of Falun Gong news to endure what Mr. Johnson had to endure in his investigation of Falun Gong to win the Pulitzer Prize, a prize as much a tribute to its winner’s professional achievement as it is to his extraordinarily big heart. It, however, smacks of irresponsibility when the word “alleged” is casually inserted to keep the appearance of fairness in reporting. What those authors could have done, to keep the balance of their moral compass, is to keep the word”alleged” in the text and add, in the boilerplate, a sentence commensurate with the words by Mr. Steiger: “Due to extreme difficulties in investigating Falun Gong in China, these deaths, whose actual number could be much higher, due to China’s information blockage, can not be verified for now, but are sure to be sensitive topics for the Chinese government. Our news organization has cautioned against efforts by our staff writers to conduct further investigations,in view of the danger it would pose to their personal safety.”

Every Seinfeld fan will remember a scene, when the initially excited George suddenly became frustrated at Seinfeld’s reluctance to give details about his encounter with Elaine the night before. He bemoans:”What? You are not in the mood to give details. (Isn’t it your job to entertain people?) Now, listen. I’m bored (and bald?) and without a job, and you’re telling me you’re not in the mood to talk about it.Now, you get into the mood.” Yes, every time I see that word “alleged”in that kind of care-free, zero-information-content story, I instantly become a better-looking, but equally irate George: “What? Those deaths are alleged? (Isn’t it your job to tell me whether they are alleged or not?) I’ve paid half a dollar for news from you, and you are telling me the same thing you’ve been saying for the past five years, that these are alleged deaths. Now, listen. You go and find out whether these alleged deaths are true or not.”

What is more surprising, and eerily disturbing even, about reporting on Falun Gong, is the fact that those same professionally-spirited journalists who make sure all the unverified deaths are “alleged”, are not equally careful when quoting what the Chinese government has to say about Falun Gong. While not brave enough to be Pulitzer material, these reporters have instead found a new benchmark for professionalism in the words of the Chinese government, which has been consistently ranked at the bottom, in terms of its transparency and credibility.

Every time the government feels a need to launch another attack on the unusually tenacious movement that persists to this day in China,foreign journalists are summoned by propaganda officials to report onshow trials, visits to jailed Falun Gong members, etc. And as uncooperative as the Chinese government has been to any foreign reporter trying to conduct an independent investigation of Falun Gong,these colleagues of Ian Johnson are not only too quick to comply with the request, but are also too eager to play along in quoting almost verbatim, the charges against Falun Gong. In a recent AP story on a visit arranged by the Chinese government to so-called Falun Gong members who had tried to burn themselves to death in Tiananmen, all of them are described as “Falun Gong members” (not “alleged”) even though investigations by The Washington Post and other sources have openly questioned that.

Why do the AP reporters suddenly become more flexible? As we know, Falun Gong exercises are all very easy to do, and Falun Gong materials readily available on the Internet. How do we know a person claiming to be a Falun Gong member is making an authentic claim? Many illegal Chinese immigrants can learn to do all the Falun Gong exercises and talking — in a matter of a few days — under the tutelage of their lawyers, in order to get political asylum in the United States. There are also funny anecdotes doing rounds in China that people visiting Tiananmen Square are routinely mistaken for Falun Gong protesters, just because their “yawning” stretch or sitting position happens to cut are semblance to a Falun Gong movement.

This also raises another question: if the security against Falun Gong people is so tight in the square, how could the police ever allow the self-immolation to proceed? One of the alleged Falun Gong self-immolators was said to do a typical Falun Gong sitting position. And isn’t that true that any event of such a fiery nature would take at least 3 minutes? Overseas Falun Gong practitioners have maintained that the self-immolation was staged by the government, to ignite public resentment against Falun Gong, and to save the campaign that was already in a state of collapse. The whole incident, captured by the TV crew from the government, shows many loopholes on video, but these concerns seem to have never bothered the media—surprisingly.

The confusion, misrepresentations and misperceptions in people’s understanding of Falun Gong when it was first thrust into public view five years ago were of course all understandable. After all, it was anew movement from China, and China has increasingly been seen as a crucial business partner of the West that should not be off-handedly challenged. Five years on, when we continue to see the same mis-portrayals and liberal interpretations, something is definitely not right. To those scholars trying to make a career out of the”similarities” between Falun Gong and Taiping and Yellow-Turban, all violent rebellions to replace the reigning regime, how would they explain the fact that while Falun Gong members have been independently confirmed to be murdered in custody, no police have been reported to be physically abused by a Falun Gong member in revenge in the past five years? To those who imply Falun Gong is controversial, they should know that Falun Gong has become the only force that is capable of rallying the overseas Chinese democracy movement to a consensus—within the numerous camps, fronts, parties, alliances that split up those activists, each with their own ambitious agenda, the termination of persecution against Falun Gong represents their smallest common dominator. And they all applaud Falun Gong’s civil disobedience movement because they believe they have brought true hope to China’s move towards democratization.

Indeed, Falun Gong will probably remain a conundrum for some people down the stretch, if such confusion can justify—in the face of atrocities against Falun Gong members in China—their inactivity, and can relieve them of any responsibility or guilt when the truth is fully revealed. In this case, the conundrum is, sadly, not a puzzle but a choice, similar to the choice an ostrich makes when it decides to bury its head into the sand.

John Li is a New York based commentator on China issues.