Five years ago today, the quasi-Buddhist religious group known as Falun Dafa, with its self-strengthening Falun Gong exercises practiced by up to 100 million people worldwide, was outlawed by China’s Communist regime. In Beijing at the time, I recall the first days of the Communist party’s all-out campaign to eradicate the movement. All Chinese media–TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, talk shows, and so on–was dominated by round-the-clock, anti-Falun Gong monomania.
Since July 1999, the crackdown on Falun Dafa has not only continued unabated, but has spread beyond China. Members in even Western countries have been subject to harassment by party loyalists, as Beijing seeks to muffle voices of protest. In the most recent outrage (on June 28), a practitioner seeking to sue Chinese Vice President Zeng Qinghong during Zeng’s visit to South Africa was injured in a hit-and-run shooting in Johannesburg–an incident that, even in a part of the world where violent crime is notoriously common, stood out for its deliberation.
Falun Dafa poses little political threat to the Communist regime, and the repression has taken its toll on the group’s long-term prospects. Nonetheless, it remains one of the most striking reactions to the peculiar socioeconomic contradictions of post-Tiananmen China. Like other exercises, Falun Gong flourished in the 1990s as an option for those Chinese hampered by soaring healthcare costs that accompanied the transition from Marxist-Leninism to Market-Leninism. Of greater significance, however, was the general spiritual void of Chinese society that enabled the movement to develop a core following of true believers.
China since 1989 has been characterized by rising inequities and the bankruptcy of Communist ideology. In such an environment, a nationwide religious awakening was all but assured, much to the chagrin of the party. With its open membership, emphasis on spiritual elevation, and a charismatic figurehead in Master Li Hongzhi, Falun Dafa blossomed after its founding in 1992. By the late 1990s, it could boast of more members than the Communist party–indeed, party members themselves had joined in large numbers.
Despite this meteoric rise, Falun Dafa did not expect repression. After all, its aims were apolitical. Even in early 1999, with growing signs that the government’s unease over Falun Dafa’s reach was reaching critical mass, members were confident that they could bargain with the party from a position of strength, reasonably assuming that many officials would sympathize with their grievances. The result was the so-called April 25 incident–which triggered the mass crackdown and total ban three months later.
It remains unclear exactly how and why Jiang Zemin arrived at the monumental decision to outlaw Falun Dafa. Did Jiang plan it in a deliberate fashion, allowing the April 25 Incident to occur so he could use it as a pretext for an anti-cult crusade? Or was the ban reactive, resulting from his shock over Falun Dafa’s ability to assemble so many members so quickly? If the former, it means Jiang seized what he saw as an opportunity to mobilize a nationwide hate campaign that would tighten his grip on power. If the latter, it means he may have regretted his decision once it became clear that the movement could not be easily subdued. In either case, once the crackdown had begun, there could be no turning back, but only escalation.
Indeed, the party’s stance on Falun Dafa is a perfect illustration of the dynamics of a state in which genuine legitimacy is lacking: Rulers would sooner destroy many lives than reverse their bad policies. Where monarchs can claim royal descent (or divine right) and democrats can claim electoral mandate, Communist dictators can only claim perfection–and enforce acceptance of it. Such autocrats pursue the cult of infallibility less because they want to than because they have to. It is hardly a coincidence that the vilification of Falun Dafa became closely linked with Jiang’s shameless self-promotion in the final years of his official party leadership, which ended in 2002.
The party’s gruesome persistence against Falun Dafa has paid off, but the ultimate outcome of this war depends on how successfully Jiang Zemin, now 78, can secure his legacy. Having retired from posts of party secretary and of president, Jiang retains enormous clout as head of the Central Military Commission (CMC), and his allies in the new generation of leaders form a majority in the powerful Politburo standing committee, outnumbering supporters of new party leader Hu Jintao. Yet even if Jiang’s faction wins the developing power struggle–an outcome by no means assured–his protégés (such as Zeng Qinghong) will not necessarily adhere to his policies once they slide out of his shadow.
In the coming years, a dedicated core of practitioners will brave unspeakable danger to keep Falun Gong alive in China, hoping against hope that a more tolerant leader will lift the ban. Yet the most important lesson to be drawn from Falun Dafa’s ordeal is that dictatorships, however benign their veneer, invariably rely on repression to maintain stability. Where opposition from below is absent, the state will create enemies from above. China’s crackdown is an unmistakable reminder that dictatorships target innocent people by nature, not merely by practice, and that none can be free until all are free.
–Pan Hu is an IT analyst living in the Washington, D.C., area active in the Chinese dissident community.