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Arthur Waldron: The Falun Gong Factor

When one opens a journal such Compassion, having more than half a dozen articles that paint a dark and discouraging picture of the state of human rights in China, one of the first questions likely to be raised is: What about the publisher? Isn’t this magazine put out by practitioners of the spiritual discipline of Falun Gong? Indeed it is. No question about it: Falun Gong practitioners are the publishers, editors, and supporters of Compassion magazine. Sadly, that fact alone is enough to lead many who should read the articles published here instead to set the journal aside.

I am not a Falun Gong practitioner. However, any difference in opinion over spiritual matters is, I feel, of little import when it comes to human rights.

The excessive caution many people show with respect to Falun Gong has the same source as the non-appearance of politicians when the Dalai Lama visits. That source is fear of what the Chinese authorities may do to them. For an American like myself, probably the worst possible is a harassing phone call from the Chinese embassy or denial of a visa. Since my research is about China, I value the opportunity to go there. But I do not believe that a free person in a free country should act differently than they would be inclined to, out of fear of a foreign autocracy. But many do.

For Chinese the possible penalty is, of course, death.

I have the privilege of knowing many outstanding Chinese—the sorts of people who make you reflect, after you get to know them, “China must really be an outstanding civilization to have produced human beings of such quality.” Indeed, one reason I went into the field of Chinese studies was my admiration for several Chinese friends I made as a teenager.

Some of my friends who are Falun Gong practitioners give me the same impression. These are outstanding people by any standard: intelligent, well-educated, hard-working, moral in their behavior, courageous, and so on. Yet the fact that they are Falun Gong practitioners leads some people to shun them. One of them, a Chinese born man of extraordinary intellectual gifts, described to me how he visited one of the top Ivy League universities in America, hoping to discuss possible graduate work with the professor of Chinese politics. When the professor learned that my friend was a Falun Gong practitioner, not only did he discourage him from applying—he quite literally fled, running away from my friend lest an encounter with him might somehow ruin the professor’s academic life.

The professor is not all wrong. Writing this piece and expressing the views I do, over my own name, as is my rule, may cost me something with respect to the People’s Republic of China—perhaps a visa or two or more. The reason is this.

Falun Gong is not simply on Beijing’s blacklist. Its name is recorded in the blackest of black letters, for the Chinese authorities have undertaken to crush it. Its continuing existence and growing strength are among the most prickly and difficult problems facing the authorities in Beijing today. This is not because of anything Falun Gong practitioners themselves have done. Rather, it is because of what Beijing has tried to do to them—and failed.

Until 1999 Falun Gong was simply one of many of the traditional Chinese-style disciplines that were rapidly filling the spiritual vacuum left by the collapse of genuine belief in communism, which had long sustained China’s party and many of its people. To religious believers from the West—“people of the book” above all, which is to say Jews, Christians, and Muslims—Falun Gong teachings seem unfamiliar and exotic. But anyone who knows Asian religion will instantly see that Falun Gong fits into a tradition that extends back before the beginning of recorded history. This is the tradition of disciplining the body by physical exercises that are combined with the cultivation of the mind and soul through meditation. The approach is a cousin to Buddhism and a cousin to Daoism, with elements of traditional Chinese science and medicine included as well. It is furthermore rooted in China. Unlike communism, which was invented in Europe and imported to China from the USSR, the whole Falun Gong teaching is of Chinese origin—though it has made many foreign followers. In 1999, as it became popular in China, its followers therefore sought official recognition and toleration.

On April 25, 1999, to the shock and astonishment of the Chinese authorities, some 10,000 practitioners peacefully gathered outside the governmental compound at Zhongnanhai in Beijing with their appeals. Not so much the appeals, but rather the fact that such a crowd could have assembled, terrified the rulers. So the then Party Chief Jiang Zemin decided to teach a lesson about who was in charge by a scorched-earth campaign that would destroy Falun Gong once and for all. Violence was unleashed, numerous practitioners were arrested, many were tortured, some perished. But Jiang Zemin and the apparat had underestimated the group they sought to crush. He expected the campaign to wrap up within a year. Today, eight years later, Falun Gong still exists inside China and flourishes outside. Jiang Zemin and the Communist Party have failed. This is a fact that humiliates them, but also reminds them of the limits of their power to coerce. And if they cannot coerce, how are they to stay in power?

Reports of unrest, repression, rights abuses, and so forth, come from China today in what is effectively a nonstop flow. But oddly, few observers draw the obvious implication, which is that the regime’s control is slipping and its grip on power is loosening. The People’s Republic of China has already entered, in my opinion, a period of flux and possible disorder comparable to that which brought down the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1991.

Mainstream China watchers by and large discount the parallel with the USSR and the idea that the communist regime in Beijing may be wobbling. Therefore it is worth bearing in mind that on the eve of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, most Soviet specialists still did not believe what they were seeing was real. 

I started out my training as a Russian specialist and I was not surprised at all. I studied Russian language in the United States and then at Leningrad State University. I traveled all over the USSR. I met lots of Russians and read all sorts of publications. The publications of the dissidents—then dismissed by most professional Soviet specialists as marginal and unrepresentative and wrong in their assessments—I found refreshingly clear and intellectually persuasive. Of course in the Soviet case, the dissidents turned out to be exactly right about the future of communism, while the famous professors at American universities were, almost without exception, wrong. I have carried that lesson over to the study of China.

The Chinese government is one that attempts to conceal what it does both from its own people and from foreigners. It is a closed elite of only a few dozen at the top that attempts above all to preserve its own power. Knowledge of what goes on within this elite is almost impossible to obtain. The elite also tries to project a certain image of what China is like abroad.

But these tasks are more difficult, not least owing to the activities of the Falun Gong. I read the Chinese language press daily. I always find The Epoch Times (Dajiyuan) particularly striking, for to me it is obvious that its reports are drawn from a network of correspondents inside China, a network that the authorities have not been able to destroy. We have all heard of the Great Firewall of China, designed to keep Chinese off the worldwide net in favor of a net run by Beijing. Falun Gong practitioners, among them geniuses in the fields of computer sciences and electrical engineering, have made a great contribution to China by using their skills to break holes into this firewall, and allow Chinese access to the world. (At least one such person, living in the United States, was beaten almost to death in his home by unidentified assailants whom I believe were certainly sent by the Chinese authorities).

Nor is Falun Gong the only group working for freedom in China. So much activity is now under way that it is difficult to envisage the authorities ever being able to claw back the sort of control they once took for granted. That being the case, change is going to be difficult to stop.

So, far from being “marginal” as many commentators seem to imagine, the Falun Gong and other “dissident” groups in China are in fact as central to that country’s future as the Soviet dissidents of the 1970s and 1980s were to the future of Russia. Rather than flinching away from contact with them and tossing their publications aside out of a vague sense that they are irrelevant, not quite Kosher, and in any case likely to involve one in difficulties with the authorities, foreigners (and Chinese) who want to get a sense of what is really going on in China should pay at least as much attention to The Epoch Times as they do to the People’s Daily. (Of course they should read lots of other things too, as much as they can and from as many different viewpoints as possible).

Alexander Solzhenitsyn once remarked, correctly, that Soviet power would collapse if only Russians would cease absolutely to lie. Anyone who knows China today will be aware that everything from government to society to personal relations is shot through with lies, big and small, wicked and harmless. Officials give speeches they do not believe to audiences that also do not believe them, but applaud and point out their importance. It is a kind of theatre of the absurd, I suspect approaching the end of its run.

Falun Gong activities and publications are doing much to end the lying in China. Their writings are forthright, not couched in ambiguities. They do not pay the traditional homage to the achievements of communism. They call things exactly as they see them.  They also espouse cures to the pathologies of communism, in the traditional Chinese values of truthfulness and human heartedness. Such behavior should be admired by free men, and feared by all despots.

This issue of Compassion magazine is not in fact about Falun Gong. Many of the authors are not practitioners. It is about the state of human rights and the plights of real human beings in a China that few foreigners or diplomats or even ordinary Chinese ever see—the China of the secret police, of Nazi medicine, of cruelty, beatings, torture, and murder. The authorities do all they can to keep this ugly China invisible. We are all in debt to those Chinese who, sometimes not just at the risk but actually at the cost of their lives, have helped to make it public knowledge.

Now that this information is public, we should read it and digest it, not credulously of course, but with the same respect and the same queries we give any other source. We must not permit intimidation alone to smother facts or inhibit free speech—and freedom of conscience.

The fact that Falun Gong practitioners are involved in this publication is, on the level of truth or falsity, of no importance.

But one has to ask, whence do people draw the courage to speak the truth and how are groups formed in China that are bonded by an iron trust that the authorities cannot break? In Nazi Germany and in the old Soviet Union, we know that spiritual strength was usually a major factor. The same would appear to be the case in China today, across the range of spiritual beliefs, from Roman Catholicism to Islam to Daoism—to Falun Gong.

My own belief, as a China specialist first and a human rights advocate only second, is that the reports in this journal are as important as anything you can read on China today. Why? First, because I believe the reports are largely or completely accurate, though I may be wrong. Second, because the fact of their appearance, in spite of every effort by the Chinese authorities to destroy the people who are publishing them, is in itself a very important fact.

Out of the fiery furnace of communism, destroying so much that was once the proud and morally admirable Chinese civilization, slowly dribbles a stream of liquid metal melted out of the wreckage—a metal that is an alloy that is so hard, owing to the heat in which it was created, and when forged so sharp—that it can cut through even the thick armor of communist disinformation and intimidation. We have seen that same process of evil processes producing the heroes who will put an end to them, in the West in a Solzhenitsyn or a John Paul II, both tempered by the horrors of Nazism and Soviet Communism, and both historically decisive.

People made of similar stuff are now being produced in China. This small magazine is testimony to that very important fact.

Arthur Waldron, one of the world’s leading scholars of China, is the Lauder Professor of International Relations in the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania. He has authored three books in English, and edited four others, including two in Chinese. Professor Waldron testifies regularly to both U.S. House and Senate committees.

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