Falun Gong and the Limits of Dissent in China

09 Nov, 1999    ·   285

Sonika Gupta says that the Falun Gong affair illustrates the dilemmas of the Chinese government in handling popular protest that accompanies economic liberalization

China has launched upon yet another ideological and political struggle by banning the Falun Gong religoius movement, branding it as a cult. Falun Gong, founded by Li Hongzhi, mixes traditional Chinese exercises with elements of Buddhism and Taoism to promote good health. .  In China cults are illegal and only government sponsored religious organisations are recognized. The Chinese government has accused Falun Gong of "seducing, brainwashing and blackmailing" people A Xinhua commentary denounces Falun Gong as a "political force opposed to the Communist Party Of China . . . .(that) preaches idealism, theism, and feudal superstition.". It has been declared  "unconstitutional, anti-government, and anti-society"  



Official  Chinese estimates puts the number of followers of the Falun Gong at two million. However, according to the claims of its founder, they may well be in the range of a 100 million.. On April 25 this year, more than 10,000 followers of Falun Gong demanding recognition of the their sect, besieged the Zhongnanhai, where the headquarters of the Party and government organisations are located.  It was the largest demonstration in Beijing after the Tiananmen incident of 1989. The banning of the Falun Gong embodies the current crisis of modernization in China , where economic liberalisation without political liberalisation produces social discontent and provokes knee jerk reactions by the government to retain control. The response of the sect reveals that the Chinese Government may have a handful of trouble here.



China has a tradition of popular protest with its political roots in the May 4th movement of 1919. Before that China has witnessed several  peasant uprisings. After the founding of the PRC protest has been strictly controlled by the party with movements like the Hundred Flowers being the occasional sanctioned period of freedom of speech. Other movements like the Democracy Wall movement with its big character posters and candid criticism of the Party were experiments in political decontrol by Deng Xiaoping, which were nipped in the bud before they could challenge the existing structures of political control in China .  The 1989 Democracy Movement  was similarly quelled by Deng.



However, the recent protests by the members of the Falun Gong may refuse to be silenced. The reasons are manifold. Firstly, the Falun Gong has a sizeable number of followers in Hong Kong who, for all practical purposes, are used to a more open political environment. They may not respond as promptly to central directives as the other Chinese do, by sheer force of habit. In fact, the 'one nation two systems theory' instrumental in keeping much of Hong Kong 's non- communist characteristics alive, may well present obstacles to establishing complete control in Hong Kong . Hence, members of the Falun Gong in Hong Kong , may require more subtle strategies of control than used in the rest of the country. Secondly, the very nature of the protest by the members of the sect differs from earlier political protests like the Democracy Movement of 1989, which were essentially students' movements,  often militant in tone. The Falun Gong has as its members a large number of old and middle aged followers, who have been waging a determined civil disobedience against the ban; hence the government has to be guarded in its use of excessive force.



The large number of people pouring into Beijing to protest and support  the sect clearly show that the ban has been counter productive. These popular protests may also tempt the Party into taking more brutal measures, which China is not in a position to afford at the moment. In a way, this is crucial test for Jiang Zemin, similar to the one Deng faced in 1989. If the Chinese leadership were to proceed with a use of naked power, it must beware that China 's economic programme may be adversely affected and get pushed back. Though politics is still in command, leaders like Zhu Rongji in China , will be opposed to endangering the painstaking economic development of China in the decade after 1989, by a non-judicious use of force to establish control.



Though the banning of the Falun Gong is an internal matter of China , it definitely serves as a source of embarrassment in the international arena. The press coverage of these protests in the international media highlighting each incident of use of force by the Chinese government, further condemns China 's human rights record. In fact, China had been named in the US State department's list of countries that "tolerate severe repression of religious freedom", prior to its banning of the Falun Gong. Given all these factors, the Chinese government's strategy in handling the issue becomes significant in that it tests the leadership's against its commitment to providing a stable environment for builIong socialism with Chinese characteristics.