To complement Gerard Jackson's great piece, I have an excerpt from a scholarly paper entitled "Ancient Wisdom for Modern Predicaments: The Truth, Deceit, and Issues Surrounding Falun Gong" by Frank Tian Xie, Ph.D. This will certainly shed some light on some facets of Chinese history that seem pretty nebulous to us Westerners.
2. The Rahn articles (Rahn 2000 & 2002)
Rahn's (2002) paradigm approach in her article is a plausible one, but there seems to be a "shift in paradigm" that went too far to becoming a "paradigm gone astray,"Rahn’s comparison between historical groups cited indicates a gross misunderstanding of Chinese history. From the Table 1 below, a comparison of the Yellow Turban, the White Lotus, the Taiping, and the Boxers shows that they do possess many similarities. However those similarities closely resemble another, modern, entity in China: the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), rather than a non-entity but a spiritual practice of Falun Gong. As it is seen in the table, from the form of organization, use of force, the existence of a charismatic leader, the guiding doctrine, and the ultimate objectives of the entities, the Yellow Turban, the White Lotus, the Taiping, the Boxers, and the CCP share astounding similarities to each other. In fact, in Chinese textbooks from elementary schools through colleges, these villainous groups have been glorified, worshiped, and valued as predecessors of the CCP. In contrast to these groups, Falun Gong does not have a formal organization, is always open to the public, denounces the use of force and killing, has no “leader” of any kind, charismatic or not; is not interested in politics or political power, and has only the individual objective of self actualization. The fact that CCP called itself the “scoundrel proletariat” when it first started and followed these villainous groups in their brutal pursuit of power in China, and continues to worship these villainous groups may be of interest to Rahn (read more)
Free Market: Tuesday, April 24, 2007 - The upcoming 2008 Olympics has helped draw attention to religious persecution in China. This is not the kind of development the regime welcomes. I spent last February in Shanghai. The odd thing is that though there is a crackdown on certain religious groups no one apparently felt the need to hide their religious affiliations. And of course it needs to be stressed that the regime is not in itself anti-religious. The abundance of statuettes of ancient gods and Buddha is testimony to that fact.
Marxism is dead and that “old time religion" is back again.
So why does the regime come down on, for example, certain Christian groups while leaving others alone? From the point of view of the regime it is not religion that matters but politics. The Falun Gong sect is persecuted because it is thought of as posing a challenge to Beijing's authority. The same goes for some evangelist groups. It would appear that the success of these Christian groups in gaining converts has alarmed some government officials.
It seems that the regime is being motivated by the very thing that the Roman emperors discovered: those with strong religious beliefs are less inclined to be intimidated by the state, appealing to a higher law to justify their doctrines. Judging by my own - albeit limited - experience I believe the basic problem is that the authorities are ignorant of Christian teachings and history.
To a Westerner used to religious tolerance and weird sects and cults springing up almost daily, the regime's actions appear as something of a mystery. There is no question that the regime has an authoritarian mindset that sees organised activities that appear to require allegiance to another authority, even a spiritual one, as a threat to its power. However, there is another angle to this. It also fears that the emergence of religious movements could lead to civil conflict and chaos. The revolt of the White Lotus cult in the 1770s is still remembered.
It was a syncretic mixture, a bit like Falun Gong in that respect, of various faiths. Though its forces were small relative to the imperial army, it waged an effective guerrilla campaign for sometime, using heavily fortified villages as bases and sources of supply. It took about 10 years of vicious fighting to break the cult. Even so, it reappeared in the 1800s and again in the 1830s as its legacy of secret societies and lawless elements occasionally irrupted into violence, its most dangerous offspring being the Boxers, which the Dowager Empress encouraged to attack westerners.
In 1852 the empire was shaken by the largest rebellion in Chinese history. Led by Hung Hsiu-ch'uan who believed he was the Messiah. What became known as the Taiping Rebellion captured Nanjing in 1853 and made it the rebels' capital. While this was happening other revolts were taking place: the Niens in the northwest and the Moslems in the southwest. Had the rebels been able to join forces China would likely as not have been destroyed. The Taipings were successfully suppressed in 1864, the Niens in 1868 and the Moslem rebels by 1873, all with the help of Western weapons and leadership.
Evidently, part of the regime's fear is that the political weakness, loss of faith in the state and the large-scale bureaucratic corruption that fuelled these revolts might once again reappear. I don't think so. There are no self-anointed Messiahs in China threatening lawlessness and anarchy, nor do the Chinese people want them. Peace and prosperity is what the people want. To the Western eye the Falun Gong appear harmless enough, consisting of people in need of faith, not rebellion. Although their beliefs appear infantile to some of us they certainly don't appear to be the kind that would drive people into manning the barricades.
My experience in Shanghai has persuaded me that China's unfortunate experience of religious rebellions and cults is the principal driving force behind religious persecution. This, however, in no way excuses the regime's brutal persecution of any law-abiding religious group.
(I think I should point out that the intensity of religious persecution varies from area to area. This phenomenon suggest that local authorities are largely responsible for attacks on Christians. At least this is the impression I was given).
Authoritarian regimes, including pre-war Japan, have never really had much trouble in accommodating most religions. Beijing should learn to do likewise. It could start by releasing those imprisoned for their faith, insisting only that they “give to Caesar that which is Caesar's", no more and no less. It would pay the regime dividends to do this. If only it could understand that simple fact.