01:00 AM EDT on Monday, July 27, 2009
AS SOME SEE IT, Nostradamus’s most famous quatrain, predicting that the King of Terror would descend in July 1999, failed to come true, costing the prognosticator his credibility. To millions of Falun Gong practitioners in China, however, that prophecy has fulfilled itself with terrifying precision.
On July 20, 1999, an outburst of fanaticism suddenly gripped China. Amidst a constant cacophony of Cultural Revolution-style propaganda blitz, tentacles of the communist regime reached into every nook and cranny of the vast land. This unbridled unleashing of venom targeted Chinese citizens practicing Falun Gong, a spiritual movement based on traditional Chinese beliefs and exercises. They were rounded up by the police, and forced to give up their faith. Many refused, and they became the victims of a ten-year struggle by the atheist government to wipe out Falun Gong.
So far, over 3,000 Falun Gong practitioners have reportedly been tortured to death; hundreds and thousands more are now toiling and languishing in labor camps. Fighting Falun Gong has even become a top priority of China’s foreign missions. Diplomats’ vulgar anti-Falun-Gong language jarred with the image of a confident, rising China that the regime painstakingly projects to the outside world.
For its savagery and irrationality, the persecution offers a rare, but sobering, glimpse into a country in flux. It highlights the totalitarianism perpetuated by the current regime that tends to be shrugged off by people obsessed with China’s seeming prosperity. Ian Johnson, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, knew this the best. He earned the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting about Falun Gong followers adhering to their beliefs in the face of the persecution. One of them, 57-year-old Ms. Chen Zixiu, was beaten to death by a cattle prod, and left in a pool of her own blood.
Nobody now knows how many persevered in their practice after the crackdown; nobody can write off the Falun Gong, either. Its organization estimated that millions of users accessed its Web site regularly. They were able to do so because of Freegate, a software developed by Falun Gong volunteers to circumvent the Chinese government’s Internet censorship. The software has also found its popularity in such information-challenged places as Iran, Burma, etc. Ten years onward, Falun Gong has survived the lethal wrath of July 1999. By Chinese standards, this is an unprecedented miracle, since no mandated public enemy has ever done this before.
Falun Gong’s unusual allure and resiliency speak to a collective reawakening of the Chinese people to their spiritual identity. It came at the right moment to fill in a vacuum left by the demise of communist ideology. This explains the insecurity of the Chinese leaders, who saw the rise of Falun Gong as a viable threat to their legitimacy, a competing force that has to be crushed sooner or later.
On April 25, 1999, thousands of followers gathered outside the government’s petition office (incidentally, close to the leadership compound) for release of jailed fellow practitioners. The event thrust the Falun Gong into the international spotlight, and some believe, precipitated the persecution. They were wrong. Investigations by Public Security, always a prelude to an official crackdown in China, started as far back as in summer 1997. On my visit during that summer to a Falun Gong practitioner, also a high-ranking party official, she said her local practitioners had carefully stashed away their Falun Gong books and paraphernalia for fear of police harassment. In retrospect, with or without the April 25 protest, the persecution would have taken place.
Ten years is a long time, at least long enough to refute the once popular comparison between an apparently peaceful Falun Gong and the deadly Taiping Uprising or Boxer’s Rebellion. A new, visceral reaction at the mention of Falun Gong seems to have gained traction nonetheless: Falun Gong is controversial.
Since 1999, China has changed a lot economically. Perhaps, with its ascension to the World Trade Organization, its prestigious membership card at the G8 Summit, and the dazzling spectacles at the Beijing Olympics, China has also earned a seat at the table to pass judgments on Western values. Well, if that is true, then Falun Gong might be controversial — just as freedom and democracy are in China.
Of all the prominent (read tragic) Chinese anniversaries this year, from the uprising in Tibet in 1959 to the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, the repression against Falun Gong is obviously the most recent and relevant in fathoming the future of Communist China, which is celebrating its 60-year anniversary. If history offers any guide, nearly no one predicted the sudden collapse of the Soviet bloc, because the Kremlinologists only looked at numbers, missing the most important and intractable variable in the equation: a country’s psyche.
Falun Gong should be helpful in this regard. It cuts through the fanfare of China’s economic development and geopolitical intrigues, and goes straight to the heart of the issues that make China what it is today. For instance, unburdened by such superficially complicating factors as ethnic tension and religious strife that cloud people’s thinking, Falun Gong is a clean laboratory test that shows who should be held responsible for the recent riots in Tibet and Xinjiang.
This means, sadly, for all its exceptional qualities, Falun Gong cannot escape the same fate of other Chinese movements commemorating their losses. As long as the current regime is in power, Falun Gong’s crusade has to go on, it seems.
John Li is a professor of economics at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York.