Beijing, China - A series of government advertisements posted around the city of Tianjin (south of Beijing) warn against a “sick and diabolical cult” that is trying to “control people’s minds”. Is it a terrorist group that is such cause for alarm? Not exactly…
Although the government does not explicitly name the ‘cult’ it denounces, our Observers say the posters clearly target a spiritual movement called the Falun Gong. Labelled a "heretical sect" by the Chinese authorities, the group describes itself as a variation of Qigong, a traditional Asian form of gymnastics that focuses on breathing and on energy flows in the body. Founded by former soldier Li Hongzhi in 1992, the group synthesises several religious schools of thought, and claims to advocate truth and tolerance. In France, the official agency dedicated to the surveillance of cultic deviancy does not consider Falun Gong to be a sect.
In the 1990s, Falun Gong’s growing popularity began to worry Chinese authorities, who responded by launching a massive advertising campaign to discredit the movement. In 1999, over one million books related to Falun Gong were confiscated by Chinese authorities. A secret ‘agency’, 6-10, was reportedly created to restrict the activity of Falun Gong members. The Chinese government denies such an office exists.
According to the Falun Gong, people who are suspected of being members of the group are regularly subjected to arbitrary arrest and torture. However, there are no official figures concerning the number of people imprisoned in China for being associated with this movement.
'The propaganda started when the State began to worry that we were turning into a political force'
Alain Tong is the president of the Falun Dafa association in France, which teaches the Falun Gong method. He lived in China until he was 15.
Although it doesn’t explicitly say so, this campaign obviously targets the Falung Gong. Defamatory messages such as these are nothing new. They have existed since authorities first started persecuting our movement at the end of the 1990s. Some cities post them more than others, it depends on the local government’s agenda.
Falung Gong is a Qigong method which is based on slow movements and meditation techniques. It is a little like yoga or Tai chi. In theory, this method is only passed on from a master to a student. But at the beginning of the 1990s, the master Li Hongzhi decided to make this exercise technique public. Because it’s effective and very beneficial for the body, Falun Gong quickly spread by word of mouth. At first, it was actually promoted by the communist party. The Sports Minister invited Li Hongzhi to conferences on several occasions.
"We were accused of being crazy, of driving our practitioners to suicide"
Following an inquiry carried out by authorities in 1998, the Chinese regime realised that there were 80 million Falun Gong practitioners in China [70 million, according to media reports]. Commentators at the time, particularly in the West, drew attention to the fact that this figure exceeded the number of Communist Party members, which was estimated at 60 million. It was at this moment that the defamation campaigns and persecution began. [In October 1999, the National People’s Congress passed a retroactive law designed to suppress thousands of “heterodox religions”, which legitimized the persecution of spiritual groups judged “dangerous to the State”]. A lot of absurd stories were published. We were accused of being crazy, of driving our practitioners to suicide, yet not a single incident had been reported before 1998.
The State was worried that we were turning into a political force, but we never tried to be political. [However, according to the researcher David Palmer, after it began to be persecuted, the Falun Gong became “a clandestine resistance movement, which continues its relentless struggle against the authorities under the watchful eye of the international media”.]
On the Tianjin posters, one can see the word “superstition” several times. This is the word used most often by the authorities to discredit us. Since 1998, authorities have repeatedly called on Chinese citizens to denounce people who practise Falun Gong. Some people have been so brainwashed by anti-Falung Gong propaganda that they do. Others do it in exchange for money. What’s more, the regime has banned lawyers from defending Falun Gong followers.
The former president said that he would eradicate Falun Gong in three months. But that was more than 10 years ago and we still have followers.
When we came to France, French authorities wanted to find out who we were and whether we were potentially dangerous. But they didn’t find anything worth reporting. It sounds crazy, but the only reason we are persecuted is because we practise a certain kind of exercise and meditation."
"My neighbour was a Falung Gong follower. She lost her job and disappeared for several months"
Xigua (not his real name) lives in China. On condition of anonymity, he agreed to talk to us about the Falun Gong, which is a highly sensitive issue in the country.
In China, Falun Gong followers are usually viewed as suicidal and/or dishonest people. Many people hate them. I think the Communist party is largely responsible for this reputation.
I have a neighbour whom I often went over to have dinner with when I was younger. She sometimes talked about being a follower of Falun Gong. She was a lovely woman. Everybody liked her so I doubt that anybody denounced her. Nevertheless, she lost her job and disappeared for several months. People said she had been “re-educated”. I also remember that two men came to search her house. She is back at home now but she is always in and out of prison.
At the beginning, the Falun Gong were not opposed to the Communist Party but now they have political ambitions.
At the beginning, the Falun Gong were not opposed to the Communist Party but now they have political ambitions. They wrote on bank notes that they want to overthrow the party.
Today the name “Falun Gong” is completely taboo in China. If you search for it on the Internet, you’ll only find official articles. And on MSN Messanger, the name simply doesn’t appear. Thankfully, we can access sites blocked by the Chinese censor using the software Freegate [a software created by Falun Gong practitioners], and I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the people who created it.
Falun Gong is a minority movement in China, people practise it secretly. But I think they should have the right of freedom of expression and the right to practise their cult. I am a Christian, so I’m not a follower of Falun Gong, but I sympathise.