Thursday, June 29, 2017

Falun Gong - evil cult or unfairly persecuted religion?

A recent article in the Globe and Mail by a Falun Gong apologist has prompted me to question: what are we really to think about Falun Gong?
According to the Chinese government, Falun Gong is not a religion but an "evil cult" that causes "physical and psychological harms" to its practitioners, who need to be protected from the organization's depredations. Murky but largely unsubstantiated stories of mutilations and mass suicides were spread around by state organs.
Supporters, on the other hand, insist that Falun Gong is a harmless spiritual faith based on meditative exercises and a set of moral teachings based on truthfulness, compassion and forbearance. Most westerners only come into contact with Falun Gong through their ubiquitous marching bands, that seem to attend every little community parade, or the popular Shen Yun dance company (which also acts as a propaganda arm for the organization).
But there is more. Supporters maintain that, given the estimates of around 70 million Falun Gong practitioners in China, the Chinese Communist Party sees it as an ideological challenge to its own power, which is why it has been pursuing a campaign to eliminate the organization since about 1999. This includes subjecting practitioners to arbitrary arrest, torture and even, allegedly, widespread deaths. Claims that the internal organs of Falun Gong detainees are being sold for profit in a state-sponsored scheme are less well-attested, but are now an integral part of Falun Gong lore and campaigning.
Now, it is well know that China's approach to law and civil rights is notoriously blunt and heavy-handed, and not always respectful of international law, but are these claims really to be taken seriously? Who, in the end, is right about the organization?
Well, Falun Gong (or Falun Data, as it is also known) is a spiritual movement or religion of sorts, based as they say on meditation and morality, a sort of offshoot of both Buddhism and Taoism. It was founded by Li Hongzhi in 1992, one of the many qigong-based sects established in China during the 1980s and 1990s.
It is also uncontestable that, after initial state support, the Chinese state declared in 1999, after some increasingly high-profile demonstrations and calls for freedom from state interference, that Falun Gong was a "heretical organization" that threatened the social stability of the country, and instituted a crackdown and propaganda campaign aimed at eradicating the organization. Hundreds of thousands of extra-judicial arrests followed, and the widespread use of forced labour, psychiatric abuse and torture does indeed seem to have occurred. Human rights organizations estimate that over 2,000 Falun Gong practitioners may have died in custody.
Is Falun Gong a cult? Founder Li Hongzhi is certainly venerated by the group's adherents, although he does not seem to be excessively intrusive in the day-to-day operations of the organization. He caused some embarrassment in his early interviews, when he babbled almost incoherently about apocalyptic visions and ghostly aliens infiltrating humanity, after which he wisely kept a much lower media profile. He is a mysterious, divisive and somewhat flaky presence, but he does not fit the usual descrition of a cult leader. Yes, members are expected to contribute materially to the running of the organization, but most observers have concluded that Falun Gong should not be classified as a cult, given that its members may marry outside the group and retain old friends, hold normal jobs, do not live isolated from mainstream society, and do not believe that the world is about to end.
So, all in all, it does seem like a cut-and-dried case of state oppression of an innocent and harmless group. This is not to say that Falun Gong should be encouraged - any group that believes that meditation and prayer can heal all diseases should be given a wide berth, as should any organization that whips its members into such a frenzy that they are inspired to self-immolation (yes, that happened too). But China's persecution of the group is definitely disproportionate to the threat it poses.

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