Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Seige of Zhongnanhai

Ten years ago ten thousand demonstrators converged on the walled compound in Beijing where China’s leaders live and work. They carried no signs or banners, and chanted no slogans; they just stood there silently staring at the street in front of the compound. Then they quietly dispersed.

Yet nothing, at least since students began to mass in Tiananmen Square twenty years ago this month, spooked China’s leadership more than this peaceful demonstration. The rest of the world, that part not already familiar with qigong exercises, learned of the existence of the Falungong.

The Chinese Communist Party, for all its intelligence-gathering and security apparatus, did not have an clue of what was taking place until they woke up that bright April 25 morning to find their enclave, the nerve center for China since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, surrounded.

That was bad enough, but the leadership became even more apprehensive when they learned that party cadres, even generals of the People’s Liberation Army had become attracted to the Falungong.

The demonstrators were protesting the arrest of some some of their followers in the city of Tianjin a few weeks previously and were seeking to have their peculiar blending of breathing exercises and Buddhism recognized as a religion (previously it had been under the purview, like all Chinese exercises, of the Ministry of Sports).

The opposite occurred. Two months after the demonstration a nervous Chinese government branded the Falungong an “evil cult”, banned its practice in China, confiscated its literature and began a campaign to forcibly convert the millions of followers in re-education camps that continues to this day.

The Falungong, combine traditional Chinese qiqong deep breathing exercises with some philosophical precepts drawn from Buddhism and Taoism, though most mainline Buddhist organizations disavow the Falungong as legitimate practitioners of their faith.

The leader at the time of the 1999 demonstration and now was one Li Hongzhi, now 57, a former government grain clerk and gigong master then living in New York and now believe to be in hiding somewhere overseas probably in U.S. The Falungong have ascribed many supernatural attributes to Li including an ability to heal the sick.

The government’s panicky reaction to the siege of Zhongnanhai resulted more from political rather than any ideological differences. Until then, the party had no particular quarrel to pick with the sect, or with the practitioners of various other Chinese exercises.

Spontaneous demonstrations, even riots, break out in China almost daily. They are usually quickly suppressed through a combination of police action and concessions without causing undue alarm. But any group that could secretly muster 10,000 (the sect claims as many as 80,000) for a protest at the very nerve center of China’s power looks a lot more serious.

Indeed, a retired army general (the Falungong had attracted a surprising amount of interest from aging military officers), was later accused of masterminding the demonstration and sentenced to prison. Then president Jiang Zemin, thus, had some reason to worry that the demonstration presaged an attempted coup.

The Falungong organized their demonstration using the Internet, and as one result of the incident, China’s security forces now pay much more attention to what is appearing on the net and have censored and closed sites that they consider subversive.

The sect has powerful reasons to believe that they are being suppressed, but as a group they can be intimidating also. A few weeks before the siege at Zhongnanhai hundreds of followers descended on the office of an obscure magazine with a couple of thousand readers that had printed an article critical of them. It was the arrest of 42 people in that incident that led directly to the April 25 protest.

Ten years later, the Falungong continues to be suppressed in China with no sign of any relaxation of the ban. According to its followers outside China, the government continues to arrest people who publicly express their loyalty to the sect. A couple thousand people, they say, have died in police custody, more than 100 as recently as last year.

But while effectively suppressed in China, the Falongong is flourishing worldwide. Major demonstrations marking the April 25 protest in Beijing were held in Chicago, Hong Kong, Tokyo and other cities. The sect publishes a newspaper, the Epoch Times, and owns several radio and television stations that broadcast messages in many languages.

Interestingly, the Falungong is legal and operates above board in Hong Kong, which, since 1997, has been a part of China. The fact that Falungong practitioners can do freely in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park what they would be arrested for doing in Tiananmen Square is one of the best advertisements that Beijing has that it honors its promise to allow Hong Kong to keep its freedoms.

The followers often display posters denouncing the Chinese Communist Party and its leaders as “evil” at scenic points in Hong Kong that are popular with Chinese tourists, where they are exposed to messages that they would never see or hear back on the mainland.

The rise of the Falungong has been explained in part as a consequence of the spiritual void created by the decline of communism as a viable belief and the rampant materialism that has gripped China in recent decades. The government itself admits there were at least 40 million followers before the crackdown, 200 million if other gigong sects were included. That is considerably more than the number of Christians in China.

In part to fill this spiritual void, the government has for the past decade been promoting Confucian concepts and other traditional Chinese precepts as an alternative.


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