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One year ago, Falun Gong made an eerie debut on the international stage. On April 25, 10,000 of the group’s followers surrounded the Beijing compound where China’s leaders live and stood silently to protest a government campaign against them. That show of force — in particular, the group’s ability to mobilize so many people so quietly — unnerved the government even more. A crackdown and a ban followed. It has not broken the spirit of the group’s adherents. It has underscored the confusion and concern felt by the Chinese leadership. The government in Beijing has been forced to take action because its legitimacy is crumbling. But bringing the power of the state to bear against Falun Gong treats the symptoms, not the disease. If the Chinese government does not fill the void at the core of the society, worse will follow.

Falun Gong blends Taoist teachings, conservative moral principles and Buddhist meditative practices. The group’s members — estimated to be in the tens of millions in China, but there are many chapters worldwide — used to be seen most mornings practicing their breathing and exercises.

After last year’s protest, the Chinese government came down hard against the group, claiming that it is an “evil cult,” headed by a fraud whose teachings have caused the deaths of over 1,500 followers. Human-rights groups claim that over 35,000 people have been detained since then, 5,000 more have been sent to labor camps without trial and at least 16 have died in custody as a result of abuse or hunger strikes.

Falun Gong followers have not been intimidated. Ominously for the government, many true believers consider the crackdown a test of their faith. Their resolution was on display this week, when dozens of members marked the anniversary with protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Despite certain arrest, individuals and groups meditated and unfurled banners. They were grabbed almost immediately by security forces. About 100 people were arrested throughout the day.

Their stubbornness is unnerving the government; so is the group’s appeal. This week’s protesters included Chinese of all ages and walks of life. Communist Party officials and military officers are even reported to be among the members.

Falun Gong is popular because it quiets doubts many Chinese feel in their daily lives. That is a stark contrast to the government, which has been unable to respond to this growing unease. The collapse of communist ideology, widespread corruption and rising uncertainty triggered by economic change have created a spiritual vacuum. Falun Gong and other sects are filling it. While Falun Gong has received most of the media attention, the government has not been so focused. The Zhong Gong group is another sect, reportedly with some 38 million members and thousands of businesses and teaching and treatment centers. All have been closed, and human-rights activists claim that nearly 600 followers have been detained.

The Chinese leadership fears these groups will rival its power and challenge its legitimacy. The government in a one-party state cannot allow its citizens to have any allegiance but to the party. That has sparked the crackdown, but the heavy-handed response has only made the government’s vulnerability more evident.

Dissent is growing. Labor unrest, triggered by corruption and layoffs, poses the greatest danger to the embattled leadership. Official estimates put the number of unemployed at 11 million, but that figure is undoubtedly low. Last year, there were 120,000 labor disputes throughout the country, a 29 percent increase over the year before. The number of collective disputes is skyrocketing, increasing nine times from 1993 to 1998. Earlier this year, the army was called out to suppress violent protests by workers after their coal mine was closed.

The Chinese government has not hesitated to move against anyone who calls for reform. Democracy activists have been the focus of Beijing’s ire, and in a move reminiscent of the old purges, four members of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences were dismissed recently for questioning one-party rule.

The unrelenting campaign against all who oppose the Chinese Communist Party’s rule escaped censure at this year’s meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Once again, Beijing used every possible threat and inducement to cow governments who had hoped that international norms could check Chinese behavior. That, and not some religious sect, is the real evil in China.

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