A Story from the Past
In the 1840s, Hong Xiuquan, a Chinese from Guangdong Province, took part in the imperial exams to become a mandarin. It was a time of political and social upheaval. With the military campaigns of Lin Zexu and others, weapons had got into the hands of the people, and secret societies organized uprisings in the provinces of Hunan, Anhui, Shandong, and probably even more so in the South and the Southeast of China.
And Hong did not pass the exams.
In the years that followed, he had a number of "visions", that seem to have been based on Christian, Taoist, and Buddhist fragments.
The historians Herbert Franke and Rolf Trauzettel, who describe Hong's life in their standard work on Imperial China, don't rule out that Hong was sometimes mentally disturbed.
During the late 1840s, his visions had got him a following of about 30,000 people. Many of them were farmers, coal miners, pirates, and deserted soldiers. In 1853, Hong's militias conquered Nanjing, marched on Tianjin, and controlled most of Southern and Southeastern China. It is believed that about a million people were under Hong's control, at his best times.
Full-blooded Confucian mandarins organised military campaigns against Hong's "All Peace Heavenly Kingdom" (Tai Ping Tian Guo), where it was in control. They got support from British and French officers from Shanghai. The West could expect concessions from the Imperial government, while there was little to expect from Hong. The campaigns succeeded. In 1864, Hong committed suicide in Nanjing. Trauzettel and Franke refer to the "Heavenly Kingdom's" final defeat as "the last Confucian triumph" (Franke/Trauzettel, page318).
But the Confucian mandarins, unwillingly or not, had set a precedence. They had acted far away from Peking, and on their own initiative, and therefore became prototypes of modern China's warlords, who were to keep China fragmented for almost a century - up to the proclamation of the People's Republic of China, in 1949.
This was only one out of many religiously-inspired movements that shaped the history of Imperial China. They came and went through the centuries. When successful, they replaced an emperor. And many of them failed, often after bitter wars, sometimes with millions of victims.
A Story in the News
Amnesty International pointed out in March 2000, that some Falun Gong practitioners had been charged with crimes and arbitrarily tried, while other had been sent to labour camps without any trial. Hundreds, and possibly thousands of other practitioners had been assigned to serve terms of "administrative" detention in forced labour camps for up to three years.
Amnesty says that most trials that took place had been closed to the public and some had been held in secret. And it says that "the obligation clearly lies with the government to demonstrate why particular restrictions are necessary and why punishing members of Falun Gong and other groups is warranted. It has so far failed to do so."
The Chinese government is facing a challenge. Before, they had to deal with dissidents who never became too influential in China. That was easy business for the authorities. The dissidents were no secret society. But Falun Gong appears to be one. One nightmare of China's officials may be that they think of Li Hongzhi, Falun Gong's founder, as another Hong Xiuquan. Another nightmare may be that they think of Falun Gong as an organisation that is ticking the way the Communist Party did under Chairman Mao. For sure, the sacrifices that Falun Gong practitioners often make to stick to their practice are tremendous, just like the sacrifices of many Communists in the 1920s to 1940s were.
The real fascinating thing about the clash between Falun Gong and the Communist Party that started in July 1999 was, that neither the organisation that is ruling China (the Communist Party) nor the Falun Gong are democratic at all. Both are paternalistic, giving people not just some methodology to master their lives, but a totalitarian, closed view of the world.
Many dissidents made their demands publicly. They did so, because they believe in democratic processes, and because they wanted to be an example for a democratic culture. In China, you educate by your own example, or you won't educate anyone.
That was no democratic process, and couldn't be one, any time since Wei Jingsheng gave it a first try, in the late 1970s. It was impossible, because the Communist Party isn't democratic.
The Falun Gong bid in Peking, in 1999, was even more impossible - because neither the Communist Party, nor Falun Gong, are democratic.
It is an irony that today, the Falun Gong, which is supported by many human rights activists in the West for its claim for "religious freedoms", is probably more totalitarian than the Communist Party itself. The CP, after all, has started a process of opening and reforms 25 years ago, and this has already lead to a considerable emancipation of minds, especially in the cities, and most clearly so within the growing middle class.
The Communist Party is in charge of running the country (which inevitably leads to contradictions), while Falun Gong is pointing back to some vague sort of Goden Age, sometime, somewhere, once you follow its rules. It is just another irony that, while the CP as a whole is committed to modernize China, it is paternalistic - and oppressive -, too. Few teachers like the idea of making themselves obsolete by enabling pupils to develop their own methodologies successfully. Few political parties like the idea of a nation that takes care of its business, with only a limited role for political parties. Once there is a crisis - be it an international one, be it the economy at home, they will start to tell you that they are just the right people to take care of it. They won't ask you to educate yourself and take care of your own life. Not even in a democratic country.
Things can still be worse. They are when politicians and officials wine, dine, and mess around like many of them do in China, certainly on local levels. There is nothing more horrific than a politician's son or daughter who establish their own commercial business, with some help from their parents and their connections. It doesn't make the concept of modernization look any more appealing to those who are in danger of losing out in the process.
It is no co-incidence that many of those who joined the Falun Gong are actually elderly people. Falun Gong appears to "give them back" some of the good old values of equality and decency. No one should believe what the organisation says about just offering some "meditation practice" for individuals. No policeman would be able to tell if a meditation in a public Chinese park in itself is strictly traditional, or a Falun Gong variant, which might warrant an arrest. Amnesty International is right about demanding fair treatment for Falun Gong practitioners. But the organisation itself deserves no help. It is by no means a transparent organisation.
What will count in the long run, is the performance of the Communists. In many ways, the CP already feels the pressure of the people.
The demands of the "lao bai xing", the "ordinary people", are about jobs, income, a stable environment, and some "modest prosperity" (xiao kang). The demands of the middle class are about a say in public affairs. The fact that economic failure would not lead to an opposition party rising to power through a safe, established process, but rather to national disaster, doesn't ease the pressure, at all. But the point is that while China may be able to succeed under the weakening grip of the Communist Party, it sure wouldn't with the Falun Gong's concepts from somewhere in history.
The Communist Party will face another challenge: if successful in modernizing China, its monopoly on power will be over. There will be no way that either the Communist Party as it is today, or the Falun Gong, would call the shots in a truly modern, democratic society.
China installs Pope-backed bishop
BBC News, Sept 21 2007
"Li Hongzhi´s writings, for instance, have a great deal of moral content"
David Ownby, October 2000 (found & linked 2008-05-09)
Cardinal Kung Foundation