Why is Falun Gong Banned?

Leeshai Lemish looks at the history and causes of the Chinese Communist Party’s campaign against Fal

‘If Falun Gong is benign, why is the Chinese government afraid of it?’ After nine years of persecution this basic question remains common. I’ll try answering it here.

In the 80s, Chinese parks brimmed at dawn with some 200 million people performing slow-movement exercises known as qigong. In 1992 Master Li Hongzhi introduced Falun Gong, outwardly a qigong practise like any other. But Master Li uniquely placed emphasis not on healing or supernormal abilities, but on self-cultivation towards spiritual perfection.

Falun Gong became an almost instant hit. Master Li travelled through China introducing the practise and its principles. Word of Falun Gong spread quickly, and it could soon be found in thousands of parks. The Chinese embassy in Paris invited Master Li to teach in their auditorium, and an official study found that Falun Gong saved the country millions in health costs.

Fast-forward to July 1999 and suddenly Falun Gong is public enemy number one. Practitioners are sentenced to ‘reform through labour’ camps where they are starved, beaten, and tortured with electric batons. By 2008, there are over 3,000 documented cases of practitioners killed by state persecution. Increasingly solid evidence suggests many more have been targeted as unwilling donors of kidneys, livers, and hearts. How many more, we have no idea.

Why, then, this bizarre persecution?

Weak explanations

Facing international criticism and domestic sympathy for Falun Gong, the ruling Chinese Communist Party scrambled to rationalise its campaign. It has claimed Falun Gong is a menace to society - a superstitious, foreign-driven, tightly organised, dangerous group of meditators. State-run media tell gruesome stories of mutilation and suicide, but outsiders aren’t allowed to examine them. When investigators somehow manage to scrutinize such cases, they find stories of individuals who don’t exist and crimes committed by people who have nothing to do with Falun Gong. Human Rights Watch simply calls the official claims ‘bogus’.

Some Western academics have suggested Party leaders feared Falun Gong because it reminded them of past religions-turned-rebellions. But the broad-brush parallels ignored how bloody those groups were – the often-referenced Taiping, for example, was responsible for 20 million deaths. Falun Gong has been strictly non-violent and had no rebellious plans.

One final flawed explanation is that the April 25, 1999 gathering of 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners in the political heart of Beijing startled Party leaders and triggered the oppression that followed.

But the peaceful demonstration actually came after three years of escalating state oppression already taking place. In fact, it was a direct response to practitioners being arrested and beaten in nearby Tianjin and a smear media campaign against them.

The individual leader explanation

The incident was pivotal, but for different reasons. That April day, Premier Zhu Rongji engaged members of the gathered group and listened to their grievances. Those arrested were released. Practitioners who were there told me they had felt elated about the open communication between the government and its people.

But that night, then Chairman Jiang Zemin rebuffed Zhu’s conciliatory stance. He labelled Falun Gong a threat to the Party and said it would be an international loss of face if Falun Gong were not immediately crushed. Indeed, many experts attribute the campaign to Jiang’s obsession with Falun Gong as much as any other factor.

The popularity explanation

What appears to have scared Jiang and other Party hardliners (some who are still in top posts, maintaining the campaign) was how popular and cross-social strata Falun Gong had become. In northern cities, workers practised Falun Gong together in factory yards before heading to the machines. Professors and students meditated on Tsinghua University lawns. Party leaders’ wives and senior cadres had their own little group in central Beijing.

This fear of Falun Gong’s popularity explains why its main text, Zhuan Falun, was banned from publication weeks after becoming a bestseller in 1996. And why, when a government report estimated there were more Falun Gong practitioners (70 million plus) than Party members, security agents began interrupting exercise sessions.

The predatory Party-state explanation

For decades the Party has persecuted different groups – intellectuals, artists, clergy, conservatives, reformists – through political movements. Some are targeted because they are outside Party control or have their own ideology. Falun Gong, with its spiritual teachings, sense of community, and independent network falls into that category.

Others are targeted when Party leaders manoeuvre to align power to themselves. Falun Gong appears to be a victim of that, too, as the persecution provided an excuse for strengthening state security apparatuses. It gave the Party an opportunity to oil its machinery - from Cultural Revolution-style purges to Internet surveillance systems.

As torture survivor Zhao Ming told me in Dublin, ‘the Party’s machinery of persecution was there - Jiang pushed the button’.

Leeshai Lemish has researched and written about Falun Gong since 2001. He has spent the past year travelling around the world to interview its practitioners, including labour camp survivors, for a forthcoming book.
ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories