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.
Show Hide image

Can Trident be hacked?

A former defence secretary has warned that Trident is vulnerable to cyber attacks. Is it?

What if, in the event of a destructive nuclear war, the prime minister goes to press the red button and it just doesn't work? 

This was the question raised by Des Browne, a former defence secretary, in an interview witht the Guardian this week. His argument, based on a report from the defence science board of the US Department of Defense, is that the UK's Trident nuclear weapons could be vulnerable to cyberattacks, and therefore rendered useless if hacked. 

Browne called for an "end-to-end" assessment of the system's cybersecurity: 

 The government ... have an obligation to assure parliament that all of the systems of the nuclear deterrent have been assessed end-to-end against cyber attacks to understand possible weak spots and that those weak spots are protected against a high-tier cyber threat. If they are unable to do that then there is no guarantee that we will have a reliable deterrent or the prime minister will be able to use this system when he needs to reach for it.

Is he right? Should we really be worried about Trident's potential cyber weaknesses?

Tangled webs 

The first, crucial thing to note is that Trident is not connected to the "internet" we use every day. Sure, it's connected to the main Ministry of Defence network, but this operates totally independently of the network that you visit Facebook through. In cyber-security terms, this means the network is "air-gapped" - it's isolated from other systems that could be less secure. 

In our minds, Trident is old and needs replacing (the submarines began patrolling in the 1990s), but any strike would be ordered and co-ordinated from Northwood, a military bunker 100m underground which would use the same modern networks as the rest of the MoD. Trident is basically as secure as the rest of the MoD. 

What the MoD said

I asked the Ministry of Defence for a statement on Trident's security, and while it obviously can't offer much information about how it all actually works, a spokesperson confirmed that the system is air-gapped and added: 

We wouldn't comment on the detail of our security arrangements for the nuclear deterrent but we can and do safeguard it from all threats including cyber.

What security experts said

Security experts agree that an air-gapped system tends to be more secure than one connected to the internet. Sean Sullivan, a security adviser at F-secure, told Infosecurity magazine that while some hackers have been able to "jump" air-gaps using code, this would cause "interference" at most and a major attack of this kind is still "a long way off". 

Franklin Miller, a former White House defence policy offer, told the Guardian that the original report cited by Browne was actually formulated in response to suggestions that some US defence networks should be connected to the internet. In that case, it actually represents an argument in favour of the type of air-gapped system used by the MoD. 

So... can it be hacked?

The answer is really that any system could be hacked, but a specialised, independent defence network is very, very unlikely to be. If a successful hack did happen, it would likely affect all aspects of defence, not just Trident. That doesn't mean that every effort shouldn't be made to make sure the MoD is using the most secure system possible, but it also means that scaremongering in the context of other, unrelated cybersecurity scares is a little unjustified. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.