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.
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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.