A Blind Eye:
BEIJING -- Chen Xingqiao would seem to be a natural ally for the
The 43-year-old Buddhist, who works in a small temple in Beijing's leafy western district, was one of the earliest critics of the group. He argued in 1996 -- three years before Falun Dafa was outlawed -- that it was an illegally registered religious organization and therefore should be banned. But even now, with China desperate for allies in its 18-month battle against Falun Dafa, Mr. Chen's views have never been aired in public. Government censors proscribe local media from running interviews with him; his 1998 book on the group has never been distributed to bookstores.
The reason: Mr. Chen has a more nuanced view of Falun Dafa than the authorities -- one that doesn't jibe with their black-or-white approach. The government has lurched from one extreme to another as it tries to come to terms with the new religion, which is widely known as Falun Gong and advocates a combination of moral precepts and physical exercise. First, it muzzled critics such as Mr. Chen, hoping Falun Dafa would disappear if it wasn't discussed. Then, after Falun Dafa members mistakenly interpreted this as a sign of official support, the government hit the group with a campaign of vitriol and violence. Tens of thousands have been arrested and scores tortured to death.
"I thought Falun Dafa was bad, but that it had to be understood as part of this religious hunger that people have," says Mr. Chen, who edits a Buddhist magazine. "But the bureaucrats can't understand what motivates most people."
At the root of these problems is a government out of step with an increasingly complex and diverse country. Set up five decades ago to run a totalitarian dictatorship, China's government has learned over the past two decades how to reform its economy -- witness China's pending entry into the World Trade Organization -- and has largely stopped meddling in people's private lives.
But fearful of losing power, leaders have stunted the development of independent organizations -- religions, trade unions, business groups, a free press and charities -- that anchor truly stable societies. Trade groups still must register with government-run chambers of commerce, restricting their ability to speak out on behalf of members. Newspapers, magazines and television stations remain under tight government supervision, and Internet sites have been told that they must bear the consequences of what they publish.
Even micro-credit programs to alleviate rural poverty must be run through government agencies, which have put China decades behind other developing countries in establishing this widely recognized method of helping the poor. As China hurtles forward, driven by ever-faster economic and social change, its rulers still rely on two simplistic ways to deal with social change: neglect or suppression.
A close look at the events leading up to the crackdown on Falun Dafa shows how some people worked hard for a more moderate outcome. Many, like Mr. Chen, didn't like Falun Dafa, but they recognized it as part of a bigger problem that needed to be addressed. Others shared the argument of He Zuoxiu, a prominent senior physicist who felt that confrontation and hard-nosed debate would check Falun Dafa's rapid growth by revealing the group's penchant for bullying its critics. Only the government, ossified after decades in power, refused to address the social upheaval that was fueling Falun Dafa's rise, or to ease the rigid policies that were setting the group on a collision course with the Communist Party.
At first, Falun Dafa was untouched by Chinese officialdom because of a loosening of state control under way since the late 1970s. After Mao Tse-tung's death in 1976 ended his last, catastrophic decade in power, the Communist Party tried to win back popular support by reforming the economy. It also permitted a partial rebirth of religion, which the officially atheist party tightly controlled with elaborate rules and regulations. But, weakened by years of internal power struggles, the party was forced to turn a blind eye to a wide swath of gray-area activities, including folk religions.
One was Falun Dafa. Like similar movements through the centuries, Falun Dafa was headed by a man claiming superhuman powers and demanding a return to traditional morals -- "popular fundamentalism," as some scholars call it. It also drew on qigong, an exercise technique that involves controlled breathing, meditation and slow-motion calisthenics. And like many of the new spiritual movements flooding the country at this time, it originated in China's far north, a rust belt of shuttered factories and long unemployment lines.
Mr. Chen first came across Falun Dafa in 1994, when he still lived in Harbin, a northern city only a day's drive from the Russian border. A friend took him to hear Falun Dafa's founder, Li Hongzhi, speak. Mr. Chen, a committed Buddhist, didn't like what he heard. Part of the speech, he says, denigrated Buddhism, while the rest was laced with claims of prescience. "I figured he was one of those typical northeastern Chinese supermen and forgot about him," says Mr. Chen, a wiry man with a quick wit and a broad smile.
But during the next two years, Mr. Chen found it increasingly hard to ignore Falun Dafa. Thanks to fervent proselytizing, the group became the most popular of the new religions that were offering a moral compass in a turbulent age. Almost every park in Harbin featured a Falun Dafa exercise spot. Corner bookstands were lined with the group's books and videotapes. Many Buddhists were even returning their statues and sutras, or scriptures, to temples, saying they weren't as powerful as Mr. Li's main text, "Turning the Dharma Wheel."
Even in the tool factory where Mr. Chen worked as an administrator before taking his editing job, Falun Dafa slowly became unavoidable. Believers practiced for an hour every morning in the front yard of the plant and met for discussion groups in the evening. Curious, Mr. Chen picked up a copy of Mr. Li's book and spent several months studying it. His conclusion: Falun Dafa was a heretical offshoot of Buddhism that misappropriated traditional religious terms such as "Dharma Wheel" to give it legitimacy. He wrote a 20,000-word essay called "Revealing the Original Face of Falun Gong -- a New Kind of Folk Religion" and gave it to his local Buddhist association.
But Mr. Chen's analysis was too penetrating and his remedy too radical for China's rigid officialdom. The country's religious bureaucracy recognizes only five religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism and Taoism. To check their growth, the government bans proselytizing outside places of worship. But Mr. Chen noted that organizations such as Falun Dafa, which had officially registered with the government as an exercise group, labored under no such restrictions.
Mr. Chen's solution: unshackle established religions so they could compete on equal terms. If Falun Dafa could hold meetings in sports stadiums and recruit passersby in the park, why not allow Buddhists to do the same? The response from officials, though, was predictable: They ignored his proposals. "They were just interested in keeping everything quiet," Mr. Chen says.
Open discussion of Falun Dafa would also expose the central paradox in official policy. Acknowledging Falun Dafa as a religion would mean officials would either have to allow a new religion to register, or ban it. Registering a new religion is impossible in China -- it hasn't happened in five decades of Communist rule -- while banning it would be an admission that the government had allowed a religion to flourish for years in the guise of an exercise group.
Mr. Chen's frustrations came to a head later in 1996, when the Harbin city government convened a meeting called "Socialism and Buddhism." As a senior lay member of the city's Buddhist community, Mr. Chen attended and brought up Falun Dafa for discussion.
The issue died after just a few minutes' debate. Representatives from the police said they could act only when a disturbance occurred, while officials from the religious bureau said they are allowed to oversee activities only inside established places of worship, according to people present at the meeting. "It fell through the cracks, so the government simply ignored it and hoped it would go away," says an official at the Harbin public-security office who attended the 1996 meeting. Adds Mr. Chen: "It was a new religion, but no one knew what to do about it because new religions are illegal. Therefore it didn't exist."
Mr. Chen decided that if the bureaucracy wouldn't act, he would prod it by publishing his essay, which the local Buddhist association had forwarded to its national headquarters. He turned to its head, Zhao Puchu, a rare figure who managed to remain respected in religious circles while maintaining the trust of party officials.
Mr. Zhao liked the essay and sent it to China's leading party newspaper, People's Daily. The paper initially wanted to publish a condensed version in its elite "Internal Reference" edition, which is read by the country's top leaders. But after asking Mr. Chen for permission to run such a version, a senior editor killed it.
"Several things prevented us from running it," says an editor at the newspaper. "Foremost was that he talked too frankly about religion. We just can't do that."
Mr. Zhao then ordered that the tract be published in early 1997 in "Religious Trends," an internal publication of the Buddhist association. After a further year of effort, he got the essay printed by a publishing house run by the party's religious-affairs office.
These were victories, but small ones. Reflecting government suspicion of religion, "Religious Trends" was allowed to be distributed only to members of the Buddhist association, so its impact was negligible. The book was deemed too sensitive to distribute to bookstores. Instead, interested readers had to contact the publishing house in Beijing and pick it up in person.
One person who did take note of Mr. Chen's book was He Zuoxiu. A rumpled, energetic 73-year-old, Mr. He is one of China's most famous physicists and for years has made it his personal crusade to popularize science and combat what he sees as his countrymen's predilection for superstition. He had come across Falun Dafa in 1996 but dismissed its scriptures as humbug.
Two years later, however, Mr. He realized he had been mistaken to write it off so lightly. By then, Falun Dafa had exploded in popularity, spreading from the far north to China's big cities. It had in effect become China's unofficial sixth religion, boasting tens of millions of adherents -- some estimates ran as high as 100 million in this nation of more than 1.3 billion.
One believer was a student in Mr. He's research institute, who in the spring of 1998 was committed to a mental institution for obsessively practicing Falun Dafa. The young man refused to eat or drink and would only meditate. Mr. He heard from a friend about Mr. Chen's book, read it and decided Falun Dafa was a cult.
Unlike Mr. Chen, who saw in Falun Dafa's rise proof that the country needed more religious freedom, Mr. He believed it was another quasi-religious group that needed to be put in its place. An old-school Marxist, Mr. He believes in science, not religion, and today remains one of a small number of members still active in the China Atheists Association. So in May, when Beijing Television came to film a report on Mr. He's institute, he grabbed the opportunity to criticize Falun Dafa, attacking it as "responsible for sending a young man to the hospital."
The day after the show aired on May 11, 1998, Mr. He realized he was in for a fight. That morning, half a dozen adherents showed up at his house and sat in his living room for three hours, arguing with him. "I showed them that I'd read their book and all the parts that I thought were nonsense," he said. "It was a bit unpleasant having all these people coming to your home, but in the end we just agreed that we didn't agree and they left."
Mr. He promptly called the station and found out that a few Falun Dafa adherents were outside the station with pickets. Fresh from his experience with the argumentative students, Mr. He urged Beijing Television not to buckle. "The idea that they could protest outside a major organization of the party was unimaginable," he says.
But, as Mr. Chen had learned two years earlier, Mr. He soon discovered that officials were bent on the path of least resistance. By early June, the number of protesters outside Beijing TV had grown to 2,000 – all peaceful and orderly but shocking to authorities in Beijing, which hadn't seen a significant demonstration since the student protests in Tiananmen Square a decade earlier. With the ninth anniversary of those demonstrations rapidly approaching -- still a sensitive time on China's political calendar -- leaders ordered the television station to end the Falun Dafa protest at any cost.
The station quickly complied. To show goodwill, it handed out 2,000 boxed lunches and promised to air a sympathetic portrayal of the group. The next day, the show ran as promised, the protests dispersed and quiet returned to the Chinese capital.
Mr. He was incensed at the acquiescence. He did more research and found out that the party had regularly yielded to Falun Dafa protesters. Several media outlets -- estimates range as high as 14 -- had been besieged by Falun Dafa adherents angry at reports casting doubt on its claim to foster good health through exercise. In almost every case, the media had backed down, printing or airing apologies to Falun Dafa.
Most, Mr. He learned, were simply taking their cue from the China Press and Publication Administration, which controls content in China's media. The office had a "three nots" policy on groups such as Falun Dafa: media should not be for it, should not be against it and should not label it good or bad -- part of the agency's general policy of avoiding anything controversial. Newspapers had been following this rule since 1996 when Enlightenment Daily, the main newspaper aimed at cultural circles, published a book review critical of Mr. Li's work and became the first media organization to be besieged by angry adherents who demanded -- and received -- a retraction.
To the stability-minded mandarins who run the country, this seemed like sound policy, one that the Beijing Television protests bore out. Opening up a messy debate about Falun Dafa would have sparked more protests and allowed people such as Mr. Chen to call for religious freedom. Few considered the lesson that Falun Dafa was learning: that demonstrations were acceptable.
Mr. He decided to force the party to change its policy -- and unlike Mr. Chen, he had more ways to make society take notice of Falun Dafa. As a famous academic researcher and government loyalist, he was a member of a top-level consultative committee that advises the Communist Party on policy. Although largely powerless, the committee provided Mr. He with some cover to step up his criticism of Falun Dafa.
He started by sending a letter to President Jiang Zemin, warning him that a new religion with tens of millions of followers was spreading across China. The letter, which he titled "Reckless Falun Gong ," was written by Mr. He and five fellow members of the committee. There was no reply.
Refusing to be discouraged, Mr. He began writing articles for any publication that would accept his work. Most followed the party's three-nots campaign, but a few regional journals, unaware of the central government's policy, were happy to run articles by the famous scientist. "The bigger papers . . . were afraid they'd have to apologize," Mr. He says. "So I had to publish in these small newspapers and magazines."
While Mr. He plugged away, Falun Dafa enjoyed a banner year in 1998. Though its founder, Mr. Li, had emigrated to the U.S., he returned often to coordinate activities and stayed in close contact with practitioners through a tightly knit organization. Critics such as Mr. He continued their pinprick attacks, but the party's do-nothing policies coupled with Falun Dafa's militancy had marginalized them.
"The government was mostly supportive of us," says Zhang Erping, a Falun Dafa spokesman who lives in New York. "Many top leaders seemed to support us."
This impression was understandable but wrong. Most of China's leaders didn't accept or agree with Falun Dafa; their crude governing apparatus had simply kept them in the dark. That was about to change, not because leaders had become wiser, but because Falun Dafa was to make a tactical mistake.
As 1998 wound down, Mr. He decided to write a short commentary for a small student magazine called Science and Technology Knowledge for Youth. The article, "Why Young People Shouldn't Practice Qigong," was one of his typical blasts at all forms of qigong, which he said was more suitable to older, less-active people. Halfway through the article, he mentioned Falun Dafa and then, in a key phrase that angered the group, referred to Mr. Li in a mildly derisive term as its toutou, or "boss."
The response came quickly. The day after the magazine was printed, protesters arrived at its offices on the campus of Tianjin Normal University, located about 100 miles east of Beijing. From April 20 to 23, as many as 6,000 occupied the university, demanding a retraction. "The publishers called me," Mr. He says, reaching over to touch his green plastic rotary phone. "And asked me what was going on. I told them that as a science publication, they had better not print a retraction."
The magazine stood firm. Angry Falun Dafa members then made their fateful decision to seek help from the very top echelons of the party. It was a turn of events that even Mr. He couldn't have foreseen. He had hoped his magazine articles would attract the leaders' attention; instead, his articles had provoked Falun Dafa into doing this for him. On April 25, 1999, an estimated 10,000 members peacefully surrounded the central government's leadership compound in downtown Beijing and asked that Falun Dafa be legitimized as a normal part of society.
It was a colossal miscalculation -- and a shock to the leadership. Frantic officials called Mr. He, demanding material on Falun Dafa. He couriered over a packet of stuff, including Mr. Chen's book.
Shortly after the demonstration, President Jiang Zemin issued an open letter to all senior leaders, calling Falun Dafa a threat to the party's authority. In the letter -- which was also read in party cell meetings, so everyone got the message -- Mr. Jiang chastized the government's security apparatus for allowing the protest to take place. "We called for 'stability above all,' but our stability has fallen through," Mr. Jiang wrote. "Our leaders must wake up."
Soon, the creaky government bureaucracy that had ignored and unwittingly encouraged Falun Dafa for years finally started to formulate a response to the group. But there was to be no public discussion on religious freedom, as Mr. Chen wanted, nor the sort of robust, no-gloves debate favored by Mr. He.
Instead, the party took the only action it knew. It set up a bureau called Office 610 -- named for the date, June 10, when it was formed – whose job was to mobilize the country's pliant social organizations. Under orders from the Public Security Bureau, churches, temples, mosques, newspapers, media, courts and police all quickly lined up behind the government's simple plan: to crush Falun Dafa. Within days, the first arrests were made.
As a staunch communist, Mr. He loyally backed the government's actions and so was interviewed widely in the government press. But he often referred people to Mr. Chen, the first person to recognize Falun Dafa as worthy of serious attention and study. Finally, Mr. Chen thought, he would have a chance to air his views.
Newspapers and television stations dutifully showed up at Mr. Chen's temple in Beijing. Each time, Mr. Chen would make his case and wait for something to appear in print or on air. Each time, nothing appeared.
"I criticized Falun Gong, but I also talked about the need for religion. Yet all the government wanted to do was fight it," says Mr. Chen, staring hard at the cover of his book. "Religion is a good resource. People need it. But the party is still completely ignorant of it."