The Religion and Politics of Falun Gong
Junpeng Li [+]
This chapter analyzes the factors of religion and politics in the trajectory of Falun Gong. Falun Gong’s trajectory can be viewed as a conflict-amplifying process in which the interplay between the group as a religious actor and the state policies and apparatus of religious control led to the eventual crackdown. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the state’s policies toward religion and civic organizations created a unique niche for qigong. In the early 1990s, after qigong successfully opened up a space in the gray zone between state and society, Falun Gong emerged as part of the state-sanctioned “scientific” qigong movement by adopting a strategy of accommodation that eschewed explicit spiritual teaching. In the mid-1990s, faced with increasing state suspicion of qigong and fierce competition from thousands of qigong groups, Falun Gong brought its spiritual dimension to the fore and became a new religious movement. This proved a huge success as it met the needs of spiritual seekers in the gray market. Unsettled by Falun Gong’s ideological challenge, the state began to take measures to keep Falun Gong out of the political realm. However, the minor irritations that ensued convinced the practitioners that the state was merely misinformed. To convince the state of its “apolitical” nature, Falun Gong launched a persistent “truth clarification” campaign, but the small-scale demonstrations further warned the state of Falun Gong’s defiance of its symbolic order. The linkage and clustering of the events eventually exploded into the massive Zhongnanhai protest of 1999. Shocked by Falun Gong’s mobilization capacity and ideological challenge, the state officially banned the group and has since harshly purged its practitioners. But the crackdown only served to fully release Falun Gong’s political potential. While Li Hongzhi, the founder of Falun Gong, previously only vaguely referred to evil, the crackdown polarized and intensified Falun Gong’s apocalyptic message, which now unequivocally views the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) as a nefarious force. Falun Gong in exile has become a major anti-CCP force that has built a coalition with other political forces and launched waves of political activities aimed at the overthrow of the CCP. The conflict between Falun Gong and the state brings us to the question of what is political and what is religious, as the escalation of the level of conflict can be seen as a result of conflicting interpretations of what counted as “political” and what counted as “religious.” In communist China, religion and politics are often fluid spheres in society and always intersect with other social phenomena. Different interpretations of religion and politics by the state and Falun Gong played a huge role in the eventual politicization of the Falun Gong movement. As a result, the story of Falun Gong is one of unintended consequences. The organizational evolution of Falun Gong is an illustration of the religion of the non-religious and the politics of the apolitical in an authoritarian state.