Friendly Fire: How Falun Gong Mistook Me for an Enemy
Heather Kavan [+]
This paper provides an account of more than a year’s fieldwork with a small group of Falun Gong members in New Zealand. The narrative begins in 2005 with my hopes of helping the group, and ends in a haze of mysterious communications, threats and accusations, which continue today – a decade after the research project was finished. The chapter shows how Falun Gong members in Western countries have forged an identity for their spiritual path as a group subjected to human rights violations for simply doing breathing exercises. The Rachlin media group (Falun Gong’s former Public Relations organisation) created the narrative, re-casting apocalyptic leader Li Hongzhi as a hero akin to Gandhi, who has mobilised millions of followers to non-violently resist an oppressive regime. In accord with this story, practitioners have staged headline-generating events, despatched thousands of press releases, and protested any portrayal that is not in accord with their new image. But Li’s writings to members tell a different narrative to the one told in the Western media. Drawing on my ethnographic research, I discuss the differences between the group’s public and private communications. Using James Scott’s frame – the higher the stakes involved, the greater the discrepancy between an oppressed group’s public and hidden transcripts (Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. Yale University Press 1990) – I observe that while practitioners revised their publicly proclaimed ideology to appeal to Western moral ideals of amelioration of suffering and personal freedom, these ideals were not part of their in-group communications. Rather, sacrifice, martyrdom, and exclusivity were intrinsic to members’ beliefs and life choices. To illustrate the focus on suffering and martyrdom, I analyse practitioners’ responses when a frail, older member was denied refugee status and was returning to China to her likely imprisonment. I discuss why practitioners refused to pass on a message that would assist the woman and possibly save her life, preferring to embrace Li Hongzhi’s views that suffering is to be prized. The chapter closes with an outline of the responses to my study. I discuss the internet passages about me that resulted in several Falun Gong authors being banned from Wikipedia, and the lingering shadowy harassment of which I could never be sure whether the protagonists were from the Chinese government or Falun Gong. I interpret harassment from Falun Gong as an expression of Li Hongzhi’s ‘stepping forward’ ideology in which practitioners must defend his version of the fa to compete for entry into heaven, which only allows for limited numbers.