The Falun Gong show that meek can be provocative

Lloyd Evans joins the dissident movement in a ritual exercise near the Chinese Embassy. He is unsettled to find himself understanding why China’s rulers get so paranoid about them

16 July 2008

12:00 AM

16 July 2008

12:00 AM

Lloyd Evans joins the dissident movement in a ritual exercise near the Chinese Embassy. He is unsettled to find himself understanding why China’s rulers get so paranoid about them

Bong. Up go our hands. Bong. Down come our hands. Bong. We bend our knees. Bong. We crouch down slowly. Bong. We sweep our hands around our feet. Bong. We pass our hands behind our shoulder blades. Bong. We straighten up. Bong. We make hollow fists. Bong. We release the energy. Bong. Up go our hands again. Bong. And down come our hands. And so on. It was a sunny morning in Regent’s Park and I’d joined a circle of Falun Gong practitioners as we indulged in a spot of communal aerobics. The chimes came from a small loudspeaker on the grass which relayed plinkety-plonk music and instructions in Chinese. Falun Gong was founded in China in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, an amateur trumpeter and former stud-farm worker. Falun means ‘law wheel’ and Gong means ‘work’ or ‘practice’, and the movement encourages cultivation of both mind and body. It grew rapidly and within a few years its devotees outnumbered the Chinese Communist Party. Following a 24-hour mass demonstration in Tiananmen Square in April 1999, Falun Gong was outlawed by President Jiang Zemin and denounced as an ‘evil cult’. Since then its followers have been harassed, arrested, mistreated and, according to their website, sent to forced labour camps. So those plastic bricks you buy for your kids may well have been manufactured by a convict whose only crime was to meditate.

There are suggestions that Beijing is using the Olympics as a pretext to intensify its campaign. According to Amnesty International a secret order was issued last February by the then public security minister Zhou Yongkang. ‘We must strike hard at hostile forces at home and abroad, such as ethnic separatists, religious extremists… and Falun Gong.’ At least 200 followers have been arrested this year.


Chinese officials routinely deny allegations of persecution and explain the evidence of torture as ‘self-mutilation’. The movement doesn’t feel particularly cultish or evil, even though the practitioners refer to Li Hongzhi, slightly creepily, as ‘the Master’. Their chief interest lies in the three principles of truth, compassion and tolerance. They insist they are entirely nonpolitical. There’s no sec-recy, no exchange of money, no organisational structure, and the classes, like the one I attended, are cheerily informal. Anyone can show up. Before we began I was welcomed by the teacher, Debbie, who apologised for being late. ‘I was just finishing a bacon sandwich.’ She gave me some tips. My mind should be clear while performing the exercises and I should avoid pursuing negative thoughts. I might feel discomfort in my feet and arms owing to ‘major energy channels being blasted open’. Then we were ready. We arranged ourselves in the shade of a chestnut tree and piled our bags and rucksacks in the middle, like girls at a disco. An English chap next to me was dressed in a T-shirt blazoned with shocking statistics about the persecution of Falun Gong. A younger man with a rich brown tan looked like an apprentice yogi in a maroon T-shirt and orange breeches. On my other side an elderly Chinese woman removed her shoes and stood on a mat of bright-green bubble-wrap. The exercises began. Arms up, arms down, bend your knees, extend your hands. It was like a slow-motion hokey-cokey lasting 90 minutes and requiring so little exertion that it’s hard to see who would benefit apart from the elderly and the convalescent. The only arduous part was the ‘standing meditation’, an ordeal that obliged us to hold our hands in the air, in three different positions, for half an hour. This was almost unbearably painful. The blood drained from my fingers. My hands went white and my muscles ached and burned, and though I was free to lower my arms at any point some devilish competitive spirit kept them aloft. Male pride, combined perhaps with a wholly inappropriate sense of Western jingoism, forbade me from relieving my agony while beside me a frail old Chinese woman stood as still as a No Entry sign with her hands upraised and her furrowed face devoid of emotion.

I found the exercises dreary and fruitless. Maybe my Gong wasn’t on song but I left the class feeling drained and bored and with no inclination to return the following week and lower my consciousness to robot level. It seemed life-denying and pointlessly sacrificial. And if it requires a degree of meekness that’s alien to my nature, then I can’t help pointing out that Falun Gong’s brand of humility is tinged with egoism. They enjoy attention. Why else would they exercise outdoors and in public? We got plenty of stares from passers-by who looked on, amused or faintly disturbed by the sight of 15 mechanical figures moving in slow unison accompanied by eerie musical chimes that seemed to waft through the air from nowhere. It’s not too fanciful to imagine that President Zemin watched the mass demonstration of 1999 with a similar sense of alarm. This wasn’t some accidental confluence of eccentric pacifists. The protest was co-ordinated over the internet. The location, Tiananmen Square, was deliberately provocative and the date was uncomfortably close to the tenth anniversary of the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989. It came as a shock to the Chinese authorities that such a large and orderly demonstration could be organised without their knowledge. The crackdown on Falun Gong coincided with rigorous censorship of the internet in China.

Falun Gong maintains its habit of meekly ostentatious protests. Not far from Regent’s Park you’ll find the Chinese embassy, a grey brick fortress with surly curtained-off windows and sloping roofs topped by a mad frizz of radio aerials. Directly opposite, Falun Gong perform their exercises around the clock. There’s a placard, a petition, a prayer-mat and, according to one protestor, a secret stash of biscuits to nourish overnight protestors. They do shifts of five hours each. I spoke to Lilla, an Israeli, who wore a jumper and anorak even on a July afternoon. Were there any plans to demonstrate against the Beijing Olympics? She shrugged and said that any protest would be turned into negative propaganda by the Chinese authorities. Later I met Tina, an exile from China, who works in TV marketing and was spending her Saturday night meditating outside the embassy. Was she afraid of the Chinese secret service? ‘No. Because they are weak. They have the army and all that but what they are doing is not right. So they are weak.’ The late shift was taken by another Chinese exile. Wrapped in a yellow cagoule and a tartan blanket she expressed the same mood of laboured optimism. ‘For us the Olympics are a chance for the world to see our protest. Things won’t change. But still we hope.’

The embassy takes a completely different view. I asked them if it was true that Falun Gong are persecuted in China. I got a shirty brush-off. ‘I am surprised you are interested in this group which is a cult banned in China by law. This organisation has become a political one which is involved in anti-China activities.’ I was directed to a website, www.facts.org.cn, full of claims that Falun Gong break up families, deny the efficacy of modern medicine and spread treasonable messages on banknotes.

Reluctantly, I have to agree with one part of the embassy’s statement. Falun Gong is political. It aims to modify the policy of a government and it applies concerted pressure in order to bring about that change. And in that sense one can, just about, understand the paranoia of China’s dictators.

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Show comments
  • Bruce Dearborn Walker

    To understand the reaction of the Chinese government to Falun Gong, it is necessary to understand the cause and effects of the Taiping rebellion. It started as a small Christian offshoot, the leader of which believed himself, after a fever dream, to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ, with a writ from God to convert and reform the world.

    Eventually, the Taipengs would control much of central China, including the river approaches to Peking. Only the involvement of the British riparine navy and their shelling and destruction of the Taiping strongholds defeated them; otherwise they had fought the Manchu government to a standstill. The Taipings lasted over 20 years, and the war killed over 50 million people, it is considered one of the three great wars of modern times, along with the Napoleonic wars and World Wars one and two together.

    The Manchu government was fatally wounded by the Taipings, and lasted only a little more than 30 years after their final destruction.

    The Taiping rebellion was a populist war, and quickly attracted other revolutionary movements, due to the corruption of the Ching government. It is easy to draw parallels with the present Chinese government, which is unable to prevent the local officials from robbing and cheating the populace: there are over 10,000 riots against the government is China yearly, over 30 incidents PER DAY.

    China is much more fragile than it appears, or than the government wishes it to appear. The fall of China is not an outcome to be looked forward to by anyone now that China is a major international player.

    BTW, I am a lifelong practitioner of Chinese martial arts. Falun Gong is a very simple health practice, however, the movement has splintered. Some of the splinters are into health, and some into politics; others are into fraud and are controlled by the triads for monetary gain.

    It’s a very interesting train wreck for those who care to look.

  • Margaret, London

    “Falun Gong is political”: what an unintelligent response. Stroking kittens is political if people assert their right to do so in opposition to an unjust law banning the stroking of kittens. Breathing is political is people assert their right to breathe in opposition to a law banning breathing. In fact, the writer has no insights into the practice of Falun Gong beyond: it’s boring and, in itself, harmless. The Chinese Government says that their word that it’s evil should be enough. By kowtowing to this attitude, the Spectator does freedom and rational debate no favours.

  • Ian Logan

    What a pathetic analysis. Regardless of the boring and silly nature of the Falun Gong, their oppression by the Chinese dictatorship is criminal. You’ll be writing a piece sympathising with the Mafia next.

  • Kiffa

    Good post, Bruce: can you elaborate on China a bit more? thanks

  • Nigel Davies

    This article could have been better researched from a Qigong perspective. I’ve practiced a form of Qigong for a while (not Falun Gong) and you need time and expert guidance to get the postures right. Attempting a 90 minute session as a total beginner is, let’s say, ‘overambitious’.

    It’s also traditional to refer to a teacher as ‘sifu’, which can be translated as ‘teacher’ or ‘master’. It’s also recommended to do these outside in the fresh air, though obviously the sight is going to be more unusual in London rather than Beijing.

  • Jaya Gibson

    OK this is just poor journalism. The most alarming of the innaccuracies in this report is regarding the actual ‘official’ start of the crackdown in Beijing. The demonstration was not a demonstration but a silent protest – there is a difference – that passed without incident and it was around Zhongnanhai (the main government compound) which a fair distance from Tiananmen square and it was not a 24 hour event.
    These facts are widely available and have been since April 1999 by 3rd parties such as Amnesty International. Based on this one mistake alone it undermines the integrity of the entire piece. If he cannot get even this simple fact correct what does it say about the rest of his journalism?
    I find this piece to be ill-informed and disturbing. He clearly has not put enough work into researching what is a complex and sensitive issue. As for his opinions about the practice itself – well would you expect to be a tennis pro after a 90 minute lesson? Such statements are irrational and a bit preposterous. Had he taken any time to interview the many who have had severe chronic illnesses cured from the practice? I doubt it.
    I would also like to clarify that just because a peaceful movement is trying very hard to gain basic human rights in its own country – does that make it political? Even if it does, in what possible way does that justify the CCP’s torture and killing of practitioners? It seems as though Lloyd is suggesting the CCP is justified in its actions? Falun Gong practices truth, compassion and forbearance quite the opposite of the CCP.
    Shame on you Lloyd, its sloppy and irresponsible journalism like this that is helping the CCP carry on its persecution in China and around the world.
    I suggest others look at the plethora of websites out there that contain much more indepth analysis of the persecution. As for the practice, try it yourself and see what you think – it’s free. For me it changed my life and I am thankful for it.

  • Andrew, Sheffield

    Oh Lloyd….well, where to start? Such a poor post, sorry but you’re naive. I had to laugh at it. Next time put a bit of research into your writings and step out of the box. It was inaccurate and not very credible. Anyone can patch up a piece like that. Your readers are more knowlegdeable than you. You should work harder for your money 😉

  • Max London

    Article based on one day’s observation of Fa lungong is not convinced. Looking forward to see more reaserch both on the hard-core principles of Fa lungong and nowaday’s Chinese Comunist party.

  • Michael Webb

    I found your article a little funny, and also disturbingly naff. How could you possibly insinuate that the persecution of Falun Gong is in any way credible and beneficial to the people of China? Easy, you did virtually no research. If you were writing in the 1930’s and were writing a piece on Judaism, you could sympathise with the Nazis for getting rid of those nasty Jews, all he is doing is putting them into concentration camps where they can be together, and as they point out work sets you free doesn’t it?
    On the one hand I sympathize, 90 minutes as a beginner is way too much. I practice Falun Gong, I took it at it’s word, It claims it is a higher science. I run the experiment according to the instructions. It works, and it is extremely interesting as it really expands your capacity to understand the creation. I know journo’s are a bit lazy nowadays but i’m getting a bit fed up with it to be honest. Would you introduce Nelson Mandela as a former criminal ? I think not. So a being who manages to, in a very short space of time mobilise 10’s of millions of people to be better and more conscientious people would surely deserve praise not derision. The Master Li Hongzhi points out that the moral values of today are inverted. How right he is!
    Of course I sympathise as well with journo’s who have to write about it. It’s complex and yet simple, it is enigmatic, and it isn’t something you can get quickly. It is a magical journey of self discovery that leads to you to far from a robot. Actually you should take it up for a while and see, because you would then possess the self reflective capabilities to improve on you journalism and do your best for the people you serve in your magazine. Your editor would indeed be more pleased with your work and you would feel like putting more and more effort into it, and surely enough you might be entitled to a promotion. Or you could just be a robot, living within the narrow confines of your society, your narrow and lazy mindset festering in the pit of despair you have made for yourself. Nevermind, cheer up, if you make fun of the people who are trying to make the world a better place , you’ll cheer up for all of two seconds before simmering back down into your robotic stupor. There is more to your life, find out about it, Falun Gong is the way for the modern man. You owe to yourselves to check it out.
    All the best lloyd
    Mike W

  • Michael Webb

    Your comments are not so helpful, nor are they informative. If you would like to really understand why the Communist regime does what it does you have to realize that the historical perspective, and balanced decision making is totally absent. read the Nine Commentaries on China by the Epoch Times and you will surely come to gain an insight into why the Falun Gong really scare the CCP.

    Falun Gong is also way more than a simple health practice, and its informal organisation, with no money involved, and minimal structure it doesn’t lend itself well to any kind of co-opting by dodgy underhand dealings. You can only be a Falun Gong practitioner if you meet the criteria. Seeing as there is no formal structure, there are no splinters, it is not a health practice so no one is really into improving their health through it as healing. any so-called health benefits come from changing ones consciousness so that it no longer manifests.
    The loose organisation filters itself too through the practice of Truth, Benevolence and Forebearance.

    There is one more point everyone in Falun Gong who is genuine is into changing the situation in China whereby people are being murdered. They are doing it from a sense of moral duty not from the desire to engage in earthly power. That is why they claim that they are non-political.The question of a government murdering its people because they follow their conscience for the benefit of others is a moral action. Just because it impacts a political sphere it doesn’t make it political, it makes it moral.