Article on Modern Chinese Religion and Culture
Falun Gong Challenges Communist China
On October 1, 1999, President Jiang Zemin and other leaders of the Communist Party of China celebrated the 50th anniversary of communist rule in China with a massive military parade through downtown Beijing. What was this 50th anniversary celebration representing? What this grand parade symbolized was the political achievement and the recent economic prosperity of the People's Republic. What a display of invincible power it was! Who would dare to challenge the supremacy of this communist regime? The nation now appears to be enjoying economic prosperity while under the political rule of a communist system. But when it marked the fifty years of communist rule, the regime faced a serious challenge by a new spiritual movement of the people--a movement known as Falun Gong.
On January 14, 2001, at big conference in Hong Kong, Falun Gong leaders bitterly criticized China's top leader for the campaign of suppression against the group and called on President Jiang Zemin to halt the crackdown. On January 23, five members of the banned Falun Gong meditation group set themselves on fire in China's infamous Tiananmen Square. CNN news reported on February 5, 2001, "Jiang Zemin may succeed in suppressing the Falun Gong sect for now, but the president's prestige could suffer considerable damage. So could China's program of reforms."
The roots of this story go back to July 22, 1999, when China's government banned the group, fearing its popularity could threaten the Communist Party's claim to be the legitimate leadership of the Chinese populace. The government justified the ban with accusations of the group spreading unrest and undermining social stability. One and a half years later, the January 23rd fiery demonstration is being called the most serious incident since the Tiananmen Square protest of 1989. The People’s Republic is now in fear of the people's movement! If, as Falun Gong leaders claim, the group has no stated political agenda, why are China's leaders so worried about a movement best known for its members gathering in city parks for meditative exercise?
First, it is the enormous size of the group that matters. This group that started in northeast China in 1992 now claims to have 100 million followers worldwide. What is so appealing about this group that so many people have been seduced into joining it? A mixture of Buddhist and Taoist beliefs, Falun Gong (translated "Wheel of Law") was founded by Li Hongzhi and employs meditation, physical exercise, and traditional Chinese health practices known as qigong. This syncretistic movement is often referred to as a "moral cultivation" movement because of its conservative moral guidelines that warn followers against such "degenerate" influences as rock and roll, television, computers, homosexuality, and modern medical care. Stressing simplicity, the group appeals to nostalgic yearnings for a simpler time, a purer day.
Although Falun Gong is very traditional, and very Eastern in its origin, it also has adopted Western elements drawn from Scientology and Christian Science. The movement promotes what it calls "fashen," when the "mind and thoughts [are] controlled by the practitioner" through exercise and spiritual practice. Li Hongzhi, the founder of this group, claims that his fashen can cure his followers' illnesses. In a society where so many struggle with health problem, Falun Gong leaders claim that they have answers for maintaining healthy soul and healthy body. In a society where communist materialism denies the existence of a spiritual realm, Falun Gong propaganda promotes that healing comes from the spirit. It is ironic that the very successors of Karl Marx (who claimed that the materialistic world is everything) are now contradicting themselves by recognizing a spiritual reality with their claims of Falun Gong having exorcised evil spirits! China is now in an ideological civil war. But, as we know, neither an a theistic doctrine or a cult can be a right path for the nation.
Secondly, Falun Gong worries China's leaders because the group's social influence matters. We must ask, "What sociological needs have remained unsatisfied among this populace and how is Falun Gong fulfilling those needs?" The majority of the group's Chinese adherents are from the generation of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. With Marxism-Maoism debunked in 1990s and the market economy rollercoastering, economic uncertainty and fear for the future grip the vast middle class. During the Cultural Revolution they experienced official attacks on traditional culture. At the same time, they did not fit into the new modern culture brought by the age of information . This confusion and imploding faith in the state has provided fertile ground for a variety of belief systems. Into this vacuum of desperately felt needs for moral guidance, Falun Gong offers a triple concept of moral guidance in the form of, namely, zhen-- shan-ren (roughly translating to "truthfulness-compassion/ benevolence-forbearance/acceptance-- endurance").
While showing no political agenda, the Falun Gong movement still threatens the very foundational assumptions on which the Communist regime's legitimacy stands. By appealing to the power of internal meditation, it challenges the communist concept of external materialism. No one can deny that the group can--at any time it chooses--exercise a powerful political influence because its seventy million members already outnumbers the sixty million of the Communist Party. The People's Republic was established on October 1, 1949 by the people but, on its 50th anniversary, the People's Republic found itself seriously challenged by the people again.
Falun Gong has found fertile land in China where people nostalgically yearns for a more traditional and nature-friendly culture. It also is thriving by appealing to their desires for health, meaning and belonging; by teaching an alternative, simpler way of life; and by building a community of practitioners. It also reflects a postmodern ethos growing in modern China (although this is a quite different one from the Western experience): a large group of people-- disadvantaged by the industrial progress and disillusioned by secularism--is seeking for something their government cannot provide. But those who pray for the spiritual revolution in the Communist China know that Falun Gong is not the true answer. Though the false teachings appear to appease spiritual hunger in people’s heart, Falun Gong is a syncretistic cult. China needs Christian missionaries who will bring the Bread of Life to millions of souls who will otherwise perish without true spiritual nourishment.
From 1965 when it began implementing missiological education, Fuller has aspired to reclaim mainland China for Christ. Dr. Arthur F. Glasser was a missionary there prior to the Cold War. Dr. Chan young Choi led a project for the publication of the Bible in China. Students like Jeremiah Im and Andrew Mui went to China with burning heart to witness for Christ. Others, including Lisa Lee and Jennifer Bloch have expanded their cross-cultural vision by going to China. Being a part of this cross-cultural heritage at Fuller, we must know that it is a critical time for mission work in China. Now the ideological battlefield for Communism and Falun Gong, China is also a spiritual battlefield for Christianity and Falun Gong. This is a battlefield that we have to engage in under the banner of Christ to bring millions of lost souls to the Savior.
© This article was first published by the SEMI as a cover article for the weekly issue of February 26-March 2, 2001. The SEMI is a periodical for the community of Fuller Theological Seminary.
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