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Falungong is a form of qigong, an ancient Chinese deep-breathing exercise system sometimes combined with meditation that enthusiasts claim promotes physical, mental, and spiritual well-being by enhancing the flow of vital energy through a person's body. It also includes elements of popular Buddhism and Daoism and offers followers a road to salvation.1

Membership in qigong groups surged during the 1980s as many of the tight controls that marked the Cultural Revolution period (1966-76) were lifted. In 1989, the official China Qigong Scientific Research Association, established in 1985, announced that "one in twenty Chinese-both old and young, strong and weak-now practices qigong."2 Its popularity continued through the 1990s as the official association sponsored research into the scientific components of qigong, applauded its proven health benefits and traditional Chinese roots, and championed proselytization by its numerous affiliate groups.

Falungong, founded by Li Hongzhi in May 1992, was probably the most successful of the affiliates. The China Qigong Scientific Research Association approved the Falungong Research Branch Society for membership as a direct-affiliate branch the following year. Li, whose title became Direct-affiliate Qigong Master, continued to teach Falungong training seminars in Beijing and the northeastern provinces, his home base, under the auspices of local branches of the association until September 1994. The relationship between Li and the association soon deteriorated and the affiliation was eventually terminated, although the exact sequence of events and reasons for termination remain unclear. Li continued to teach Falungong for a time, both in China and overseas, finally settling in the U.S. in 1998.

Falungong did not officially withdraw from the China Qigong Scientific Research Association until 1996. During 1994-96, it had tried to ensure its legality and independence and to establish its credentials as more than an exercise group through registration as a social organization. After it applied unsuccessfully in turn to the National Minorities Affairs Commission, the China Buddhist Association, and the United Front Department, the work units of the six individuals who signed the applications warned them that all registration efforts must stop. As a result, Falungong spokespersons said, Falungong decentralized its organizational structure,and local groups affiliated with branches of China's sports administration.3

In 1996, Falungong suffered a second setback in its efforts to gain legal recognition when the government's Press and Publications Administration issued a "Notice Concerning the Immediate Confiscation and Sealing Up of Five Kinds of Books, including China's Falun Gong."4 In banning the five Falungong publications, the notice cited another Press and Publications Administration document, the "Notice Concerning the Banning of Books That Propagate Ignorance and Superstition." The sanctions were extended in 1998-99.

These setbacks did not impede Falungong's growth. Neither did quiet objections from some officials, academics, and journalists who as early as 1996 questioned Falungong's belief structure and quasi-religious character, its "anti-scientific nature," alleged anti-modernization outlook, and willingness to defy Chinese authorities. Even alarm at the number of practitioners, some forty million at the end of 1998 by government count, did not stifle Falungong's ability to organize.5 Part of the reason stemmed from officials' fear that by openly challenging it, the government would be compelled to consider whether Falungong was a religion. Opening that debate would force the Chinese leadership to confront its policy of recognizing only Buddhism, Daoism, Catholicism, Islam, and Protestantism as legitimate faiths.6 The official indecision allowed Falungong to quietly confront open challenges and usually to extract apologies for derogatory remarks. In 1996, for example, when Enlightenment Daily, a newspaper with a major interest in cultural matters, critiqued Li Hongzhi's work, a Falungong protest at the paper secured a retraction. In 1998, when He Zuoxiu, a renowned physics professor and implacable foe of all kinds of superstition, of which he considered Falungong one, criticized the group in an interview on Beijing Television, a protest at the station by some 2,000 practitioners succeeded in securing a retraction and asubsequent favorable report.

It should be noted that Falungong is not the only qigong organization that has come under attack since the late 1990s. The Chinese government began dismantling one of the largest, Zhonggong, in December 1999, later declaring it an "evil cult," banning it, and seizing its assets.7 From the time its leader, Zhang Hongbao, surfaced in Guam and requested asylum in the United States, the Chinese government fought unsuccessfully for his return.8 The Chinese government has continued to arrest and sentence Zhonggong members since Zhang's petition for asylum was granted in June 2001.9

Practitioners say Falungong is a higher or advanced form of qigong.10 Its exercise regimen is said to deliver greater health benefits than other qigong systems and its belief system, emphasizing truthfulness (zhen), compassion (shan), and forbearance (ren), is said to encourage the highest standards of moral behavior and to augment the goodness already present within individuals and within society.11 There is an added incentive for the individual practitioner. As the impulse to begood and do good grows, he or she is said to be able to attain supernatural powers with the help of a master, such as the ability to literally see what most others cannot.

There is no question that salvationist and apocalyptic ideas are part of the Falungong canon. In Zhuan Falun, Li Hongzhi's major text, the promise of salvation is explicitly offered "unconditionally" to humankind out of "compassion." Through practice of a "righteous way," Li says, there can be salvation for all. "We teach salvation of both ourselves and others, as well as of all beings. Thus, Falun can save oneself by turning inward and save others by turning outward."12 Li also says that human civilizations are cyclically destroyed, stating in Zhuan Falun: "I made a careful investigation once and found that humankind has undergone complete annihilation eighty-one times. With a little remaining from the previous civilization, only a small number of people would survive and enter the next period, again living a primitive life."13 He refers to the present as the "Last Havoc."14

Although it borrows from Buddhism and Daoism, Falungong maintains in its own publications that it is not a religion, and that none of its exercises can be characterized as religious rituals. In response to official accusations that the Falungong leadership had fashioned a tight organizational structure similar to that of the Chinese Communist Party so as to facilitate overthrow of the government, practitioners respond that there is no organization, no hierarchy, and that they harbor no "political intentions"; "no one," they say "can tell anyone else what to do."15 In 1999, however, the government cited the existence of a hierarchically organized geographic structure of thirty-nine main "stations," 1,900 "guidance stations," and 28,000 "exercise sites" as evidence to bolster its accusations. Falungong spokespersons countered that these were simply avenues for facilitating practice.16

Falungong protests have been tightly organized and coordinated. One official Chinese source noted that between April 25, 1999 and early August 1999, afterFalungong had come under intense pressure from Chinese authorities, it caused "307 sieges of party and government organs." On one day alone, July 21, 1999, "several thousand" demonstrated before the provincial government complex in Hubei, 700 protested in Anhui, an unspecified number in Hunan, and over 2,000 in front of the Guizhou Provincial Government office in Guiyang.17

Falungong's tactic of mounting orderly public protests had been in use for several years before it backfired on April 25, 1999, when at least 10,000 men and women quietly demonstrated for legitimacy outside Zhongnanhai, the compound in the heart of Beijing where the Chinese Communist Party leadership lives and works. The mass rally triggered an aggressive Chinese government response and, as described in more detail below, marks a major turning point in Falungong-government relations. Falungong leaders apparently thought there would be no repercussions from the April 25 demonstration even though it was much larger than earlier protests and at a much more sensitive site. According to a Falungong spokesman, until then "the government had been mostly supportive of us... Many top leaders seemed to support us."18

The Membership

Falungong spokespersons estimate that in 1999, at the start of the crackdown, membership peaked at 100 million practitioners in some thirty countries, over seventy million in China alone. Government figures have varied widely, but have also shown the movement to be significant. As noted above, the government estimated forty million Falungong followers at the end of 1998; in February 2001, it put the number at some two million, far smaller than the earlier estimate but still far larger than any other known non-governmental social organization or dissident movement in China.19

Although most practitioners seem to come from urban districts, primarilysmall cities and towns where its "guidance stations" are located, Falungong is both a rural and urban phenomenon. The few easy-to-learn and easy-to-perform exercises-there are only five-are well adapted to an urban or village life style.20

One segment of the Falungong population, consisting of well-educated professionals, academics, scientists, and medical personnel, among others, gives the movement a certain cachet. Other practitioners are computer-literate technocrats and students accustomed to using the Internet and e-mail systems that facilitated Falungong's growth. They have kept it alive in the face of intense official pressure. Some, including Falungong leaders Li Chang and Wang Zhiwen, were members of the Chinese Communist Party, well-placed in key government ministries including the security apparatus; others, such as retired Lieutenant General Li Qihua and Lieutenant Colonel Zhao Xinli, were officers in the People's Liberation Army.21 The Party leadership found this latter group particularly threatening.

Another group of Falungong followers includes men and women in their fifties and sixties, members of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution's "lost generation." Many are workers or lower-level government functionaries who missed out on educational opportunities when the schools were closed, and who in the late 1990s lost their jobs or were "temporarily" laid off with the restructuring of state-owned enterprises or retrenchment within government bureaucracies.22 Instead of the expected cradle-to-grave security, including all-important health care, this group has had to struggle on small pensions or welfare payments. Instead of the personal support networks and the opportunities for socializing that came through work relationships, they experienced dislocation and isolation. Participation in Falungong's activities, often based in public parks, may have addressed some of their health care, psychological, and economic needs.23

Practitioners could take part in Falungong on a number of different levels, from simply exercising, in public or at home, to directly confronting authorities and risking severe reprisals. Practitioners who wanted to be more involved could take on responsibility for recruitment, for production or distribution of Falungong literature, or for other organizational matters; others chose, often repeatedly, to joinprotests and, thus, to confront the government's security apparatus. A practitioner's choice of activities likely reflected what it was about Falungong that was most meaningful to him or her, the exercise, the meditation and spirituality, or the communal aspects. Chinese authorities implicitly recognized the differences by meting out different punishments for different forms of commitment.24

Freedom of Belief in China

The crackdown on Falungong is reminiscent of the long history of efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to eradicate religion, and when that proved impossible, to permit its citizens to "enjoy freedom of religious belief" and to protect "normal religious activities," but only under state control.25

Much of initial religious policy was designed to bring so-called Western religions under Chinese control by replacing "imperialist forces" with "independent, self-governed, and autonomous churches."26 At first, foreign clerics were deported or executed along with their Chinese counterparts. As a second step the government mandated that there be no institutional ties with foreign religious bodies and began the process of crafting a bureaucracy from the local level on up that could effectively oversee all churches, mosques, monasteries, and temples. Although the work was violently interrupted during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when all religious expression was prohibited and driven underground, it began again in the early 1980s when Chinese leaders realized they needed cooperation from all sectors of society to advance their development agenda. Full achievement of the state's official atheist ethic could be postponed indefinitely; for the time being it would apply only to Party members. But the government's belief that religion is inherently subversive, a vehicle for foreign and domestic anti-China forces, continued to drive religious policy and contributed to the crackdown on Falungong.

Although the Chinese constitution protects freedom of belief and "normal" religious activities, a series of regulations circumscribes both. Some date from the 1980s; the most recent, "Rules for Implementation of the Provisions on the Administration of Religious Activities of Aliens within the Territory of the People's Republic of China," was promulgated on September 26, 2000. These regulations provide for financial oversight on the part of government authorities, vetting of religious leaders and religious publications, determination of religious curricula,and a program to bring religious beliefs into conformity with socialism. To illustrate that the state was to control all religious expression, Chinese officials dealt harshly with religious leaders who refused to be coopted. Catholic bishops, Tibetan monks, Protestant clerics, and Muslim imams who inspired extraordinary loyalty from worshipers or who resisted government edicts went to prison or simply were "disappeared." Nor did the government hesitate to use mass campaign- style tactics in areas where local antagonism to official religious policies was well entrenched.27 The same tactics-new laws and regulations, harsh sentences, and a mass campaign-were applied to Falungong.

The government's constitutional guarantee of freedom to believe and protection of "normal religious activities" falls far short of applicable international law standards. First, thre is no legal protection for belief systems other than religion. By contrast, Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) distinguishes between religion and belief and recognizes that freedom of choice pertains to both. Chinese authorities limit the right to "have or to adopt a religion or belief of [one's] choice" in still another way, by recognizing only five faiths as legitimate, Daoism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism (called Christianity in China). Thus, Falungong would not qualify for constitutional protection even if it were a religion, which it emphatically says it is not.28 It is the one thing on which Falungong practitioners and Chinese authorities agree.

China's religious policy fails to meet international standards in still another way: its protection only of "normal" religious activities and its failure to define normal in ways consistent with Article 18 or with the standards for derogation therein. Under international law, the only limitations on manifestation of religion or belief in "worship, observance, practice, and teaching," "individually or in community with public or private," must be "prescribed by law" and be "necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others." Although Chinese officials have claimed that Falungong poses a threat to each area listed, they have failed to provide evidence in support of their accusations. Peaceful gatherings in public parks to exercise and perhaps meditate violate none of the proscriptions, nor do parents who school their children "in conformity with their own convictions," as some Falungong practitioners do.

The 1991 U.N. General Assembly "Declaration on the Elimination of All Form of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief" further elaborates on the rights permitted believers, a category to which Falungong practitioners belong. Article 6 is particularly applicable to their case, including as it does the right to "write, issue and disseminate relevant publications," "to teach a religion or belief in places suitable for these purposes," and "to establish and maintain communications with individuals and communities in matters of religion and belief at the national and international levels." Chinese authorities have banned all further production and dissemination of Falungong materials and confiscated and burned hundreds of thousands of books, pictures, and tapes. The courts have sent distributors, even those who have handed out a few leaflets, to prison or labor camps. Communication among practitioners all across China has been branded a plot to overthrow the government, and has resulted in long prison sentences for alleged organizers.

1 From a human rights perspective it is irrelevant whether Falungong is termed a "cult," a "sect," a "heretic" organization, etc. What is critical is that individuals not be punished for the substance of their beliefs. 2 "Fitness and Health Through Qigong," Beijing Review, Volume 32, No.17, April 20-24, 1989, pp. 20-24. 3 James Tong, "Behind the Falungong Facade: Organizational Structure and Finance," unpublished article, September 2000 (copy on file at Human Rights Watch). 4 "Notice Issued by the Press and Publication Administration of the People's Republic of China: A Reiteration of Opinions Concerning the Disposal of Falun Gong Publications," Chinese Law and Government, Volume 32, No.5 (issue titled "The Battle Between the Chinese Government and the Falun Gong," Ming Xia and Shiping Hua, eds.), September-October 1999, pp. 29-30. The notice originally was published in the People's Daily, Overseas Edition, July 24, 1999, p. 3. 5 "Falungong, Part 2: A rude awakening," Francesco Sisci, Asia Times Online, January 2001. 6 For details, see Ian Johnson, "A Blind Eye: China's Rigid Policies on Religion Helped Falun Dafa for Years --- Then a Buddhist, an Atheist and Group's Own Tactics Sparked the Crackdown --- A Bureau Called Office 610," Wall Street Journal, December 13, 2000. 7 Oliver August, "Chinese target new spiritual group," The Times of London, December 6, 1999; Charles Hutzler, "China moves against exercise group in Falun Gong-like crackdown," Associated Press Newswires, January 31, 2000; John Leicester, "China wages silent war on health, meditation groups," Associated Press Newswires, April 24, 2000; "China Said To Confiscate Assets Of Banned Meditation Sect," Dow Jones International News, September 8, 2000; Vivien Pik-Kwan Chan, "100 Zhong Gong offices shut down," South China Morning Post, February 2, 2001. 8 "China demands repatriation from USA of Zhong Gong founder," BBC Monitoring, September 23, 2000, from Xinhua, September 23, 2000; "China demands USA return Zhong Gong sect leader," BBC Monitoring, April 20, 2001, from Xinhua, April 20, 2001; "China urges USA to repatriate banned sect leader," BBC Monitoring, June 14, 2001, from Zhongguo Xinwen She, June 14, 2001. 9 "Report: China jails meditation master, planning to extend crackdown," Associated Press Newswires, January 19, 2000; "Report: 600 leaders of banned Chinese exercise group arrested," Associated Press Newswires, March 4, 2000; "Report: China sentences four leaders of banned Zhong Gong sect," Associated Press Newswires, December 29, 2000; "China sentences Zhong Gong leader to seven years on tax charge," BBC Monitoring, September 11, 2001; "China: Two Henan Zhong Gong members sentenced on subversion charges," BBC Monitoring, September 20, 2001. 10 Zhuan Falun, Lecture One,, p. 2. 11 David Ownby, "Falungong as a Cultural Revitalization Movement: An Historian Looks at Contemporary China," Talk Given at Rice University, October 20, 2000, Transnational China Project Commentary (text based on audio transcript), See also the booklet "Compiled by Falungong practitioners in North America" (2nd edition, Dec 1999). 12 Zhuan Falun (English Version), Li Hongzhi, Third Translation Edition (Updated March 2000, USA),, p.81. See also pp. 7, 9, 15, 28, 37, 45, and 108. 13 Ibid., p.17. 14 Ibid., p.26. 15 Human Rights Watch interview with Falungong practitioners (names withheld), New York, July 1999. 16 "An Adverse Current in the Progress of Social Development -- Sixth Commentary on Exposing the Essence and Harm of `Falun Gong,'" Renmin Ribao, August 14, 1999, in "Renmin Ribao Slams Li Hongzhi `Fallacies,'" FBIS, August 17, 1999. For an overview of Falungong's organizational and financial arrangements, see James Tong, "Behind the Falungong Facade...," unpublished article. 17 "The Political Aims of More than 300 Sieges -- First Commentary on Exposing and Criticizing the Essence and Harm of `Falun Gong,'" Renmin Ribao, August 5, 1999. 18 Johnson, "A Blind Eye...," Wall Street Journal.

19 "According to Liu Jing, There Are Only About 2 Million `Falungong' Followers in China," Zhongguo Xinwen She, February 27, 2001, in "Anti-Cult Office Puts Falungong Followers in China at 2 Million," FBIS, February 28, 2001. By comparison, Chinese Communist Party membership stands at about 65 million."Number of CPC Members Surpassing 64.5 Million: Official," People's Daily Online, At its height, maybe a million people participated in the 1989 pro-democracy movement in Beijing. The fledgling China Democracy Party optimistically claimed some 7,000 members before the Chinese government moved to annihilate it in November 1998.

20 Richard Madsen, "Understanding Falun Gong," Current History, September 2000, pp. 243-47.

21 Michael Laris, "Chinese Sentence 4 Falun Leaders; Jail Terms Range Up to 18 Years," Washington Post, December 27, 1999; Seth Faison, "Chinese General Forced to Spurn Falun Gong Ties," New York Times, in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 31, 1999; "Report: China holds army officer for refusing to renounce sect," Associated Press Newswires, June 28, 2000.

22 Madsen, "Understanding Falun Gong," Current History.

23 Ibid.

24 "China: Circular urges punishment for core Falun Gong organizers," BBC Worldwide Monitoring, August 25, 1999, text published in Xinhua, August 24, 1999.

25 See Constitution of the People's Republic of China, Article 36.

26 See "Document 19: The Basic Viewpoint and Policy on the Religious Question During Our Country's Socialist Period," in Asia Watch (now Human Rights Watch), "Freedom of Religion in China," January 1992, pp.36-48.

27 See "Enforcement Plan for Curbing the Illegal Activities of the Underground Church According to Law," Human Rights Watch, China: State Control...," pp. 80-89.

28 Freedom of religion and belief are both protected under international human rights law (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), article 18, adopted Dec. 16, 1966, G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), entered into force March 23, 1976, signed by China in October 1998, not yet ratified).

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