The burning issue of Falungong

2002-04-10Asia Times

BEIJING - A little more than a year ago the Falungong issue seemed almost at an end, yet Beijing once again finds itself on the defensive because of the cult. But this is not really because of the activities of Falungong practitioners - they have not staged any major demonstrations in China for months. Rather, the fault lies with the mishandling of the issue by the government itself, which has utterly failed to understand the sensitivity of the Falungong matter, domestically and internationally.

The seven people who torched themselves in Tiananmen Square on January 23, 2001, proved to millions of people in China and the rest of the world that Falungong could in fact be dangerous for its believers, just as the government had been claiming for months. In the following weeks the sect first tried to deny the episode and then argued that it was staged by the government. But no one believed that the government could have paid a mother to torch herself and her daughter, or that she was so loyal to the Communist Party that she pretended to be a Falungong member and kill herself and her only daughter. Even if Falungong master Li Hongzhi forbade suicide and the Tiananmen group were orthodox practitioners, the government was still in a position to claim that Falungong drove people insane. The government thus could drive home the message that its crackdown against Falungong was in defense of the Chinese people.

However, the government played this ace badly. The police seizure of journalists at Tiananmen was a mistake. Independently filmed news footage of the proceedings could have been the best proof of Falungong madness. Instead, when the government reported the episode, it looked like propaganda.

Despite these mistakes, the message of Falungong's madness made huge inroads, as the cult was forced into a campaign, still ongoing, to deny the episode and lay the blame for it on the government. But the only thing that lent any credibility to the Falungong claim of government fabrication was Beijing's appalling mishandling of its propaganda efforts. For months the cult banged on the issue, claiming that Beijing was cracking down on religious beliefs.

The government's response to the Falungong offensive was to prove that it was not persecuting religious belief. Beijing had in fact made overtures to traditional religions, in principle approving the idea of accepting religious believers into the Communist Party. In a first for a Chinese president, Jiang Zemin in a December speech gave a positive evaluation of the role of religion in the process of development, and internal documents also praised the role of traditional beliefs in keeping stability and restraining people from criminal activities. During the visit to China by US President George W Bush, Jiang went as far as to say he was personally interested in religion and that he had read the Bible, the Koran and the Buddhist scriptures, again unprecedented for a Chinese communist leader.

However, while these gestures were considered far-reaching within the party, they were deemed minimal by foreign public opinion and coincided with unprecedented harassment of Falungong practitioners abroad. But again Beijing made a gross misjudgment. It mistook the lack of sympathy abroad for the Falungong for tacit support of Beijing's efforts to silence the sect. In fact, these acts of harassment in the United States, which were eventually detailed in a lawsuit the Falungong filed in Washington against the Chinese government on April 3, ruffled many feathers abroad. They lent credence to the view that if China was expanding its persecution of Falungong abroad the situation must be even worse at home.

Furthermore, other religious groups denounced the arrests and violations of rights in China. From the outside, to people unfamiliar with the many different kinds of Chinese detention, the house arrest of a Catholic priest sounded the same as the imprisonment in a labor camp of a Falungong believer.

To top it all, while in theory the party had understood that the best way to fight Falungong was to have other religions spread their creed, the government failed to pursue, say, a pro-Taoism or pro-Buddhism campaign. In this spiritual vacuum, with growing social problems due to rising unemployment in the cities and in the countryside, the Falungong recovered some lost ground.

The waning economy of the northeast, the rust belt of China, was a breeding ground for Falungong practitioners. In early March, a local television station in Changchun showed a Falungong film documenting the brutal government crackdown on the cult. The government only learned about it when baffled viewers called the police. In reality, the airing of the film was nothing major: China has dozens of TV channels and it is possible that not too many people had a chance to see the footage. The government, however, overreacted once again, issuing orders to arrest Falungong militants on sight and even conducting a vast search to identify and nab the culprits. In a tinderbox such as the northeast, which is plagued by violent labor unrest, the government action carried the risk of turning sympathizers militant and of fueling the rumor mill that Beijing is killing Falungong practitioners by the thousands.

A similar rumor mill is bound to feed the possibly devastating lawsuit in the US and enhance Beijing's general embarrassment.

Beijing believes that possible way out of this morass is to normalize ties with the Vatican, which has a good reputation in the US and thus could help mend Beijing's image abroad. But this will take time, and the Vatican is currently having difficulties of its own. The spreading scandal in the US about priests molesting children is casting a bad shadow on Rome, which is accused of having known about it and covered it up. In this atmosphere, the Vatican may think that establishing relations with Beijing, tainted by these Falungong accusations, may add fuel to criticisms in the US, and not help its overall image.

A better approach to resolving the Falungong issue would be to try practitioners for specific crimes and violations of the law rather than for their beliefs. And even when actual crimes have been committed the state must avoid overreacting, for the sake of public opinion both domestically and internationally. Such a change of approach would entail nothing less than a complete overhaul of how domestic security is handled, but it is important. The grace time provided by the US to China because of the anti-terrorism war may be expiring soon. Once the voting public abroad is less concerned about terrorists, the old human rights issue may again blow up on Beijing's face. (2002-04-10 Asia Times)


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