The Falun Gong in China: A Sociological Perspective

Cheris Shun-ching Chan. The China Quarterly. Volume 179. September 2004.

The phenomenal growth and overseas expansion of the falun gong (also known as the falun dafa) surprised the Chinese leadership. On the other hand, the heavy-handed crackdown launched by the Chinese government on this group startled world-wide observers. This article attempts to understand the rise and fall of the falun gong from a sociological perspective. Applying theoretical insights from the sociology of new religious movements (NRM), it explores how the contemporary socio-cultural context of China contributed to the popularity of religious and quasi-religious qigong movements like the falun gong and why the Chinese government launched a severe crackdown on this particular group.

In the late 1980s there were already many religious and quasi-religious qigong groups in mainland China. A sociological analysis of the popularity of the falun gong will contribute to an understanding of the “qigong fever” phenomenon in China. The falun gong was founded by a 47-year-old Chinese man, Li Hongzhi, in Changchun in 1992 and spread rapidly first in north-eastern China and soon across the whole country. The number of falun gong practitioners multiplied and reached millions within seven years. Between late 1998 and early 1999, the group reached its peak, with thousands of practice sites (liangong dian) scattered all over public parks in China. In the late 1990s, it expanded globally and had “main stations” (zongzhan) in numerous developed and developing countries.

David Ownby notes that anti-qigong voices were heard in China as early as the late 1980s. Criticism was centred on the pseudo-scientific claims made by the qigong masters. Nevertheless, the Chinese authorities did not take any serious action against qigong groups before the mid-1990s. In fact, the falun gong was once recognized by the Chinese authorities as contributing to the improvement of the health of thousands of middle-aged and older citizens. To the surprise of falun gong practitioners and observers within and outside China, the Chinese government outlawed the group on 22 July 1999 and rounded up more than 5,000 followers within a week. The mass sit-in held by falun gong followers outside the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders’ residence in Zhongnanhai, Beijing, on 25 April 1999 seems to be the incident that was the immediate cause of the suppression. Some scholars suggest that the provocative behaviour of the charismatic leader and his followers led the Chinese authorities to believe that the falun gong could threaten social stability and challenge their rule. Nevertheless, the collective actions taken by falun gong followers were all sit-in petitions in a well-disciplined and rule-observing manner. They can hardly be described as provocative in themselves. Why, then, did the Chinese authorities launch such a heavy-handed crackdown against the group?

This article addresses three issues of the falun gong. In view of the popular labeling of the group as a sect and a cult, it first delineates its sociological nature based on the NRM literature. I suggest that the falun gong can be understood as a NRM with characteristics comparable to those in Euro-American contexts in the 1950s to 1970s. It is less a sectarian than a cult-like NRM. It emerged as a response to the unresolved secular problems and normative breakdown brought about by the dramatic economic reforms and the ideological vacuum left by the decline of the communist ideology. The popular accounts of the crackdown on the falun gong are often one-sided, attributing the problem either to the behaviour of the group or to an internal crisis within the CCP. I argue that neither of these can be a sufficient factor. Instead, it is the interaction among the political implication of Chinese history of NRMs, the social canon of social stability since 1989, the organizational nature and mobilization power of the falun gong, the strong ideological commitment of falun gong followers and the overseas support of the falun gong leader that led to the strong-handed crackdown against the group. Borrowing sociologist Rodney Stark’s “model of success” for NRMs, I find that two of the criteria for success in the American context, namely effective mobilization and internal network, ironically put the falun gong at stake in the Chinese historical and political context.

Methods and Data

This article relies mainly on four sources of information: my year-long ethnographic research on the falun gong in Chicago and Hong Kong from June 1999 to July 2000; falun gong publications such as books, audio and video tapes, and articles from falun gong official and associated websites; Chinese government official propaganda materials such as video tapes, books and the press; and media reports in the United States and Hong Kong.

I began my ethnographic study of the falun gong in Chicago in June 1999 by being a practitioner. I joined different kinds of falun gong practices, gatherings and activities in Chicago on a regular basis for six months from August 1999 to January 2000. From February to July 2000, my participation was more focused and selective. I participated less in their regular weekly practices but more in their monthly events and special activities. My research in Hong Kong was divided into two periods. The first lasted for three weeks from the middle of July to early August 1999, during which I conducted intensive participant observation and joined falun gong activities almost every day. I kept in regular contact with some followers in Hong Kong through electronic mail when I was in Chicago. In December 1999, I visited Hong Kong again and conducted another three-week intensive research on the group.

Informal interviews through casual conversations were done during participant observation. In addition, I conducted 29 face-to-face interviews that lasted from one-and-a-half to three hours. 10 were done in Hong Kong and 19 in Chicago. Twelve of the interviewees are “core followers,” ten are “ordinary followers” and seven are “peripheral practitioners” (see the next section for the distinctions of these membership categories). There are 16 females and 13 males, with ages ranging from 23 to 69.

I was not able to conduct field research in China during my research period, but I interviewed a number of Chinese followers who had immigrated to or visited Chicago or Hong Kong after the crackdown. Eleven interviewees were either new immigrants or visitors in Chicago or Hong Kong, and were the key informants for my data of the falun gong in China. This method of extrapolating from relevant information collected outside China to China was used by anthropologists when they had no access to mainland China in the early decades of communist rule. Two acknowledged limitations of this method are, first, the incomplete representativeness of the interviewees and, secondly, the contextual problem of my observation. The interviewees in Chicago and Hong Kong are likely to be different from the ordinary falun gong practitioners in mainland China. For example, they are usually better educated and economically better off than the majority of the practitioners in China. The societal contexts of Chicago and Hong Kong are undeniably different from that of China. The measures I took to minimize the problems include: asking the interviewees to describe what happened to their fellow practitioners in their practice sites apart from narrating their own experiences; interviewing a few non-falun gong Chinese in Chicago who had witnessed the falun gong phenomenon and the crackdown in China; and cross-checking my ethnographic data with writings from followers in mainland China and information from the media. Thus, my analysis attempts to arrive at a plausible sociological explanation of the falun gong phenomenon and the crackdown based on the available data, rather than claiming a perfect representation of the falun gong and the responses of the CCP.

The Falun Gong as a New Religious Movement

Definitions of new religious movement, sect and cult. Despite the diversity of the NRMs in Euro-American societies, a few common characteristics can be identified. A NRM is usually led by a charismatic leader who is accepted by her or his followers as having final authority in both spiritual and material matters. She or he is regarded as a representative of some sacred power and is obeyed accordingly. The usual form of organization tends to be a conjoining of modern, rational methods with inspirational and charismatic content. According to Eileen Barker, most NRMs have different “layers” of membership, ranging from full-time and committed members, to active followers, to marginal participants. The sacred beliefs and practices of the NRMs are eclectic and mostly inward-oriented. Members are enthusiastically and passionately involved. Meditation is common, and cure of personal ills, resolution of problems and improvement in mental and psychological well-being are commonly reported from the practitioners.

Most of the NRMs in Euro-American contexts belong to the category of sect or cult. Sociologically, these are distinguishable in terms of their belief content, organizational structure and relation to society. While the term “cult” in popular usage bears some derogatory connotations, the nature of a cult is less anti-social and exclusive than that of a sect. A sect normally has a prior theological tie with another religious organization, mainly the Judeo-Christian church in the Western context. Its organizational characteristics include exclusive membership, communal and cohesive structure, high demands on members’ spiritual perfection and expulsion of those who do not follow the moral precepts. The demanding spiritual and organizational characteristics of a sect tend to steer it away from secular society, often making it appear hostile or indifferent. A cult, on the other hand, does not have a prior theological tie with an established religious body. Its beliefs and practice are very often mystically and individualistically oriented. Cults are usually loosely structured with a fluctuating membership and tolerant of other organizations and faiths. However, as their belief content is predominantly based on Asian religions or philosophies such as Buddhism, Hinduism and lesser-known Indian beliefs, they are perceived as deviant and anti-social in rationalized Western contexts.

In the case of the falun gong, the Chinese authorities define it as an “evil religion” (xiejiao). The press in Hong Kong and the United States describe it as a “sect” or occasionally a “cult.” On the other hand, the leader of the falun gong and his followers reiterate that the falun gong is neither a religion nor an organization. So, what is the nature of the falun gong from a sociological perspective?

The characteristics of the falun gong. The founder of the falun gong, Li Hongzhi, claims to be a saviour whose mission is the same as that of Jesus and Buddha. Li implies his supernatural power in the Zhuan falun. Accordingly, he would install “a complete system of cultivation practice” in followers’ bodies in order to bring them to “higher levels.” Falun gong followers believe that Li has supernatural qualities. Miracle stories of how Li transcends the ordinary world by curing non-curable diseases and saving followers from dangerous situations have been narrated and circulated repeatedly among his followers. The portrayed characteristics of Li Hongzhi resemble other charismatic leaders of the NRMs.

The belief system and spiritual practices of the falun gong are an eclectic mixture of Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism and the qigong tradition. Human life is believed to be created in the space of the universe, not in ordinary human society. A higher order of reality, invisible and beyond the reach of secular science, is believed to exist in the universe. The Zhuan falun, which was produced by Li’s early followers from the transcription of his lectures in China, is regarded as a sacred text, a revelation of the Truth of the universe, the Truth being truthfulness-benevolence-forbearance (zhen-shan-ren).

Followers believe that the falun gong provides a path to salvation through elevating their moral quality or mind nature (xinxing), which is done by accumulating virtue (ji de) and eliminating bad karma (xiao ye). Practically, acting morally and bearing suffering accumulate virtues and eliminate bad karma at the same time. Modifying the Buddhist idea, the Zhuan falun states that illnesses and tribulations are repaying the debt of bad karma and, therefore, have a positive function. Medical treatment would only hamper one’s path to enlightenment:

Nobody can casually change it (ye). Changing it will mean that one does not have to repay the debt after being in debt. Some people think that treating patients, healing their illnesses, as well as keep them fit are good deeds. In my opinion, they have not really cured the illnesses. They have postponed or transformed them instead of removing them.

Most of the core followers I interviewed reported their resistance to seek medical treatment when they were ill. For example, a young female follower in Hong Kong once suffered from a hurtful abdominal pain but refused to seek any medical treatment. She believed that the pain was a blessing bestowed by Master Li to remove part of her bad karma.

Falun gong practitioners range in age from 20 to over 70 years old, with middle-aged and elderly people in the majority. About 60 percent of them are women. Young educated followers such as professors and graduate students are also found. Although the falun gong does use the internet to circulate news and activities, the recruitment of new practitioners in China is mainly by word-of-mouth through family members, relatives, colleagues and friends.

The membership of the falun gong can be broadly divided into three categories based on the degree of commitment to the group. The core layer is composed of those who totally believe in the charismatic leader, his supernatural power and worldview, who read the Zhuan falun and practise the qigong exercises almost every day. The ultimate concern of these core followers is to improve their moral quality or mind nature so that they can transcend the secular world to arrive at the “higher levels.” At the other extreme is a peripheral layer. Strictly speaking, people in this layer are only practitioners, not followers. I call them peripheral practitioners. They do not care too much about the belief or the philosophy of the falun gong but regard it as one of the many qigong practices and are attracted to it because it is simple and free of charge. An intermediate stratum between the core and the periphery is comprised of those who are committed to the falun gong to a certain degree: ordinary followers. They practise the falun gong for both physical and moral improvement, read the Zhuan falun on a regular basis but occasionally raise doubts about Li’s worldview and the possibility of salvation. These layered degrees of commitment agree with Eileen Barker’s description of the membership characteristics of NRMs.

In terms of organization, there are two opposing versions. The Chinese government claims that the falun gong was a tightly organized, hierarchically structured organization. The falun gong, on the other hand, says that it was not an organization as it had no physical establishment, no staff and no administrative structure. These two versions were both true to some extent at different times. As James Tong documents, the falun gong made an organizational switch from more to less structured in early 1997. With the official campaign against the use of qigong for healing and the failure of the falun gong’s attempt to obtain legal status in 1996, it abolished some of its organizational infrastructure in 1997. For instance, it disconnected telephones, abrogated the position of liaison officer, terminated its functional offices of translation, and discontinued services of purchasing falun gong publications for practitioners.

Nevertheless, the falun gong was not without any organization after 1997. It was composed of a vertical point-to-point connection and two horizontal networks. The former refers to the connection among the informal leaders of practice sites (liangong dian), guidance stations (fudao zhan), branch stations (fenzhan) and main stations (zongzhan). Before the crackdown, each city or town had a number of practice sites for the convenience of the practitioners. A group of practice sites constituted a guidance station, several guidance stations made up a branch station, and several branch stations made up a main station at city or provincial level. Leaders of the practice sites and guidance stations were called counsellors (fudao yuan), and leaders of the branch stations and main stations were called the station head (zhan zhang). Most counsellors were either self-appointed or asked by local practitioners to volunteer. On the other hand, both the station heads in Hong Kong and Chicago were delegated by the charismatic leader.

The world-wide falun gong main stations were all horizontally linked to each other through the official falun dafa website, which was also used by the charismatic leader to convey messages and instructions to followers. Another horizontal organization was the interpersonal networks of the falun gong practitioners. The number of practitioners in a practice site in China ranged from 30 to more than 100. Practitioners within a site did not necessarily know each other and rarely interacted with practitioners from another site. However, as most joined the falun gong through their personal connections, they had pre-existing social relations. Such relations are close and in small discrete groups.

The organization of the falun gong, however, was informal and quite loose after its switch in 1997. It did not have any staff or distinct administrative body. Practitioners paid no fees for joining the group and the practices. Anyone could attend the practice sites in public parks to learn the meditation and qigong exercises. No personal information needed to be disclosed. There was no formal or obvious informal enforcement to staying with the group.

The falun gong as a cult-like NRM. The characteristics of the falun gong, to a large extent, meet the criteria of a NRM. It was formed in a period of dramatic social, economic and cultural change in China. Its followers are all new converts and most are without any previous religious experiences. The falun gong is “religious” as it holds a sacred worldview with supernatural beliefs. It is also a “movement,” with its enthusiasm and efforts to re-establish moral ethics and normative guidance for its followers. Collective changes are observable in followers’ moral standards, emotional states, behavioural ethos and physical health. Under the rubric of NRMs, is the falun gong a sect, a cult or neither?

My empirical findings show that the falun gong is categorically not a sect nor is it precisely a cult. However, its organization and relation to society, as well as part of its belief content, have marked resemblance to those of a cult in a sociological definition.

The falun gong was founded by a charismatic leader whose authority is absolute. The charismatic leader has created a set of sacred texts that are distinct from that of the traditional world religions. Although falun gong followers are connected through both vertical and horizontal networks, organization at the levels of ordinary followers and periphery practitioners is loose and dispersed. The periphery practitioners make up the majority and their membership fluctuates widely. The founder claimed that the world-wide number of falun gong practitioners was 100 million. The Chinese authorities estimated that China had at least 2 to 3 million falun gong practitioners but the number could possibly be up to 40 million. The actual number is in dispute, and probably not even known by the charismatic leader. Despite its speedy growth, the falun gong did not attempt to replace other established religions, nor did it require the followers to relinquish their secular life. falun gong followers keep their worldly jobs, live with their families and interact with non-falun gong people in their daily life. Thus, the falun gong is cult-like in terms of its structure and relation to society. Nevertheless, the falun gong is not a cult per se. Although it does not have prior ties with any religious organizations and it holds some unorthodox philosophies, it has borrowed some religious content and moral maxims from Buddhist and Confucian teachings. In this sense, it is comparable to a sect. Thus, the falun gong in the Chinese context at best can be categorized as a NRM with cult-like characteristics. Owing to the different sociological connotations of a sect and a cult, mislabelling the group is undesirable for understanding its socio-cultural implications.

The Socio-Cultural Context in China and the Rise of the Falun Gong

Two of the sociological explanations for the emergence of NRMs in the Euro-American context are useful for understanding the case in China. The normative breakdown theory argues that modernity has created a “normative dislocation” and “moral disturbance” under which new ideological forms are likely to emerge. NRMs are seen as “meaning seeking” and “moral re-establishing” movements. Another explanation attributes them to the unresolved problems of malfunctioning consumerism, inflation, break-up of breadwinner families, fear of crime and feeling of isolation. Losing faith in political and economic institutions in removing the problems, people direct their commitment to religious bodies for spiritual salvation.

In China, the practices of qigong grew rapidly from the second half of the 1980s. In the early 1990s, the number of qigong groups, both registered and non-registered, reached about 2,000 and a “qigong fever” phenomenon was evident. Qigong is not new to Chinese society. Nevertheless, a common characteristic among the qigong groups that emerged in the last two decades is their religious or spiritual undertones.

Most are cult-like in their structure and practices. The popularity of the religious and quasi-religious qigong has formed a subculture of occult and spiritualism. The falun gong emerged in 1992, as part and parcel of the “qigong fever” phenomenon. How can the rise and popularity of the religious and quasi-religious qigong movements in China be explained? The discussion below focuses on the falun gong but its relevance is not limited to this case.

Unresolved secular problems. Deng Xiaoping’s daring and large-scale economic reforms brought about impressive economic growth. This, however, escalated unresolved social problems. Unemployment rates multiplied with the collapse of the state industries. The proportion of people falling below the poverty line decreased only slightly. At the same time, the distribution of income has been increasingly unequal between urban and rural areas and among different social groups within the urban population. The Gini coefficient of urban income inequality rose considerably after 1984. In 1990, it stood at 0.180, almost back to the pre-reform level.

Increasing income inequality is accompanied by a nation-wide shrinking of welfare. Especially marked is the commercialization of medical care, which had been provided practically free under the socialist system. One falun gong representative explained to Zhu Rongji why they joined the falun gong:

Our work units no longer reimburse us for the payments we make for medical treatment and medicines, whereas falun gong can strengthen our physiques and improve our health.

In her study of urban spaces in China, Nancy Chen finds that many urban dwellers were pulled to qigong practices as a communal alternative to the trend of intensified individual consumption and unequal access to health care.

My findings partly agree with Nancy Chen’s observation. Many of the periphery practitioners joined the falun gong simply for the qigong exercises and for improving their health. One of the reasons for falun gong’s unprecedented growth within a short time was that qigong classes were initially at a modest charge and later free: in 1993, only 10 to 50 yuan (approximately US$1.2 to 6) while other qigong groups charged 100 to 200 yuan (US$12 to 24). Even some of the core followers admitted that they first joined the falun gong simply because it might improve their health and was free of charge.

Normative breakdown. A devoted falun gong follower who had joined other quasi-religious qigong groups before explained why the falun gong is most appealing to her and able to keep up her faith:

Other qigong I joined before also taught us the importance of de (virtue). However, they didn’t set a high standard for us to follow, nor did they make a real moral demand on our daily behaviour. The falun gong is different. It places the xinxing as the highest priority in life … It requires us to follow the principle of zhen-shan-ren in our daily life.

Almost all the core followers I interviewed, notwithstanding the variation of their initial motives for joining the falun gong, state that it was its moral teachings that make it superior to other qigong groups, in the context of a perceived decline of morality in China. In the words of a committed young follower from Beijing:

Lying, cheating, stealing, bribery, gambling, sex, divorce, fighting, kidnapping, murdering … anything immoral and criminal you can think of are all happening in China. Whatever you can think of that is opposite to the Confucian teachings can be seen in China. If someone is lying on the street desperately asking for help, the onlookers would ask, “How much would you pay me to help you?”

The falun gong selectively restates some of the virtues of the Buddhist and Confucian ethics and underscores the importance of truthfulness, benevolence and forbearance. The charismatic leader strongly condemns the loss of moral standards in the Zhuan falun:

The human moral standard is declining tremendously, and the human moral values are deteriorating daily. People only seek after interest and will harm others for a tiny bit of personal interest. They compete and struggle against each other by resorting to all means. Please think about it? Will this be allowed to continue?

The normative values of honesty, kindness and endurance have long been part of Confucian teachings. As Raymond Williams observes, when the dominant culture under-values or opposes the meanings and values which were created in the past but still have some significance in the present human experience, there is a “reaching back” to those meanings and values. A restatement of various moral standards and normative rules is apparently a reaching back to part of the traditional Chinese values that are under-recognized in contemporary social milieus. The falun gong is appealing to many people who find the current social order Anomic.

Ideological vacuum. Although China still maintains a socialist political system and upholds some communist slogans, its economic and social orders, in effect, are capitalist. Radical marketization and commercialization have pushed the ideology of communism out of relevance to everyday life. The ideological vacuum left by the downfall of communism began to surface in the second half of the 1980s. The aftermath of the 4 June 1989 incident further shattered any idealistic ideology.

When communism was still an ideology for the Chinese, it served the same functions as religions do by providing meaning and hope for everyday life. With the collapse of such an ideology, people began seeking answers from pure science or religion. Science signifies modernity; whereas religion signifies superstition and backwardness. This is one of the reasons why the falun gong refuses to identify itself as a religion. Nevertheless, most of its followers are drawn to it because of its spiritual aspirations and its ultimate answers to the meaning of life.

A young follower, a PhD student of chemistry, is pleased that he has found the ultimate answer to human life from the falun gong:

The more you know about science, the more you know about its limitations in giving us answers. Where do human beings come from? Where do human beings go? What is the meaning of life? What is the goal of my life? Science cannot give you the answers. But the falun gong can.

This corresponds with Max Weber’s hypothesis that a disenchantment of the world would eventually be followed by a re-enchantment when scientism fails to provide an ultimate answer for the meaning of life. With the suppression of religious freedom under communist rule for 50 years, it is not surprising to see hunger for religious or spiritual experience once the communist ideaology began fading away. The falun gong and other quasi-religious groups offer a sort of ecstatic religious and spiritual experience for the meaning-seekers in China.

The Crackdown on the Falun Gong: Whose Fault?

In spite of the meteoric rise of the falun gong, the CCP’s heavy-handed crackdown sent it into decline in China, at least for the time being. Although individual and small group resistant actions were seen in Beijing throughout the year after the crackdown, the falun gong has failed to obtain the political goals it set for mass petitions.

Rodney Stark theorizes “a model of success” for NRMs. A NRM is likely to succeed if it fulfils the following eight criteria: retaining cultural continuity with the conventional faiths of the society in which it appears or originates; maintaining a medium level of tension with its surrounding environment; achieving effective mobilization with strong governance and a high level of individual commitment; attracting and maintaining a normal age and sex structure; occurring within a favourable ecology which exists as a relatively unregulated religious economy and weakened conventional faiths; maintaining dense internal network relations; resisting secularization; and socializing the young. Of these, only the fifth (occurring within a favourable ecology) is an exogenous factor with all the others endogenous. The falun gong has fulfilled almost all of the endogenous criteria, especially the first three. For the first two, the falun gong retains continuity with the Confucian teachings on the one hand and makes some compromise with the commercialized culture on the other. While the falun gong devaluates the increasingly materialistic culture, it never requires its followers to leave their ordinary social and economic lives. Its denial of modern medication, nevertheless, does put it in tension with its surrounding environment to a certain degree. For the third criterion, the mass sit-in in Zhongnanhai reveals the mobilization power of the falun gong. The subsequent resistant actions and defiant struggles show the level of commitment of the core followers. For the only exogenous factor in Stark’s model, it has been shown earlier that the socio-cultural environment in China in the early 1990s was favourable for cult-like religions to emerge. When the falun gong is situated in Stark’s model, the only obvious unfavourable ecological condition is the highly regulated religious economy in China. Nevertheless, it is unconvincing to suggest that it is simply the lack of religious freedom in China that led to the severe crackdown against it.

A more plausible cause for the CCP’s suppression of the falun gong is its perception of the movement as a threat to its rule. Its perception is shaped by the interaction among the characteristics of the falun gong, the actions of the falun gong followers, and the historical and political matrix in China.

The political implication of NRMs in Chinese history and the religious nature of the falun gong. In Chinese history, anti-government rebellions almost always took the form of NRMs. For example, the fearsome rebellion of the Yellow Turbans in the Han Dynasty in 184 took the central authorities eleven months to suppress and resulted in 30-year internal wars and conflicts. Toward the end of the Yuan Dynasty, the White Lotus Sect revolted against the emperor and seized part of the empire. The sect revived in the 18th to the 19th century during the Qing Dynasty and caused turbulence in the empire. The semi-Christian Kingdom of Heavenly Peace in the middle of the Qing Dynasty was threatening to the state and led to 20 million deaths. The analysis above shows that the falun gong is not a sect in its organization and would be unlikely to be as socially dangerous as any of the past religious movements. Nevertheless, it has its own ideology and organizational strengths. Its ability to mobilize thousands of protesters without the CCP knowing made it appear to be politically dangerous and comparable to other NRMs in the past.

The extremely orderly and disciplined manners of falun gong petitioners outside the CCP leaders’ residence on 25 April 1999 shocked the leaders. The petitioners did not hold placards or shout slogans, nor did they obstruct or occupy any part of the street. They stood close to one another in three or four rows along the street to maintain order and prevent outsiders from inserting themselves. Men in the foremost row faced the street. Those behind sat on the ground, some resting, others reading the Zhuan falun. If they were approached by journalists they generally refrained from giving any replies. After eating, they wrapped the rubbish in plastic bags and took them away when they left. They did not leave a single scrap of paper or a cigarette butt. The falun gong followers appeared to the CCP leaders to be “extraordinary.” The leaders soon realized that this disciplined and orderly demeanour was associated with the religious or quasi-religious nature of the organization. One of the Party leaders called for immediate action to investigate the falun gong because:

We are now at a sensitive point in time, and similar incidents may very well produce certain mental associations in people’s minds. We must pay close attention to various tendencies in society and nip the problem in the bud. Comrades, we must not, under any circumstances, underestimate the appeal of falun gong, an organization with a religious patina.

Throughout Chinese history, secret societies and quasi-religious organizations prospered whenever society experienced too much dramatic change or rulers failed to soothe mass grievances. In late 1990s China, rising unemployment and income inequality were coupled with the risk of the CCP losing legitimacy. It did not require too much imagination to perceive the falun gong as a threatening religious movement that could disrupt, if not revolt against, the CCP’s rule.

The authorities depicted the fight against the falun gong as a “serious ideological and political struggle.” Li Hongzhi was said to have conspicuous political ambitions and instigated people to oppose the government:

Li Hongzhi’s ulterior motive is to grab the ideological commanding heights from the Communist Party. He fabricated a whole set of absurd ideas, and made people believe that his words were the only absolute truth in the world. His remarks on Heaven and God … plainly reveal his aim of overthrowing materialism and the Communist Party.

The State Planning Committee characterized the fight against the falun gong as “an extremely complicated, life-or-death political struggle.” The political agenda and the power of the falun gong seem to be overstated by the CCP. However, they had grounds for this. The falun gong appeared to be threatening to the rule of the CCP not only because of its religiously tinged attributes but also due to its efficiency in mobilizing mass action and its unique organization.

The canon of social stability and the mobilization power of the falun gong. The CCP has been particularly sensitive about mass movement and collective action since the 1989 pro-democracy student movement. The political leaders might have different suggestions of how to handle the falun gong mass sit-in, but they all agree that maintaining social stability is the highest interest of the country.

Falun gong petitioners’ effort to present a good image by being sober and disciplined in the mass sit-in turned out to be a fearful sign for the CCP. It showed how powerful the falun gong could be in organizing mass action and disciplining the participants. In addition, the falun gong had staged over ten petitions to different mass media organizations to protest against their distorted reports about the group before the one it did in Zhongnanhai. A CCP leader noted that the Zhongnanhai sit-in “is the most serious political incident since the ‘June 4’ political disturbance in 1989.”

The high mobilization power of the falun gong is related to its followers’ strong ideological commitment and its organizational structure. The ideological commitment of the core followers to their charismatic leader in a sense resembles the ideological commitment of the masses to Mao in the 1950s to the early 1970s. The resilience and self-discipline traits of the followers shown in various mass petitions all seem fearsome to the CCP leaders. In accusing the falun gong of having a substantial political background, one of the CCP leaders made the following comments:

Think back to April 25 ten years ago, when the Central Television Station broadcast the People’s Daily editorial on taking a clear-cut stand against bourgeois liberalism. Isn’t it quite clear why they (falun gong followers) have illegally converged on Zhongnan-hai on the same day ten years later, at such a sensitive moment?

Late April is indeed a sensitive moment as it also commemorates the student demonstration in Beijing on 27 April 1989 to pay tribute to Hu Yaobang’s death.

It should be noted that a series of reactions between the falun gong and the CCP before the crackdown have made the falun gong more political and the CCP more legitimated to clamp down on the group. Following the 25 April petition to Zhongnanhai, news of the collective demonstrations and petitions of falun gong followers was reported all over the country. And arrests of some of the falun gong key members happened before the official ban on 22 July. On 26 June 1999, I attended a falun gong international sharing conference in Chicago and observed that some core followers were discussing what the falun gong could do in the face of the Chinese authorities’ detention of their fellows. Some followers suggested that they could preach the falun gong teachings to those in politics in the United States. They believed that if more and more American city mayors gave official recognition to Li Hongzhi, the falun gong would become more legitimate and people would tend to disbelieve the CCP’s accusations. After the incident of 25 April and the CCP’s strong criticism of the group afterwards, the falun gong gave up their previous apolitical stance to defend their legitimation and to gain international sympathy and support. Li Hongzhi became a star for various news media. Overseas falun gong followers’ strategic move towards American politics and Li’s exaggerated spotlighting of the group’s global scale and influence certainly further embarrassed the CCP and reinforced its belief that the falun gong was politically hazardous.

The organization of the falun gong and the charismatic leader’s overseas support. Before the crackdown, the falun gong had 39 main stations, 1,900 guidance stations and 28,000 practices sites spread over China. The vertical point-to-point connection, together with a tightly knit cyber network and a dispersed interpersonal network, gave the falun gong a unique, efficient internal organization which both facilitated its mass mobilization and made it difficult for the CCP to put it under surveillance. The Party leaders know how to deal with conventional organizations. But how could they deal with an invisible organization that has high mobilization power and an efficient internal network? Accordingly, Jiang Zemin was startled and angered when the Ministry of Public Security overlooked the falun gong organization.

The CCP was also alarmed by the involvement of numerous Party members and high officials in the falun gong. According to Zong, 15.6 percent of the officially announced 2.3 million falun gong followers were Party members. Furthermore, functionaries of state organs, military people, armed police, medical practitioners, teachers and even diplomats were also found in the falun gong. The Party leaders were bewildered when they found that the five falun gong representatives who requested a meeting with Zhu Rongji on 25 April came from the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of Inspection Supervision, the Ministry of Railways, the Second Department of the General Staff Headquarters and Beijing University. Another irritation to the CCP leadership was the charismatic leader’s world-wide recognition and overseas support, particularly from North America. One of the top Party leaders voiced his worry over Li Hongzhi’s overseas background soon after the 25 April mass sit-in: “The headquarters of falun gong and of Li Hongzhi are both in the United States. We must not exclude the possibility of organizations beyond our borders taking a hand in this matter.” A few months later, the CCP accused the falun gong leader of attempting to overthrow the Party and socialism with foreign backing:

It is a fact that Li Hongzhi used the Falun Gong organization to deliberately create chaos and undermine the good situation of stability and unity … By ganging up with hostile forces abroad and at home, to overthrow the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and change the socialist system.

The charismatic leader, together with his family, emigrated to the United States in 1998. Since then, he has intensified his proselytizing activities overseas. In 1999, falun gong main stations can be found in dozens of cities in North America, Eastern and Western Europe, Australia, South and Southeast Asia. As early as 1996, Li received honourable recognition from Houston, Texas. After falun gong’s mass sit-in in Beijing, Li received more official recognition in the United States. For example, the Mayor of the City of Chicago declared 25 June 1999 as “Master Li Hong Zhi Day in Chicago.” Li also received official welcome and recognition letters from the cities of San Jose, Toronto and Ontario between May and July 1999. Thus, it came as no surprise that Li, who was a religious leader with millions of followers in China and had gained some sort of political support from North America, was perceived by the CCP as threatening to its rule.

Conclusion

From a sociological perspective, the falun gong is neither a sect nor a cult per se. It is, however, a NRM with cult-like characteristics. These are evidenced by its organizational structure, its relation to society and part of its belief content. The falun gong emerged at a time when the economic system, social conditions and cultural values in China were undergoing drastic changes. These changes provided a favourable ecological condition for the falun gong and other religious and quasi-religious movements to emerge and expand in the last two decades in China. The falun gong and other similar groups emerged as a response to unresolved secular problems, a normative breakdown and an ideological vacuum in China.

The majority of the falun gong practitioners were initially drawn to the falun gong, as to other quasi-religious qigong groups, for health improvement. However, some people found the falun gong different from the others because it provided them with a set of moral standards and guidance; others found it capable of explaining unexplained human puzzles, particularly the meaning of life and the mysteries of the universe.

The falun gong as a NRM itself is successful. It fulfills most of the criteria for success in Stark’s model. It has a layer of ideologically committed core followers, a well-connected internal network, high mobilization capacity, effective organizational power and overseas support. It could have achieved its political goals if it operated in a different historical and political context. Nevertheless, the falun gong began to decline in China after it demonstrated to the state authorities its mobilization and organizational power. The crackdown on the falun gong cannot be attributed to either exogenous or endogenous factors alone. What is critical is the interplay between these two sets of factors. The Chinese history of religious movements and the political signification of mass movements have set up a peculiar context in which the more successful and large-scale a movement is, the more likely it is to face suppression. This is especially so when a movement is religious in nature with high mobilization power and invisible, well-connected networking.

The falun gong is one of the many religious and quasi-religious qigong movements that arose in China during a period of rapid economic and social changes. My findings on the popularity of the falun gong accord with various sociological explanations for the emergence of the NRMs in Euro-American contexts. Nevertheless, the case of the falun gong also shows the inadequacy of applying Euro-American sociological theories squarely to non-Euro-American contexts. The concepts of sect and cult, for example, developed out of a specific Judeo-Christian historical and socio-cultural context. Similarly, an exemplary theory of successful NRMs in the United States cannot be applied unreservedly in a Chinese context without taking its political and historical factors into consideration. This may hold true when we apply any other social science theories developed in the West to the case of China.