Li Hongzhi’s unconscionable silence

10 Apr

Joel P. Engardio’s article “Spiritual Cultivation” (March 15) was a welcome cover story about Bay Area Asian affairs. As a journalist who spent the past four years in China, I praise him for his objective examination of Falun Gong, and its cultlike appearances. While the Chinese Communist Party may be sorely lacking in PR skills and has been, in fact, harassing and persecuting the segment of the population which usually supports it (the middle-aged and retired), Falun Gong isn’t as harmless as it seems. Among Falun Gong’s teachings is that mixed-race relationships are unacceptable and homosexuality is impure … to say nothing of the aliens, and Li Hongzhi’s claims that he can levitate.

I wrote an article detailing my witnessing of the April protest. To summarize, Falun Gongers (or Falunatics, as dubbed in some quarters) were tolerated by the masses, who generally follow a “live and let live” attitude. The biggest complaint I’d heard about the movement came from husbands who didn’t understand why their wives had to buy so many tapes and books to help them cultivate the Buddhas in their navel. “The Bible — you only need to buy that once,” one Beijing cabbie pointed out to me.

If anything, the U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in May 1999, and the protests which followed, took the spotlight off of Falun Gong’s drive for recognition. The keyword come May was “patriotism,” and by summertime, Taiwan’s president had stated his land was a nation and state, so up rose the call for even more patriotism on the mainland. This coincided with “Smash Falun Gong” rallies leading off the evening national news come August.

All told, the situation for Falun Gong practitioners in China grows dimmer and dimmer. But China does, in fact, allow religious freedom, at least according to Article 36 of its constitution (“Citizens enjoy freedom of religious belief”). Belief, not practice. In the last couple of years, especially, I saw concrete evidence of this, from displayed pictures of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa temples to new Christian churches in the Manchurian northeast. Article 36 continues, “The state protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in public activities that disrupt public order.”

There’s the justification the Communist Party invokes in cracking down on Falun Gong: It disrupts public order. The Romans used the same rationale against Christians, so did Janet Reno against Branch Davidians. So have scores of other governments in between on myriad groups which didn’t sit well with the powers that were.

I think the real mystery in all of this is Li Hongzhi’s unconscionable silence. He dwells in New York City and is quite likely the wealthiest overseas Chinese in the world. He hasn’t clarified his position on whether Falun Gong is merely an exercise regime or a religion, basically leaving his followers to fend for themselves in a nation without a reliable appellate system.

One correction to Engardio’s otherwise fine reporting. He states that 10,000 practitioners “massed in Tiananmen Square,” but that’s not true. They massed instead along the north side of Xi’anmen Avenue, the ribbon of road that skirts the top of the Forbidden City and the Zhongnanhai Leadership compound (China’s White House). I was out rollerblading that morning, unaware of the gathering, when I noticed the traffic had been blocked on the street. As Israeli flags hung from all the light posts in honor of a visiting politician, I assumed that the crowd gathered were official “wavers” to show China’s love for world peace. Instead, the group, which stretched about half a mile and stood four deep, were the Falun Gong practitioners who came to Zhongnanhai to press upon the leaders that the group should be officially sanctioned to practice.

Second, Engardio writes that the Taiping Rebellion “severely weakened China’s last imperial dynasty,” and goes on to say that the Boxer Uprising “was a final blow to the Qing Dynasty.” Yes, in a manner of speaking. Hong Xiu Quan (who claimed to be a younger brother of Jesus) and his band of rebels succeeded in capturing Nanjing and a slim slice of south-central China, but couldn’t hold it together nor develop a coherent government for long. In fact, the Qing, having easily defeated the Taipings in Nanjing, would rule for another 40 years.

Mike Meyer
Richmond District

(, April 12, 2000)

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