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The PRC and Falun Gong

Cultic Studies Review, 6(3), 2007, pp. 235-285

The PRC and Falun Gong

Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.

International Cultic Studies Association


During the past eight years, well over a thousand news stories concerning Falun Gong have appeared. Many of these deal with the Chinese government’s persecution of the group. The Chinese government accuses Falun Gong of being an “evil cult” that threatens the welfare of the Chinese people. Falun Gong presents itself as a peaceful cultivation movement that is persecuted because of its popularity within China. Although some of the teachings of Falun Gong’s founder, Li Hongzhi, have been widely criticized, there is little evidence in the West of serious and widespread harm to Falun Gong practitioners. The persecution of Falun Gong appears to be rooted in the Communist Party’s unwavering adherence to ideological atheism. This persecution has caused unnecessary and destructive social conflict. The behavior of the Chinese government could, through a process of deviance amplification combined with certain troubling doctrinal tenets of Falun Gong, cause the movement to become more cult-like over time.

The International Cultic Studies Association (formerly AFF, American Family Foundation) first began to look into the relationship between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Falun Gong movement in 2000, when Patsy Rahn, a student of Chinese studies, organized a panel on Falun Gong at our annual conference in Seattle and later published a paper based on her presentation (Rahn, 2000). To our surprise, the Chinese consulate in San Francisco, when it heard of the event, sent a representative to this conference.

We had additional conference sessions on Falun Gong at our 2001 conference in Newark, New Jersey; our 2002 conference in Orlando, Florida; our 2003 conferences in Orange, California and Enfield, Connecticut; and our 2004 conference in Edmonton, Alberta (one session at this conference focused on the human rights issues raised by the government repression of Falun Gong). Chinese scholars and government representatives attended some of these conferences and participated in special discussion sessions. Falun Gong practitioners contributed to the two 2003 conferences and the 2004 conference. In 2002 the China Anti-Cult Association hosted our late President, Herbert Rosedale, Esq., who lectured to several universities and other audiences in China (see Rosedale, 2003a, 2003b). Three persons associated with our organization also lectured in China in November of 2003 (Mr. Rosedale was too ill by that time to participate in the China trip).

Shortly before he died, Mr. Rosedale organized a special dinner with Falun Gong practitioners at our October 2003 conference in Enfield, Connecticut. He had wanted to include Chinese government and Anti-Cult Association representatives at the dinner, but they said they were unable to obtain visas in time for the conference. So at that dinner, we were only able to talk with Falun Gong practitioners, a human rights scholar, and a few critics based in the United States. Mr. Rosedale hoped that our dialogue with both sides of this conflict could result in some measure of reconciliation, some movement toward de-escalation. In hindsight, I see his attempt as well-intentioned but possibly doomed to failure. I now believe that with regard to Falun Gong and the PRC, the die may have been cast even before our first conference session in 2000.

Supplementing our conference sessions were a number of papers that began a dialogue in print in this journal, a dialogue in which this paper is a participant (see also Langone, 2003; Luo, 2003; Rahn, 2003; Robbins, 2003; Rosedale, 2003a; 2003b; and Xie & Zhu, 2004). Editing these papers and communicating with Falun Gong practitioners and Chinese critics of Falun Gong, in particular conversations prior to our Madrid conference in 2005, made clear to me and to the directors of ICSA (then AFF) that both sides were trying to use our organization to advance its agenda against the other. We realized that additional conference presentations on this subject would be fruitless. As a result, the directors of the organization passed the following resolution on April 23, 2004 (International Cultic Studies Association, 2004):

In order to dispel misconceptions that may have arisen in AFF’s [ICSA’s] ongoing dialogue with independent scholars from various countries, Falun Gong practitioners, and Chinese scientists and government officials, AFF [ICSA] wishes to make three points regarding the controversies involving Falun Gong and the Chinese government.

First, AFF [ICSA] upholds every person’s right of freedom of religion and worship, but is concerned about the use of manipulative techniques and undue influence to diminish the freedom of choice and freedom of mind of a group’s members.

Second, AFF [ICSA] urges the Chinese government and Chinese scholars and professionals to respond constructively to reports by well-respected international human rights organizations that the human rights of members of Falun Gong and other religions in China have been systematically violated. The physical brutality and other human rights violations described in these reports should not be tolerated.

Third, reports in the Chinese press and elsewhere that AFF [ICSA] has branded Falun Gong a cult are false, as are reports that AFF [ICSA] has said Falun Gong is not a cult. Although individuals associated with AFF [ICSA] may hold various opinions on this subject, AFF [ICSA] as an organization has not taken a position on the issue. Our Web sites emphasize that lists of groups on which we have information are not lists of “cults.” For more information on AFF’s [ICSA’s] concerns about labeling and definitional issues, see its topic page on definitional issues.

This historical background should make clear that our organization’s goal with regard to the PRC-Falun Gong conflict has been to encourage dialogue while condemning brutality and repression. Individuals associated with ICSA have different opinions regarding the issue, and these opinions sometimes change (this is certainly true for me).

My goal in this paper is to explore the relationship of the PRC, Li Hongzhi, and the Falun Gong movement. Because it is so difficult to obtain reliable information about what is going on in China, my reflections are offered in the spirit of dialogue, with an expectation that opinions may change as more becomes known.  I invited two former contributors to this dialogue to comment on this article: Dr. Frank Xie, a Falun Gong practitioner, and Samuel Luo, a family member of Falun Gong practitioners and a critic of the movement.  Mr. Xie’s comment is included in this issue. Mr. Luo was not able to comment at this time.  The journal remains open to responsible comments on this subject.

I will suggest that (1) the PRC’s unwavering adherence to ideological atheism has caused unnecessary and destructive social conflict resulting from the suppression of Falun Gong and other religious groups; and (2) although there is little evidence outside of China (the evidence within China is suspect because of the closed nature of the society) of harm directly related to Falun Gong other than occasional reports of medical neglect (which in part is a function of the individual practitioner’s psychology), the behavior of the PRC could, through a process of deviance amplification combined with certain troubling doctrinal tenets of Falun Gong (Luo, 2003), cause Falun Gong to become more cult-like over time.

Historical Factors and the PRC

Rahn (2000, 2003) and Ownby (2003) suggest that the Falun Gong, like many sectarian groups in China’s history, poses a perceived threat to the ruling party, in this case the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The CCP’s response has been consistent with how China’s rulers throughout its history have dealt with such perceived threats, what Rahn (2003) calls the “ruler-sectarian paradigm.”

Indeed, this historical response repeated itself after the Communist takeover of China in 1949. According to Ownby (2003), between 1911 and 1949 under the Chinese Republic there was “a veritable explosion of popular religious activity” (p. 231), and “all of these groups were suppressed in the immediate aftermath of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in a series of campaigns that scholars had generally assumed to have been conclusive” (p. 232). Regarding how the PRC handled this religious activity, Ownby says,

…the Communist state did what the imperial state had done: arrested and executed the worst of the offenders, imprisoned some others—but simply spoke harshly to the majority and sent them home. This meant that the roots of the traditions remained. And indeed, there were many more local rebellions against the Communists, organized around local religious groups, than we have previously been aware of, particularly at moments of crisis—such as during the subsistence crisis provoked by the disastrous failure of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward. (p. 232)

Much of this religious activity, as well as the more recent activity of Falun Gong, should, according to Ownby (2003), “be seen as modern reincarnations—although considerably transformed in important ways—of a particular strand of traditional Chinese popular religion generally referred to in Western scholarly literature as the ‘White Lotus Tradition’ or as ‘folk sectarianism’” (p. 224).

The Qigong Boom

The underground persistence of the White Lotus Tradition after the initial crackdown of the CCP contributed in the 1980s to China’s qigong boom. The glossary in Nova Religio’s special issue on Falun Gong defines qigong as

Exercises to stimulate and direct qi energy within the body to promote health, spiritual growth and balance. Qigong includes body movement, breathing exercises, and meditation. Qigong (or ch’i-kung) has its origins in ancient Chinese practices and worldviews, but separate movements and institutions focused exclusively on qigong began in the twentieth century. (Wessinger, 2003, p. 220)

Ownby (2003) cites sources that indicate that in the spring of 1986 the leaders of the Chinese Qigong Scientific Research Association estimated there were more than 2,000 qigong organizations in China with a combined membership estimated between 60,000,000 and 200,000,000 people.

Ownby (2003) and Beyerstein & Sampson (1997a) suggest that the qigong boom results at least in part from two factors: (1) nationalist pride, which saw qigong as a “Chinese science,” and (2) the government’s desire to reduce healthcare costs, to which qigong initially appeared to contribute.

Despite its initial claim of being a “Chinese science,” qigong, came to imply for many people much more than an exercise regimen to improve health:

…many masters spoke of supernatural powers which qigong could confer on adepts. Such powers included the ability to levitate, to heal illness, to repel objects (including people) by emitting qi from their bodies, the ability to “read via the ear,” (an apparent ability to read papers folded up and placed in the ear) and a host of other remarkable talents, many of which would fall under our category of extrasensory perception. (Ownby, 2003, p. 234)

Li Hongzhi was in the forefront of qigong masters who placed the practices (often referred to as “cultivation”) within a spiritual context. For Li, the exercises are merely the first step in a path of moral and paranormal development, which even in its relatively lower levels reputedly leads to what we would call paranormal experiences. For example, Dr. Frank Xie, a Falun Gong practitioner who has contributed to the dialogue in this journal, says, “Personally, I have experienced the cleaning up of my body to an illness-free state, the celestial eye, and precognition and retro-cognition” (Xie & Zhu, 2004, section: “On ‘Mr. Li Hongzhi and his relationship with his students,’“ paragraph 5).

Li Hongzhi’s Falun Gong movement experienced astonishing growth after its founding in 1992, with membership estimates (Rahn, 2003) ranging from 2,000,000 (the official government estimate) to 80,000,000. Ownby (2001) sees a four-fold explanation for Falun Gong’s popularity: (1) its moral system (truth, compassion, and forbearance); (2) its linking modern science to Chinese traditions; (3) its promise of supernatural powers to practitioners, and (4) its pride in being Chinese. Xie and Zhu (2004) suggest that early on “the Chinese government supported Falun Gong, among other qigongs, as a way to encourage people to maintain health and fitness” (Section II, paragraph 7), while Ownby (2003) points to Falun Gong’s establishment of thousands of practice centers throughout China as another cause of its growth. Falun Gong practitioners will also often point out that Falun Gong was available free or at low cost compared to other qigong systems.

It appears, however, that as the qigong boom began to take on the character of folk sectarianism, some scientists and governmental authorities in the late 1980s became skeptical and challenged the paranormal claims on scientific grounds, in much the same way members of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP, now known as CSI, Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) have done in the West (see Sima Nan, like James Randi and other pseudoscience debunkers in the West, gave demonstrations in which he exposed certain qigong claims of extraordinary power—e.g., using a sledgehammer to smash concrete slabs on his head (Kurtenbach, October 25, 1999). At the invitation of skeptical Chinese scientists, several delegations from CSICOP visited China to investigate Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and its involvement with the qigong movement (Beyerstein & Sampson, 1997a, 1997b). Another CSICOP investigation held previously had exposed several prominent qigong masters as charlatans (Alcock, Frazier, Karr, Kurtz, & Randi, 1988). They concluded that

There, as here, superstition, quackery, and pseudoscience have infiltrated academia, and some prominent scientists and philosophers are among the leading apologists. Their appeal to ancient magical ways of thinking, cloaked in pseudoscientific language, sounded depressingly familiar to us. (Beyerstein & Sampson, 1997b, Section, The CAST Symposium, paragraph 13)

I suspect that the CSICOP scientists would criticize Xie & Zhu’s (2004) section entitled “Positivist Research on Qigong? A Caveat” as they criticized some of the TCM physicians whom they interviewed:

While TCM physicians downplayed the importance of statistical approaches and placebo-controlled clinical trials, they did not hesitate to enlist such data when it seemed to their advantage. We came away with the strong feeling that the TCM community, with a few exceptions, does not really understand the power of the placebo effect or the need for double-blind clinical trials. They seemed not to comprehend why we were not impressed by testimonials or anecdotes about individuals who had recovered after TCM treatments... In the end, we were left with the same sense of frustration we often felt after arguing with advocates of alternative medicine at home. (Beyerstein & Sampson, 1997b, section: Conclusion, paragraph 2).

Thus, for several years before the official crackdown on Falun Gong, Chinese scientists and government authorities had been criticizing Falun Gong and other qigong movements in what has been called an “antisuperstition campaign.” Chang (2004) says,

The antisuperstition campaign has been described by the Chinese people as the most destructive and comprehensive event since controls on religion were relaxed in the late 1970s. Even before the formal banning of Falun Gong and other cults in July 1999, the campaign netted more than 20,000 arrests. In 2001, the annual report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom confirmed that China’s violation of religious freedom had worsened. By the beginning of 2002, according to another account, some 10,000 religious faithful in China had been fined sums ranging from $0.50 to as much as $800,000; 997 believers were placed under surveillance; 4,014 were sentenced to labor reform; 23,686 were arrested (including an eighty-one-year-old Roman Catholic archbishop); more than 20,000 were beaten; 208 became handicapped; and 129 died from the government’s abuse. (Chang, 2004, pp. 141–142)

Chang further notes that the Hong Kong–based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy says that “185 different qigong groups were ‘wiped out’ in Shaanxi province alone in 2000. Like Falun Gong, most of them combined the practice of breathing exercises with neo-Buddhist and Daoist beliefs” (Chang, 2004, p. 143).

The Ban on Falun Gong

More specific to Falun Gong, Chang (2004) cites the following events in a section she calls “The Gathering Storm,” which demonstrates that the ban of Falun Gong did not arise out of the blue:

  • In 1996, Li’s Rotating the Law Wheel sold nearly a million copies.
  • “On July 24 of that year, in the name of combating the spread of superstitious and unscientific ideas, the government’s Press and Publications Administration banned the sale of China Falun Gong and four other sect publications.” (p. 6)
  • After this ban and accusations that he had bilked the public, Li withdrew his group from the Qigong Research Association of China (QRAC).
  • In October of 1996, the government increased scrutiny of qigong groups and began to demand they obtain prior permission before practicing in public places.
  • In November of 1996, Li was ejected from the Qigong Science Institute.
  • In early 1998, Li emigrated from China to the United States.

The event that is often pointed to as pivotal occurred on April 25, 1999, when thousands of Falun Gong practitioners assembled near Zhongnanhai, the home of the Communist Party’s leaders. That gathering reportedly shocked PRC leaders, who officially banned the group on July 22, 1999. Fisher (2003) suggests that

A major reason Falun Gong was banned was because of the audacity of the protest at Zhongnanhai on 25 April 1999... First, a direct protest at Zhongnanhai, the home of the Communist party’s leaders, is extremely rare in the PRC’s history. Even the 1989 demonstrators mostly stayed away from Zhongnanhai and focused their demonstrations on Tiananmen Square, where subsequent Falun Gong demonstrations have taken place. Second, the demographics of the demonstrators must have surprised the government leaders. These were not the fresh-faced youth of 1989 who had grown up in a post-Cultural Revolution political thaw. Most of the Zhongnanhai practitioners were elderly retirees, many with positions of leadership within the Communist party. They had experienced a lifetime of campaigns and purges and knew all too well the consequences of resistance—yet resist they did. (pp. 303–304)

Xie (personal e-mail communication, February 5, 2004) challenges this interpretation:

In China, since the judicial system is less than perfect, and there were lots of animosities arising from the government’s abuse of power during the Cultural Revolution, the government itself set up the People’s Appeal Office, as a way to channel dissatisfaction and anger among the public, since civil lawsuit against government is not allowed. The Appeal Office system was established after the Cultural Revolution and became a unique way for the communication between government and people.

Those 10,000 FLG practitioners were going to the Appeal’s Office on Fuyoujie (Fuyou Street), the street west of Zhongnanhai (see map below) to appeal, not “marching” into Zhongnanhai. It was not a protest, they had no banners, they chanted no slogans, and they were simply and quietly waiting in cue [sic] to register at the Appeal’s Office and to make their case.

As you can see from the pictures below, they were quietly standing in line on the sidewalk ready to meet with the Appeal’s Office officials. They were not marching, they were not even moving, and the police were at ease, and was [sic] watching by the side. What happened subsequently showed that appeal was not even viewed as demonstration by the government, as then Prime Minister Zhu Rongji actually met with a few representatives and invited them to go into the compound to talk. The talk was successful, the government released those detained in Tianjin, and all 10,000 practitioners dispersed quietly without any incident.

Although the audacity of Falun Gong practitioners assembling at Zhongnanhai may nonetheless have unsettled Jiang and other Chinese leaders, the criticisms of qigong described above and Chang’s description of the “antisuperstition campaign” suggest that the banning of Falun Gong had deeper and broader roots than the event of April 25, 1999. Indeed, the ban appears to have been one element in a broader PRC strategy, a manifestation of the ruler-sectarian paradigm (Rahn, 2003) to rein in the growing folk sectarianism that, according to Ownby (2003), periodically resurfaces to threaten the ruling authorities.

Two Clashing Trends

Thus, it seems that two powerful trends in China collided in the late 1990s. First, there was an upsurge in spiritual fervor, perhaps most exemplified by, but certainly not limited to, Falun Gong. The second powerful trend was a reevaluation of the qigong boom as it began to resemble more and more the quasi-magical, folk sectarianism that the PRC suppressed in the 1950s. The official state atheism of the PRC could tolerate qigong, so long as it could be conceptualized as a “Chinese science.” But as elements of the qigong boom began to take on a spiritual flavor, the State felt threatened, especially when the trend was considered within the context of a broader religious revival of Buddhist, Daoist, and Christian groups that, according to the U.S. Department of State (2004a), the PRC viewed with suspicion.

The result, in accordance with the historical ruler-sectarian paradigm, was a general suppression of religion, with the banning of Falun Gong in 1999 being the most conspicuous in a series of events. Falun Gong, though clearly a threat in the government’s eyes, may function as a scapegoat for China’s “antisuperstition campaign.” By focusing the public’s attention on one group, the authorities can communicate more effectively their disapproval of a variety of beliefs, attitudes, and practices that might be associated with many groups. If enough fear can be associated with the scapegoat, then people will tend to avoid other groups that even slightly resemble the scapegoat. In a private conversation, a human rights colleague described the fear associated with Falun Gong, which he observed in a visit to China:

One could not even ask regular citizens about where to find critical literature about the sect. The sole mention of Falun’s name immediately provoked reactions of fear and silence, and most potential interviewees rapidly withdrew. Those willing to talk did it hushedly, quickly, and recounted incidents like the supposed public immolation in the Square with added gruesome details and inflated numbers of alleged participants. I was advised by some interviewees to not ask questions about the group to avoid getting in trouble, nor even to ask around to buy critical literature about them.

Power and the CCP

It appears that the crackdown on Falun Gong and the broader “antisuperstition campaign” are part of a coordinated program of actions designed to maintain the CCP’s hold on power and the purity of its atheistic dogma among China’s citizens. However much Western democrats may object to the PRC’s tactics, its actions are consistent with the Communist philosophy that has dominated China for 60 years. Two aspects of this philosophy are particularly noteworthy.

First, the PRC seems to rely not on the “rule of law” that governs modern nations, but on “rule by law.” Edelman and Richardson describe the distinction:

Unlike the West, where law is usually seen as a constraint on the power of the state, the PRC views law as a means to maintain stability, regulate society, protect the interests of the Communist ruling class, and strengthen and enforce the government’s authority. The legal system is in place as a weapon against “spiritual pollution” and “bourgeois liberalization.” The content of law focuses on preserving the social order through the imposition of duties upon citizens. Law is not a method to constrain the state’s actions, but a means to guarantee that the people will perform their duties. (Edelman & Richardson, 2003, p. 314)

Rule of law puts limits on the powerful, thereby making it easier for a society to take corrective actions with regard to its problems. Rule by law makes it easier for the powerful to disguise their shortcomings. The campaign against superstition, then, may divert attention from other problems, an opinion held by Chang.

What Beijing fears is not so much Falun Gong itself, but what it represents—the underlying problems and instability in Chinese society ...That a set of beliefs as fantastic as those of Falun Gong can capture the allegiance of perhaps as many as 100 million people—most of whom are members of the educated middle class, including some from the party, military, and government—speaks to the presence of a profound malaise in Chinese society. (Chang, 2004, pp. 134–135)

Also essential to the CCP’s holding onto power is maintaining the Marxist faith in scientific materialism (atheism), which is viewed as enhancing China’s technological and economic potential. Hu Ping argues against state atheism on practical grounds:

Marx believed that by eradicating the undesirable aspects of society that engendered religion, human society could attain a rational condition and no longer need the illusion of religion. But this notion was itself an illusion, because human society cannot possibly reach a perfect situation. Put another way, religion is rooted not only in society, but in humanity itself. It is an illusion to believe that human beings can live without illusion. (Ping, 2003, p. 19)

Quoting Gibbon, Ping maintains that the wise leader employs religion to maintain order:

The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. (Ping, 2003, p. 20)

The PRC’s antisuperstition campaign, according to Ping, exacerbated, rather than ameliorated, the nation’s problems:

Out of an inability to recognize the trends of the times, and a wish to reestablish and rejuvenate ideological control, Jiang Zemin mobilized the entire Party machinery to suppress Falungong, and at the same time to wipe out Zhong Gong, Xiang Gong and other religious groups. By doing so he turned against himself a power that originally posed no threat to him. And by taking action on the basis of protecting the CCP’s rule, Jiang Zemin committed an error that will be difficult for the government to resolve. (Ping, 2003, p. 20)

The International Religious Freedom Report

An examination of the U.S. Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report 2004 (U.S. Department of State, 2004a) details abuses within China.

The IRF Report clearly criticizes the PRC:

Since 1999, the Secretary of State has designated China a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act for particularly severe violations of religious freedom. (paragraph 7)

The Constitution provides for freedom of religious belief and the freedom not to believe; however, the Government seeks to restrict religious practice to government-sanctioned organizations and registered places of worship and to control the growth and scope of activities of religious groups. The Government tries to control and regulate religious groups to prevent the rise of groups that could constitute sources of authority outside of the control of the Government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Despite these efforts at government control, membership in many faiths is growing rapidly. (paragraph 2)

The critique of the PRC stands in contrast to the evaluation of Hong Kong and Macao, which have some autonomy from the central government. Let us look at a few quotes from the section on Hong Kong as an example:

Religious groups are not required to register with the Government and are exempted specifically from the Societies Ordinance, which requires the registration of nongovernmental organizations. Catholics in HKSAR recognize the Pope as the head of the Catholic Church. (section: Hong Kong, Section II, paragraph 2)

Religious groups have a long history of cooperating with the Government on social welfare projects. For example, the Government often funds the operating costs of schools and hospitals built by religious groups. (section: Hong Kong, Section II, paragraph 6)

The spiritual group Falun Gong is free to practice, organize, conduct public demonstrations, and attract public attention for its movement [emphasis added]. The number of Falun Gong practitioners in the HKSAR is reported to have dropped from approximately 1,000 to approximately 500 since the crackdown on the mainland began in mid-1999, although government officials claim that the number is lower for both periods. During the period covered by this report, Falun Gong regularly conducted public protests against the repression of fellow practitioners in the PRC, holding daily protests in the vicinity of the Hong Kong offices of the PRC Government. At least two bookstores carried Falun Gong books. Three local newspapers printed ads purchased by the group protesting the PRC Government’s actions against its members. In May more than 700 Falun Gong adherents, including 350 from overseas, held an annual conference at a privately owned facility in Hong Kong. Twenty-three practitioners from Taiwan and 6 from Macau were denied entry, while 250 Taiwan practitioners and 4 Macau practitioners were allowed entry to attend the conference. The Government stated “security” was the reason for barring the entry of the 29 practitioners. (section: Hong Kong, Section II, paragraph 11)

Abuses of religious freedom in the PRC are numerous, according to the IRF Report, as well as reports from human rights organizations (Amnesty International Reports: China, 2003; Olesen, 2005, December 2; “UN Human Rights,” Feb. 29, 2000; Up to 1200 Temples Destroyed, December 13, 2000). The government’s behavior toward religious groups, however, seems in large part to be a function of the degree to which the particular group is perceived as interfering with the goals of the State. The IRF Report quotes a 2002 State Councilor, speaking to a delegation of National People’s Congress delegates:

“while enjoying the rights of religious freedom, the citizens who have religious beliefs must place the basic interests of the State and the people before everything else,” and that “we must not use the freedom of religious belief as an excuse to abandon or to dodge the management of religious affairs by the State.” (United States Department of State, 2004a, Section II: Status of Religious Freedom, subsection: Restrictions on Religious Freedom, paragraph 19)

There is also a suspicion toward foreigners who may be perceived as using religion to undermine the CCP. The Catholic Church, for example, has been targeted since 1999, when “the Party’s Central Committee issued a document directing the authorities to tighten control over the official Catholic Church and to eliminate the underground Catholic Church” (Section II: Status of Religious Freedom, Subsection Restrictions on Religious Freedom, paragraph 16). The IRF Report states that at a high-level meeting in November 2003 of the CCP Central Committee, “The conference advised that officials should guard against Christian-influenced ‘cults’ and avoid negative influences, including ‘foreign infiltration under cover of religion’“ (Section II: Status of Religious Freedom; Subsection 1: Legal/Policy Framework; paragraph 10).

Although Buddhism and Taoism are tolerated more than Christianity, even these religious groups seem to be facing greater restrictions as they grow in popularity. The same seems to hold for folk religions, or what the government has labeled “feudal superstition.” The most serious repression, however, seems to be directed at groups labeled “cults.” The IRF Report states,

In 1995, the State Council and the CCP’s Central Committee issued a circular labeling a number of religious organizations “cults” and making them illegal. Among these were the “Shouters” (founded in the United States in 1962), Eastern Lightning, the Society of Disciples (Mentu Hui), the Full Scope Church, the Spirit Sect, the New Testament Church, and the Guan Yin (also known as Guanyin Famin, or the Way of the Goddess of Mercy).

In 1999, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress adopted a decision, under Article 300 of the Criminal Law, to ban all groups the Government determined to be “cults,” including the Falun Gong. The Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate also provided legal directives on applying the existing criminal law to the Falun Gong. The law, as applied following these actions, specifies prison terms of 3 to 7 years for “cult” members who “disrupt public order” or distribute publications. Under the law, “cult” leaders and recruiters may be sentenced to 7 years or more in prison. (United States Department of State, 2004a, Section II: Status of Religious Freedom; subsection: Restrictions on Religious Freedom, paragraphs 4 and 5)

Although Falun Gong is not the only targeted cult, it appears to experience the brunt of the government’s repression, perhaps in part because it has been so successful in drawing international attention to abuses of religious freedom in China. The IRF Report states: “Foreign observers estimate that half of the 250,000 officially recorded inmates in the country’s reeducation-through-labor camps are Falun Gong adherents” (United States Department of State, 2004a, Section II: Status of Religious Freedom; subsection: Abuses of Religious Freedom, paragraph 3)

Despite the severity of the persecution, the picture is not uniformly dark, in large part because not all religious and spiritual groups are perceived to be a threat, and because local authorities may vary in how they interpret the central government’s directives:

In other localities, however, officials worked closely with registered and unregistered Buddhist, Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant groups to accomplish religious and social goals... Nonetheless, some local officials encouraged foreign religious groups to work in their communities to supply social services, provided that the groups did not proselytize openly. Many religious adherents reported that they were able to practice their faith in officially registered places of worship without interference from the authorities. Official sources, religious professionals, and persons who attend services at both officially sanctioned and underground places of worship all reported that the number of believers in the country continued to grow. (United States Department of State, 2004a, paragraph 3)

Former TIME Magazine bureau chief in Beijing, David Aikman, author of Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power, says, according to Agape Press (November 25, 2003),

Christians are persecuted in the country, but it is not happening everywhere... even though Chinese officials have instructions at the national level from the Public Security Bureau to “suppress any social or religious activity that is not controlled by the government,” not all regional authorities carry out those instructions in the same way... The author says this results in sporadic, intense persecution happening in certain parts of some provinces, while in other provinces sometimes “next door,” Christians are generally left alone.

Communicating Across Worldviews

Herbert Rosedale and the other people associated with ICSA who have traveled to China (Livia Bardin, M.S.W.; Ron Burks, Ph.D.; Ronald Loomis) indicate in personal communications that this picture of mixed responses gives them hope that their interactions with Chinese professionals, scholars, and government officials may indeed have some positive effects. Falun Gong practitioners, however, maintain that any positive benefits are far outweighed by the visits’ propaganda benefits to the PRC (Xie & Zhu, 2004).

It is important to keep in mind that the worldview promulgated by the CCP is fundamentally different from that of Western democracies. Many of the scholars, scientists, helping professionals, and government officials my colleagues and I have talked to seem to be very sincere in their belief that Falun Gong is a serious threat that should be dealt with decisively. Indeed, some seem to find it hard to believe that Western democracies don’t do more to protect their citizens against the harmful effects of cultic groups. In a paper presented at the 2002 ICSA conference in Orlando, Professor Xi Wuyi said, “Any responsible government has the duty to provide the people with a basically peaceful society, and might use every means of the state machinery to defend the social order” (Xi, 2002, p. 3).

The tone of this view (“every means of the state machinery”) grates against American (and I suspect many other Western) sensibilities reared on the individualistic notion that government should be subservient to the will of the people, not the converse, and that the balance between individual freedom and social order should tilt decisively toward individual freedom.

China, on the other hand, rests on more than two millennia of the Confucian tradition, which still prevails despite early Communist attempts to destroy it. This tradition’s central value is obedience to those above one in the social hierarchy, with the emperor (today, the CCP) being the ultimate authority (Shane, 2003).

Today the state “religion” is scientific atheism. Although it may not be as existentially satisfying as other, more obvious religions (see Ping, 2003), the CCP’s scientific atheism, surprisingly more Confucian than it at first appears, does provide a meaningful system within which hundreds of millions of people live. Shane (2003) provides the following interesting quotation from Li relevant to this point:

[According to Li, in the] internal model proper modes of behavior are taught not through written laws, but rather through a lengthy and continuing educational process whereby a person first learns and then internalizes the socially accepted values and norms... This model seems to include many traditional Chinese ideas and practices. Especially striking is its similarity to the concept of li [“the quality of propriety or proper behavior”—p. 13]. Both rely heavily upon persuasion and education rather than force. Indeed, if one substitutes the term “socialist morality” for “Confucian morality” and the term “comrade” for “chun-tzu” (gentleman), one can use some of the Chinese classics to describe this model of law. (p. 23)

Thus, the PRC’s “reeducation centers” may be consistent with China’s cultural heritage, as may be the sometimes brutal punishment, however unjustified in Western eyes, of those who resist “reeducation.” Propriety—i.e., conformity, in relation to one’s social superiors—trumps values such as individual religious freedom. When the State decides that belief system “A” is “bad,” it becomes the citizen’s duty to reject “A.”

This attitude of conformity is antithetical to Western democratic culture and explains why some Chinese may interpret Western outrage against PRC repression as offensive. The repression’s success depends upon the PRC’s having the support of enough people to quash, through social pressure and coercion, those who might object to the harsh tactics designed to stifle those who refuse to reject belief system “A.”

My interpretation of certain statistics from the IRF Report (U.S. Department of State, 2004a) suggests that the PRC may have this threshold level of support. In China there are “more than 200 million religious adherents, representing a great variety of beliefs and practices ... the country has more than 100,000 sites for religious activities, 300,000 clergy, more than 3,000 religious organizations, and 74 training centers for clergy” (U.S. Department of State, 2004a, Section 1: Religious Demography, paragraph 1). Given the widespread reports of religious growth in China, some might question these figures, even though they are quite impressive in absolute terms. These estimates, however, would have to be increased nearly four-fold before religious adherents would outnumber the nonreligious among China’s 1.3 billion people. Even then, there would be hundreds of millions of nonreligious persons.

Moreover, the power of the state “religion” of atheism is enhanced by the fact that although

...the law does not prohibit religious believers from holding public office ... party membership is required for almost all high-level positions in government, state-owned businesses, and many official organizations. Communist Party officials restated during the period covered by this report that party membership and religious belief were incompatible. The CCP reportedly has issued two circulars since 1995 ordering party members not to hold religious beliefs and ordering the expulsion of party members who belong to religious organizations, whether open or clandestine... The “Routine Service Regulations” of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) state explicitly that servicemen “may not take part in religious or superstitious activities.” Party and PLA military personnel have been expelled for adhering to the Falun Gong spiritual movement. (U.S. Department of State, 2004a, section: “Restrictions on Religious Freedom,” paragraph 14)

That numerous party members have been attracted to spiritual and religious movements, especially Falun Gong (Rahn, 2000), appears to have been a significant factor in the PRC’s crackdown on Falun Gong and “superstition.”

However much we in the West may feel repelled by the closed, authoritarian Communist system and the many abuses of which it is accused, we should not let our emotions cause us to underestimate the resilience of this system. Recall that after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the protests at Tiananmen Square, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, many pundits predicted that Castro would fall within six months and that Chinese Communism also would soon collapse. Eighteen years later, both Castro and the CCP still rule their respective countries.

It seems to me that the CCP may very well be successfully containing the recent upsurge of folk sectarianism. The Party’s future stability may depend more on its capacity to meet its citizens’ economic needs than their existential religious needs. After all, successful rebellions in the ruler-sectarian paradigm are the exception rather than the rule.

A Christian Science Monitor article on the growth of Christianity in China contains a telling anecdote that reveals the persuasive power of individual economic advancement:

Ji, the home-church believer in Beijing, for example, jokes about one leading theological institute as a place where first-year students believe in God. By the second year, they are merely “good men.” By the third year, “you become a ghost who no longer believes in grace or being saved. But you are a ghost with a car, a salary, and a job.” (Marquand, 2003)

If the CCP can meet the consumerist needs of a large enough proportion of the country’s people, the people may be willing to live with a level of fear and repression that would be unacceptable in Western democracies. If the CCP falters, it may do so because of economic failures, not the repression of religious minorities.

A conversation I had with a Chinese lady, who came to the United States about 20 years ago, is perhaps a revealing anecdote. She seemed not at all favorably disposed to Falun Gong, even though she had at least one relative who was a practitioner. I brought up the human rights issue. She told me that she had recently visited China after many years. She was so impressed by the economic progress in China that she seemed willing to tolerate the human rights abuses as regrettable lapses by a government that “must be doing something right.”

A New York Times report on China’s labor re-education camps concludes that

The expense of creating those programs, and the question of what would be done with the 300,000 people in the camp system, are issues slowing efforts for change. Another is the absence of any broad public outcry or anger about the system.

“A lot of the public also wants more security,” said Mao Shoulong, a professor and specialist in public administration at People’s University in Beijing who wants to abolish the system but notes that public attitudes toward even petty criminals can be harsh in China. “When the Chinese see a thief, they want him beaten to death.”

China’s court system remains relatively weak, but advocates of a stronger system have won some recent related victories in curbing police arrest powers and strengthening death penalty appeals to increase the rights to criminal defendants. Still, Mr. Chen, the law school deputy dean, said those changes “will be empty if they don’t change labor re-education.”

“The criminal procedure law is now quite strict but labor re-education is a black hole,” he added.

Mr. Gao, the Beijing lawyer, said Falun Gong followers were still being jailed and labor re-education camps were also now being used to jail some of the petitioners complaining at government offices about corruption or illegal land seizures.

“Unless there are massive structural changes in the way power is organized and allocated in China, there is going to be no change,” he said. (Yardley, 2005, May 9)

Such pessimistic views about the likelihood of democratic reform in China sadden me, for I have personally liked nearly all of the two dozen or so Falun Gong practitioners with whom I have come into contact, and I sympathize with those who worry about or grieve for relatives who have been jailed or abused in China.

The practitioners I have met, though not a representative sample of the entire practitioner population, strike me as sincerely well intentioned, intelligent, and warm. Although they are sometimes annoying in their persistent campaign against the repression going on in China (mainly because of the selective omission of certain facts about Li Hongzhi in their presentations), I’m inclined to forgive their behavior. If my relatives or friends were being beaten or even merely jailed for their religious beliefs, I’d probably join a campaign designed to help them.

I suspect, however, that the practitioners are going to lose, although I hope that I am wrong. The PRC doggedly pursues its objectives, resistant if not impervious to outside criticisms:

During the period covered by this report, the Government suspended the official U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue, which included religious freedom as a major agenda item. The most recent Dialogue session took place in December 2002, at which the Government stated its willingness to clarify its policy on religious education for minors. It also committed to invite the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance to visit the country. However, the Government did not schedule these visits during the period covered by this report. (U.S. Department of State, 2004a, China, Section IV: U.S. Government Policy, paragraph 4)

Indeed, even in April 2006, during a state visit to Washington, “Chinese President Hu Jintao sought to convince President Bush to publicly declare the Falun Gong religious group an ‘evil cult’ that should be banned.” Bush declined. (Farby, 2006, April 27).

I hope that the PRC somehow finds a face-saving way of backing away from the abusive treatment of Falun Gong practitioners and other religious adherents and begins to relax the restraints on all religious groups. Certainly, the majority of Chinese scholars, helping professionals, and government officials I have met, like the Falun Gong practitioners, seem well-intentioned. But they may be caught up in a system of social conformity and control that, some would argue, is more cultic than the Falun Gong movement that it demonizes. A section of Chang’s book is ironically entitled, “It Takes a Cult to Know a Cult” (Chang, 2004, pp. 130–133). She argues that the CCP, especially under Mao, should be classified as a cult according to the definition it uses to justify suppression of Falun Gong and other groups.

Despite its deficiencies, I must say that I am inclined to cut the PRC a bit of slack because we can count on its leaders to behave rationally vis-a-vis nuclear and biochemical weapons. The Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine worked with the Soviets and works with the Chinese Communists because they will act in their rational self-interest. A religious fanatic, such as Aum Shinrikyo’s Shoko Asahara, however, might act according to an irrational paranoid delusional system, rather than rational self-interest (I’m not implying that Li Hongzhi is such a fanatic, although he could be—I simply don’t know enough about him to even have an opinion.).

Of course, the choice is not either a repressive PRC or a delusional religious fanatic. Hong Kong, Macao, and especially Taiwan meet their citizens’ economic needs without suppressing their religious freedoms. Falun Gong and other religious groups that the CCP portrays as a grave threat to social order seem not to threaten these other three Chinese communities. Consider the following paragraphs from the International Religious Freedom Report 2004 on Taiwan:

Taiwan has a total area of approximately 13,892 square miles, and its population is approximately 23 million. While the authorities do not collect or independently verify statistics on religious affiliation, they maintain registration statistics voluntarily reported by the religious organizations. In 2003, statistics reported by registered organizations suggest that of the total population 7,600,000 (33 percent) were Taoist; 5,486,000 (23.9 percent) Buddhist; 791,000 (3.4 percent) I Kuan Tao; 605,000 (2.6 percent) Protestant; 279,232 (1.2 percent) Tien Ti Chiao (Heaven Emperor Religion); 200,000 (0.8 percent) Tien Te Chiao (Heaven Virtue Religion); 182,814 (0.7 percent) Roman Catholics; 182,000 (0.7 percent) practiced Li-ism; 152,500 (0.6 percent) Hsuan Yuan Chiao (Yellow Emperor Religion); 110,000 (0.4 percent) Maitreya Great Tao; 58,000 (0.2 percent) Sunni Muslim; and 30,000 (0.1 percent) Tien Li Chiao (Heaven Reason Religion).

In addition the Church of Scientology reported 16,000 members; the Baha’i Faith reported 16,000; Confucians reported 13,000; World Red Swastika Society reported 5,000; Zhonghua Sheng Chiao (Chinese Holy Religion) reported 3,200; Maitreya Emperor Religion reported 3,000; Hai Tzu Tao (Innocent Child Religion) reported 2,300; Ta I Chiao (Great Changes Religion) reported 1,000; Mahikari Religion reported 1,000; and Huang Chung (Yellow Middle) reported 850. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Secret Sect of Tibetan Lamaism (Mizong Buddhism), and Unification Church are also registered but did not provide membership statistics.

The non-Catholic Christian denominations include Presbyterians, True Jesus, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Baptists, Lutherans, Seventh-day Adventists, Episcopalians, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. There also are a small number of Jews. More than 70 percent of the indigenous population (Aborigines) is Christian. The majority of religious adherents are either Buddhist or Taoist, but many people consider themselves both Buddhist and Taoist. Approximately 50 percent of the population regularly participates in some form of organized religious practice. Almost 14 percent of the population is believed to be atheist.

In addition to practicing religion, many persons also follow a collection of beliefs that are deeply ingrained in Chinese culture that can be referred to as “traditional Chinese folk religion.” These beliefs include, but are not limited to, shamanism, ancestor worship, magic, ghosts and other spirits, and aspects of animism. Such folk religion may overlap with an individual’s belief in Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, or other traditional Chinese religions. There also may be an overlap between practitioners of such religions as Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, and practitioners of Falun Gong, which is registered as a civic rather than religious organization. Falun Gong membership has grown rapidly in recent years to as many as 300,000. [emphasis added] Observers have estimated that as much as 80 percent of the population believes in some form of traditional folk religion. (U.S. Department of State, 2004b, Section I: Religious Demography, paragraphs 1–4)

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the authorities generally respect this right in practice. The authorities at all levels strive to protect this right in full and do not tolerate its abuse, either by the authorities or private actors. There is no state religion. (U.S. Department of State, 2004b, Section II, subsection: Legal/Policy Framework, paragraph 1)

Taiwan is a modern, technologically sophisticated society. Yet only 14 percent of its population is atheist, and as much as 80 percent believe in some form of traditional folk religion.

Perhaps religion, even “superstitious” religion, is not so grave a threat to social order and scientific and economic development as the PRC makes it out to be.

Li Hongzhi: Teacher, Schemer, or Dreamer?

In their public presentations, Falun Gong practitioners emphasize the movement’s moral principles of Zhen-Shan-Ren. “Zhen means ‘truth, truthfulness’; Shan, ‘benevolence, compassion, kindness’; Ren, “forbearance, tolerance, endurance, self-control” (Li, 2001, “Lunyu” [prefatory “explanation using language”]). They also talk about the health benefits that arise from the practice of the exercises and application of the moral principles. They conspicuously downplay the role of Li Hongzhi, whom they refer to as “just a teacher.”

Zhuan Falun: Li as Teacher

When one reads Zhuan Falun: The Complete Teachings of Falun Gong (Li, 2001), however, one quickly realizes that Li is much more than “just a teacher.” He does not present himself as a “god man” as that term is used by some Indian gurus. He does not present himself as “God” as Westerners typically define this term (i.e., “first cause,” “creator”).

He does, however, present himself as the most advanced spiritual being of our time, if not all of human history:

I am the only person genuinely teaching qigong toward high levels at home and abroad. (Li, 2001, p. 1)

At present, no other person is truly teaching people toward high levels like me. In the future you will realize what I have done for you. (Li, 2001, p. 47)

Li, in Zhuan Falun, appears to be subject to the Buddha Fa, the fundamental nature of the universe, that “offers insight into all mysteries, encompassing everything and omitting nothing” (Li, 2001, p. 1). Li’s task is to teach people a cultivation practice (Falun Gong) that will enable them to “return to their original, true selves” (Li, 2001, p. 5). Li says that the Buddha Fa is “also what the Dao School calls the Dao, and what the Buddha School calls the Fa” (Li, 2001, “Lunyu”). He defines “Fa” as “Law,” “Way,” or “Principles” (Li, 2001, “Lunyu”). However, he elsewhere suggests that the Buddha Fa is more fundamental than Fa:

Different levels have different Fa, and different dimensions have different Fa, all of which are the various manifestations of the Buddha Fa in different dimensions and at different levels... What is the Buddha Fa, then? The most fundamental nature of this universe, Zhen-Shan-Ren, is the highest manifestation of the Buddha Fa. It is the most fundamental Buddha Fa. The Buddha Fa manifests different forms at different levels and assumes different guiding roles at different levels. The lower the level, the more complex. This nature, Zhen-Shan-Ren, is in the microscopic particles of air, rock, wood, soil, iron and steel, the human body, as well as in all matter. (Li, 2001, pp. 14–15)

Lu (2005), however, quotes a 1998 talk by Li in which he elevates himself above the Fa: “No matter how great the Law is, I am not within it. Except me, all beings are in the law” (Lu, 2005, p. 178).

Li’s teachings are the “Dafa” or “Great Law, or “Great Way” (Li, 2001, p. 2). “Falun,” according to the glossary in Nova Religio (Wessinger, 2003), is a “‘law wheel,’ an energy center similar to chakra in Hindu and Buddhist systems” (p. 218). Li says,

Our Falun Dafa is one of the eighty-four thousand cultivation ways in the Buddha School. During the historical period of this human civilization, it has never been made public. In a prehistoric period, however, it was once widely used to provide salvation to humankind. In this final period of Last Havoc, I am making it public again. Therefore, it is extremely precious. (Li, 2001, p. 38)

In an unsystematic way Li presents a set of metaphysical assertions based on the notion of Buddha Fa that, so far as I can determine, are related to, but distinct from, traditional Buddhist schools. He uses scientific-sounding terms to assert without evidence or rational argument a fantastic universe. The skeptical reader (as with the preceding quotation) cannot help but ask, “How does he know these things?”

He distinguishes, for example, between one’s Primordial Spirit and Assistant Primordial Spirit. The former “refers to our own minds... your real self” (Li, 2001, p. 314), while the latter, though “born simultaneously with the same name, same appearance, and control[s] the same body, it is not you in a strict sense” (Li, 2001, p. 315). Li’s sometimes embarrassingly naive use of scientific-sounding terms is apparent in a paragraph elaborating upon the Primordial Spirit:’s Primordial Spirit does not become extinct. In the past, people might call it superstitious to discuss the human Primordial Spirit. It is known that research on the human body in physics has found molecules, protons, electrons, going further down to quarks, neutrinos, etc. At that point, a microscope can no longer detect them. Yet they are far from the origin of life and from the origin of matter. Everyone knows that it requires a considerable amount of energy collision and a great amount of heat to enable fusion or nuclear fission to occur. How could the nuclei in one’s body easily become extinct as one dies? Therefore, we have found that when a person is dead, only the largest molecular elements in this dimension of ours have sloughed off, while the bodies in other dimensions are not degenerated. (Li, 2001, p. 31)

Li speaks authoritatively about confusing “dimensions” and “realms”; what we call our “universe” is but one of many interacting levels:

The Three Realms that religions mention refer to the nine levels of heaven or the thirty-three levels of heaven—namely, heaven, Earth, and the underworld, including all beings within the Three Realms. (Li, 2001, p. 78)

Catastrophe is a natural part of the evolution of our universe:

Every time our universe goes through a period of a great many years, it always experiences a great catastrophe which destroys everything in the universe, including planets and all lives... as far as the present time is concerned, a big explosion occurred long ago in the space of this universe. Today, astronomers cannot observe it because what we can now see through the most powerful telescopes are things 150 thousand light years away [another scientific error; should be billions of light years]. Yet not everyone has been wiped out from the blast each time. After the new universe is reconstructed by the great enlightened beings at an extremely high level, there are still some that survive the explosion... Thus, those who escaped the explosion have become the demons that interfere with the principles of the universe. (Li, 2001, p. 191–192)

I made a careful investigation once and found that humankind has undergone complete annihilation eighty-one times. (Li, 2001, p. 21)

Li is here to save people by teaching them the cultivation practice of Falun Gong to bring them to high levels. What traditional qigong masters teach belongs only “to the level of healing and fitness” (Li, 2001, p. 1). In Falun Gong healing is more of a prerequisite or side-effect than a goal (although some maintain that Falun Gong deliberately emphasizes healing to “ordinary people” who might become practitioners—Palmer, 2003):

I do not talk about healing illness here, nor will we heal illness. As a genuine practitioner, however, you cannot practice cultivation with an ill body. I will purify your body. The body purification will be done only for those who come to truly learn and practice the Fa. We emphasize one point: If you cannot relinquish the attachment or concern for illness, we cannot do anything and will be unable to help you. Why is this? It is because there is such a principle in the universe... Due to karma resulting from past wrongdoing, one has illnesses or tribulations; suffering is repaying a karmic debt, and thus nobody can casually change this... To really dispel such tribulations, karma must be eliminated. (Li, 2001, p. 3)


the great enlightened beings gave [humans] one more chance and constructed this special environment and unique dimension... In order to cure illness or eliminate tribulations and karma, these people must practice cultivation and return to their original, true selves. (Li, 2001, pp. 4–5)

With regard to health and illness, Li seems to place himself in a nonfalsifiable position. If a follower gets ill, it might be because he didn’t “relinquish the attachment or concern for illness,” which is a prerequisite to helping him. Or perhaps what nonpractitioners might label “illness” might, in Li’s philosophy, be reframed and called a “tribulation,” for “suffering is repaying a karmic debt” (Li, 2001, p. 3). Hence, Li can take credit for health without taking responsibility for illness.

Li implicitly exonerates his movement and himself of blame as he anticipates the magical-thinking tendency that has probably accounted for much of the family conflict and medical neglect to which Falun Gong’s critics point:

There was a person who was walking on the street with my book in his hand, yelling, “I have Teacher Li’s protection, so I’m not afraid of being hit by a car.” That was undermining Dafa. This type of person will not be protected. Actually, a true practitioner will not do such a thing. (Li, 2001, p. 137)

The physical exercises of Falun Gong are only the first stage of his system, which assumes that “matter and mind are one thing” (Li, 2001, p. 28). Li emphasizes the psychological and moral dimension of cultivation practice:

To tell you the truth, the entire cultivation process for a practitioner is one of constantly giving up human attachments. (Li, 2001, p. 2)

To truly practice cultivation, you must cultivate your mind. This is called xinxing cultivation... What is xinxing? It includes virtue (a type of matter), tolerance, enlightenment quality, sacrifice, giving up ordinary people’s different desires and attachments, being able to suffer hardships, and so on. It encompasses various things. Every aspect of xinxing must be improved for you to make real progress. (Li, 2001, p. 28)

Can you be considered a Falun Dafa disciple if you just practice these few sets of exercises everyday? Not necessarily. This is because true cultivation practice must follow the requirements of the xinxing standard that we have established, and you have to truly improve your xinxing—then, it is true cultivation practice. If you only practice the exercises without improving xinxing and without the powerful energy that strengthens everything, it cannot be called cultivation practice; neither can we treat you as Falun Dafa disciples. (p. 93)

Among the Falun Gong practitioners I have met, xinxing and the cultivation of Zhen, Shan, Ren (truth, benevolence, forbearance) seem to be their primary focus, which may account for their likeability. Some practitioners, however, must be attracted to Li’s promise of occult powers. But if they are to follow Li’s teachings, they must somehow not “pursue” these powers. Otherwise, they would exhibit “attachment” to them. Thus, they can believe in the powers but not be troubled if they do not manifest them. Moreover, for those who think they have powers, Li provides a nonfalsifiable system to protect them against skeptics. Here is an example from a discussion of clairvoyance:

...when a person is asked about someone’s relative in Beijing, “What’s the relative doing at home?” ... What is the relative doing? He says that the relative is writing something. In order to verify it, they will call up the relative and ask, “What are you doing right now?” “I’m having a meal.” Won’t that disagree with what he saw? In the past, this was the reason for not recognizing this supernormal ability. The environment that he saw, however, was not wrong at all. Because our space and time, which we call “space-time,” has a time difference from the space-time of the dimension where the supernormal ability exists, the concepts of time are different on the two sides. She was writing something before, and now she is having a meal. . . if those who study the human body draw deductive hypotheses and conduct research based upon conventional theories and modern science, even after another ten thousand years their efforts will still be fruitless, for these are something beyond ordinary people in the first place. (Li, 2001, pp. 66–67)

Li provides some solace to those sincere practitioners who might be troubled by their desire for and/or (supposed) manifestation of occult powers. They can use a variation of the tried-and-true “the devil made me do it” alibi:

You did not ask for it, but you sought supernormal abilities. Will a great enlightened person from a righteous cultivation practice give them to you? Pursuit is an attachment of everyday people, and this attachment must be given up. So who gives them to you? Only demons from other dimensions and different animals can give them to you. Isn’t it the same as your asking for spirit or animal possession? They will come, then. (Li, 2001, p. 119)

Li, however, is there to protect the sincere practitioner against demonic influences:

What is demonic interference in cultivation? It is the interference that we often run into in qigong practice... One simply cannot succeed in genuine cultivation without the protection of my fashen. (Li, 2001, p. 227)

Thus, Li holds out a variety of goals for people attracted to his system: health, moral development, occult powers. Attaining these goals, however, requires the abandonment of their pursuit. The practitioner must not “want” what Li says is his destination, ever “higher levels.” This paradoxical command places practitioners in a difficult situation. How can they cope?

One effective way of dealing with this paradoxical command is to focus on the here and now, on manifesting Zhen, Shan, Ren at the human level, and especially in human relationships. This, I suspect, is the foundational strength of how Falun Gong practitioners become better people. Their cultivation of virtue improves their lives and thereby strengthens their commitment to Falun Gong. To them Li Hongzhi is indeed a “teacher” who helps them lead better lives. Their positive experiences, however, may incline them to accept uncritically, or at least refrain from condemning, Li’s rather bizarre metaphysical system. Their experiences may also incline them to obey Li uncritically. So long as Li’s demands on them are not oppressive, their dependency on Li may not cause them distress. If, however, Li’s agenda changed and his demands became onerous, then their dependency on him could become a personal, as well as a social, problem.

Li as Schemer

Li clearly takes credit for his practitioners’ positive experiences: “As a practitioner, your path of life will be changed from now on. My fashen will rearrange it for you.” (Li, 2001, p. 132).

But what do his practitioners’ improvements do for Li?

The cynic will answer that his practitioners make Li rich, famous, and powerful. Lu (2005) traces Li’s development from a popular, qigong teacher emphasizing health and healing to a religious leader offering salvation:

Since the late 1980s, a qigong market has emerged in China. Various rival qigong firms provided treatments to attract and retain practitioners, and qigong became a good business from which a large amount of revenue was generated. When Li Hongzhi began to be involved in the qigong business, he followed several qigong masters. Prior involvements in qigong organizations not only showed him that qigong was a profitable business but also gave him the skills necessary to establish and run a new qigong organization. Then he broke away from these previous qigong organizations and established a new organization, namely, FLG. Like other qigong masters, he offered immediate treatments at the beginning of his qigong career.

Facing the keen competition of the qigong market, however, Li Hongzhi tried to distinguish FLG from other qigong movements through manufacturing and offering a set of untestable explanations about salvation. These were a synthesis of prevailing theories available in the surrounding qigong milieu, along with elements drawn from science, traditional sects, and Western religions. Under the pressure of qigong market competition, Li also adopted other mechanisms that can increase FLG’s practitioners’ commitment and prevent religious schisms. Because of Li Hongzhi’s successful management, FLG soon became the most successful popular organization in China, reportedly recruiting tens of millions of practitioners in some 30 countries within seven years. (pp. 182–183)

Lu’s entrepreneurial analysis fits with the portrait of Li drawn by his Chinese critics, who portray him as a fraud and schemer, crassly exploiting his followers.

Other critics, such as Luo (2003), emphasize some of Li’s controversial teachings, including, among others, the following: the existence of mixed races is a serious problem, modern science is destroying mankind, and homosexuality is not the standard of being human. These and other controversial teachings do not by themselves make Li a schemer, for many religious groups, mainstream and alternative, have promulgated such teachings. However, such teachings can raise questions in the minds of modern people.

Self-Selection Factors Among Practitioners

Although I’ve not been able to find any relevant empirical research, Li’s teachings suggest to me that he would attract people with different motives. These differences, given the large population of Falun Gong practitioners, would result in a movement in which different subgroups will serve different purposes, without necessarily being actively and deliberately directed by Li. The consequences of the different behaviors associated with these subgroups could give the impression that Li is a schemer controlling events, even if in fact he was not directing events.

Those attracted to the healing message—the qigong aspect of Li’s teaching—provide a huge pool of “applicants,” so to speak. I expect that most of these people fall by the wayside, perhaps “shopping” for other qigong systems, in a way similar to “new age hoppers” in the West (Dubrow-Eichel, Dubrow-Eichel, & Eisenberg, 1984). But some, for whatever reason, will stick with Li’s teachings long enough to be considered “aspirants.” As they practice the Falun Gong exercises and study Zhuan Falun and other writings, additional subgroups will form among those who don’t self-select out of the system. Some may focus on the health promises, with an unknown percentage of these people neglecting their health to the consternation of relatives. Others, as noted above, may focus on xinxing and the development of virtue and harmonious relationships. These people are probably the most effective representatives of Falun Gong to the outside world, as well as the subgroup that truly benefits from the teachings. A third group may focus on the paradoxical promise of occult powers to those who don’t pursue occult powers. Some, maybe most, within this subgroup violate Li’s teachings because they can’t help but pursue the lure of occult power. This subgroup, recalling what Li says above about demons giving supernormal abilities, may be quite large, given that Li probably has a keen sense of what percentage of people within the qigong market is pursuing power and what percentage is cultivating virtue:

Though you find that some people practice qigong, their energy is actually obtained by the possessing spirits or animals. How does one get spirit or animal possession? How many qigong practitioners throughout the country have possessing spirits or animals behind their bodies? If I reveal the number, many people will be too scared to practice qigong. The number is frighteningly large! (Li, 2001, p. 118)

Although Li is here focusing on followers of other qigong teachers, as well as some “sham qigong masters [who] carry possessing spirits or animals on their bodies” (p. 118), his critique would also presumably apply to those followers who might claim to be practitioners while not living up to Li’s standards:

If you only practice the exercises without improving xinxing and without the powerful energy that strengthens everything, it cannot be called cultivation practice; neither can we treat you as Falun Dafa disciples. If you go on like that without following the requirements of our Falun Dafa and behave yourself as usual among everyday people without upgrading your xinxing, you may still run into some other troubles though you practice the exercises. You may even claim that it is the practice of Falun Dafa that makes you go astray. (Li, 2001, p. 93)

If, as Falun Gong practitioners claim, their movement is open and noncontrolling, there could be large numbers of such pseudo-practitioners in their midst. Moreover, perhaps sensing their inadequacy, these pseudo-practitioners might be among the most vociferous defenders (and sometimes disillusioned critics) of Falun Gong. I don’t have any evidence to support this notion, but I would expect the dynamics of psychological inferiority to lead to a compensatory fanaticism among some followers.

Of course, Li can disown these individuals as false practitioners, should their fanatical behavior prove embarrassing or otherwise inimical to his goals. This hypothetical subgroup might account for some of the allegations against Falun Gong that come out of China, although Falun Gong practitioners in the West would probably say that these allegations are trumped up. It is difficult to say because it is so hard to determine what is really going on in China.

Li as “Dreamer”

If my notion of self-selecting subgroups has validity, it raises the possibility that Li may be neither the god-like teacher that his followers see nor the scheming exploiter that his critics see. Maybe he is a former qigong practitioner who had “talents” that enabled him to create a highly differentiated subjective vision with “sales potential” in the qigong market. Maybe he is a “dreamer” who stumbled into a profitable niche, rather than a schemer who cleverly carved out the niche.

If he were a clever schemer, I would expect his writings to be more disciplined and coherent. Zhuan Falun seems to be a rambling, disorganized collection of assertions about personal subjective experiences and ideas. Li seems to have realized this because he appended a self-aggrandizing apology at the end of the book:

On the surface, Zhuan Falun is not elegant in terms of language...This is because modern, standardized terminology cannot express the guidance of Dafa at different high levels and the manifestation of the Fa at each level. (Li, 2001, p. 386)

There are also sections in the book that don’t seem to advance an “entrepreneurial” agenda. I found the following paragraph noteworthy, for Li expresses in it a touch of humility that is rare in his book, to say the least:

On one occasion I had my mind connected with four or five great enlightened people and great Taos from extremely high levels. Speaking of high levels, their levels were so high that everyday people would find it simply inconceivable. They wanted to know what was on my mind. I have practiced cultivation for so many years. It is absolutely impossible for other people to read my mind, and other people’s supernormal abilities cannot reach me at all. Nobody is able to understand me or know what is on my mind. They wished to know what I was thinking. With my consent, therefore, they linked my mind with theirs for a period of time. After the connection, it was a little unbearable for me because no matter how high or how low my level is, I am among everyday people and still doing something purposeful—that is, saving people—and my heart is devoted to saving people. But how peaceful were their minds? Their minds were tranquil to the point of being scary. It is possible for one person to reach this tranquility. But with four or five people sitting over there with tranquility like that, it resembles a pond of still water with nothing in it. I tried in vain to experience them. For those several days, I really felt mentally very uncomfortable and experienced a unique feeling. Everyday people could in no way image or feel it; it was completely free of attachment and empty. (Li, 2001, p. 103)

Passages such as this one make me wonder if Li has meditative reveries that he believes are deep and genuine insights into the nature of the universe. These reveries are inserted into a disjointed religious philosophy that rests on an assumption common to many religious systems: Be good and interpret suffering as a test; then you will become happy and spiritually powerful. As Lu (2005) suggests, in an atheistic society such a message, given the huge qigong market, has enormous sales potential.


Falun Gong appears to me to be a diverse movement in which people self-select into the many levels of commitment available to them, much like Transcendental Meditation. Some may do the exercises and have a relatively shallow relationship to the broader movement. Some may, in addition, study Li’s teachings and focus on self-development, on xinxing. Some may be intrigued by Li’s occult teachings. Some may become active in combating the persecution in China. And some may take on administrative tasks, which may bring them into Li’s inner circle.

Sociological studies portray Falun Gong as a movement with relatively open boundaries and little pressure to stay (Burgdoff, 2003; Palmer, 2003). Moreover, I am aware of only a handful of help requests to cult watch organizations, all from families of members and all related to medical neglect concerns (most inquiries are from the media). Hence, I don’t see convincing evidence that Falun Gong currently fits the stereotype of a cultic group that uses high-pressure, socio-psychological influence techniques to recruit and retain members. Of course, there may be a cultic core close to the Master, but so far as I have been able to find out, nobody has studied Li’s inner circles.

Falun Gong has marshaled considerable support for its human rights campaign against the PRC, including a resolution of the U.S. Congress (Expressing..., October 4, 2004), and media coverage of its allegations against the PRC of human rights abuses ranging from suppression of dissident speech to the harvesting and sale of the organs of Falun Gong prisoners. ICSA’s e-Library has 311 articles related to Falun Gong spanning the period July 2000 to July 2007, most of which deal with human rights allegations against the PRC and Falun Gong’s attempts—e.g., via lawsuits against Chinese diplomats, to bring attention to these allegations (ICSA has well over 1,000 articles total on Falun Gong, although most of these have not yet been processed for the e-Library).

Falun Gong’s sometimes aggressive campaign against the PRC’s human rights abuses has led some of its members to try to suppress criticism of Falun Gong because they believe the PRC will use this criticism to buttress its propaganda designed to justify persecution of Falun Gong.  Such tactics have disturbed people who place free speech, including the freedom to criticize Falun Gong, among the most important human rights. Some of my colleagues, for example, do not share my sympathy for Falun Gong because of certain members’ attempts to suppress points of view that are sympathetic to the Chinese government or critical of Falun Gong. They see Falun Gong as a totalitarian movement that is merely less powerful than the totalitarian government that persecutes it.

Clearly, many practitioners say that they have benefited from Falun Gong. Their testimonies on the Web are legion. Skeptics, of course, may question whether or not those benefits are due to Li’s metaphysical system or to some component of the system, e.g., xinxing, that it has in common with other religious systems, or to some placebo factor.

Given the number of adherents to Falun Gong and Li’s two-sided statements about faith-healing, the laws of probability demand that some followers are likely to neglect their health, and some of these followers’ families will blame and actively campaign against Falun Gong. Moreover, there is evidence of adverse reactions to qigong practices in general, something that is not surprising, given that adverse reactions have been documented with regard to meditation (Otis, 1985). Although these are uncommon reactions, casualties could have numbered in the thousands, given the millions of Falun Gong practitioners in China before the 1999 ban (although Falun Gong members I have spoken with claim that there are no such casualties related to its qigong practices, a claim about which I am very skeptical). Chen says,

Shortly after the meteoric rise of qigong practice, individuals complaining of a range of reactions, from mild discomfort and pain from qi or unusual sensations in their bodies to more dire sensations of hearing voices or being controlled by spirits and voices, began to trickle into traditional medical clinics and biomedical hospitals. My analysis of the relatively unknown culture-bound syndrome of qigong deviation is a key contribution. I examine how certain forms of experience related to qigong became medicalized in the psychiatric setting, in contrast to traditional medicine and cultivation practices. (Chen, 2003, p. 2)

Although there is some truth to Chinese claims that Falun Gong harms people, I doubt that the relative magnitude of harm is anywhere near as great as the Chinese government claims. Other nations and Chinese communities (Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan) do not perceive Falun Gong as a threat and do not report anywhere near the level of harm reported by the PRC. This fact makes the PRC’s claims highly suspect.

Alan Stone, the Touroff-Glueck Professor of Law and Psychiatry at Harvard Law School, says:

All this being said, it seems clear that Chinese psychiatrists did, in fact, misdiagnose and mistreat practitioners of Falun Gong in the years after the government outlawed the spiritual movement in 1999. Fortunately, over the past two years, reports of psychiatric abuse of the Falun Gong have dramatically diminished. The Chinese Society of Psychiatrists has acknowledged mistakes in which unusual spiritual beliefs were characterized as delusions and the diagnosis of Qi Gong psychosis was accepted and applied uncritically. The CSP is now eager to work with the WPA and other groups to educate Chinese psychiatrists. They are prepared to reconsider the validity of the Qi Gong psychosis diagnosis and were willing to discuss cases in which Falun Gong practitioners were mistreated. However, the CSP consists of only 800 members, a small subset of the 14,000 total physicians who work in psychiatric facilities. (Stone, 2005, paragraph 9)

Whether or not these positive developments will have much impact is uncertain, for, as Stone’s article also points out, economic pressures lead to corruption and sloppy practices, even in the health industry. Moreover, Chinese professionals are subject to the same social influences as other Chinese. Hence, all abuses are not “ordered” from on high:

If Falun Gong practitioners have been misdiagnosed and mistreated in psychiatric hospitals across China (and there is no doubt in my mind that they have been), it is not because orders came down from the Ministry of Health or Security in Beijing. Nor is there any evidence that an influential group of forensic psychiatrists carried out this psychiatric persecution of the Falun Gong in the secure Ankang hospitals. However, one cannot escape the conclusion that many of the 14,000 physicians who work in psychiatric hospitals were influenced by the fact that their government had declared the Falun Gong an “evil cult,” declared its practices a crime, and launched a propaganda campaign against its followers. (Stone, 2005, paragraph 11)

Hence, it appears that the persecution of Falun Gong is a consequence of an authoritarian social system that stifles individual autonomy, restricts dissent, and seeks conformity from its citizens. When CCP leaders decided that religion, and Falun Gong in particular, was a threat to social order, the social system demanded compliance throughout the country. Central and local authorities then “put the squeeze” on targeted religious groups.

But since the system is not all-powerful, there are variations in the manner and degree to which the central authority’s directives are enforced. These local aberrations provide hope to religious freedom advocates.

Recall, however, one of the lines in the quotes above from Ping (2003): “By doing so [cracking down on Falun Gong] he [Jiang Zemin] turned against himself a power that originally posed no threat to him. And by taking action on the basis of protecting the CCP’s rule, Jiang Zemin committed an error that will be difficult for the government to resolve” (p. 20). If Ping is correct, the PRC may be pushing Falun Gong to become more and more like a stereotypical cult, which will make it more difficult for the PRC to stop treating it as a cult and to become more tolerant of religion in general.

My conversations with Chinese scientists and my review of what literature exists suggests that the suppression of Falun Gong in China has probably succeeded in causing most adherents to give up the practice. However, the fact that some members refuse to renounce the teachings, even under extreme duress, shows that a highly committed core of practitioners probably continues underground, as occurred with many religious groups when the Communists first took over China. Recall the quote from Ownby (2003): “...there were many more local rebellions against the Communists, organized around local religious groups, than we have previously been aware of.” Even disregarding a possible change in Li’s behavior, this underground core, in order to survive the persecution, must become closed, deceptive, and secretive. If this supposition were correct, the PRC could, ironically, point to such changes in Falun Gong to justify further suppression and persecution.

Falun Gong members in the West, though not under the same pressure to hide as their compatriots in China, seem to be engaged in a campaign that seeks—though they may deny it—to “dethrone” the CCP, China’s current ruler. But the CCP is much more powerful than the Falun Gong movement, and Western governments, despite their commitments to human rights, probably prefer that China evolve into a more democratic state than that it be subjected to a revolution. Hence, unless the CCP finds a face-saving way to end the persecution (and so far I see no signs of that, though I hope it happens), Western Falun Gong members may experience increasing frustration as the CCP refuses to change and the human rights campaign becomes “old news” to the West.

In the face of such frustration, the members’ relationship to Li could lead the Western practitioners also to become more and more cult-like. Let me explain. The acceptance of Li’s extraordinary claims about himself reorders members’ thinking around an assumption—i.e., Li is the fount of truth, which can have profound consequences. So long as Li only asks them to cultivate virtue—i.e., xinxing, and support the campaign against the PRC’s persecution of Falun Gong members in China, members may experience actual benefits and the world may benefit through the members’ contributions to the exposure of human rights violations.

If, however, the battle against the PRC heats up, Li may conclude that his only choice is to ask for much more from members—e.g., money, even more time than they currently devote to the movement, pressuring practitioners to demonstrate their commitment to the movement in ways that place them at risk in China, participating in campaigns to destroy opponents in the West, becoming more aggressive in China, and so on. In other words, Li’s movement could begin to function like a stereotypical cult.

If this process of deviance amplification is not stopped, the consequences could be very harmful to China and the world, as well as to the Falun Gong movement. It seems to me that somehow the PRC must find a face-saving way to become more tolerant of religion, including Falun Gong. If it doesn’t, then popular resistance to an escalating suppression of religion could ironically hasten the instability that the PRC initially feared and used as the justification of persecution. Whether or not there is a God, religion is part of human nature. In the long run, trying to suppress religion will be about as successful as trying to suppress curiosity.

Officially, China claims to support religious freedom in its constitution. As many official investigations have shown, however, the PRC’s notion of religious freedom refers only to religious organizations that accept state control. The state seems to say to religious adherents, “You’re free if you do what we say.”

In my opinion, genuine religious freedom in China will elude its advocates, unless the central authorities of the CCP can be persuaded that religion, which is so widespread and so unthreatening to Taiwan and other societies, does not threaten China. I think that such a change of view is unlikely to occur so long as atheism remains dogma, so long as it remains the “state religion” of China. Most modern states are secular, but they are skeptical or agnostic, not dogmatically atheistic (some even have established churches that taxpayers support). That China continues to be dogmatically atheistic reflects, perhaps, the enduring strength of the Chinese version of Communist ideology in the country, not a wise and pragmatic policy. For China to become genuinely tolerant of religion, the CCP must change its ideology. This is difficult, to say the least.

As China becomes more integrated into the global economy, maybe the power of that ideology will diminish, and China, to the relief of much of the world, will evolve into a more democratic and tolerant state. The 2008 Olympics in Beijing, on which the PRC is expending enormous resources so as to impress the world, will probably rekindle Western hopes that this will happen, and that China will become more like Western democracies—unless Falun Gong and other dissidents become conspicuous enough in their protests to make their suppression a world event. Should this happen, I believe that the history of the past few decades (and, one might argue, the history of China) suggests that the pundits of 2008 should avoid predicting the imminent collapse of Chinese Communism, as some did after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Compared to the Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall was a picket fence.


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About the Author

Michael D. Langone, Ph.D., a counseling psychologist, is ICSA’s Executive Director.  He was the founder editor of Cultic Studies Journal (CSJ), the editor of CSJ’s successor, Cultic Studies Review, and editor of Recovery from Cults.  He is co-author of Cults: What Parents Should Know and Satanism and Occult-Related Violence: What You Should Know.  Dr. Langone has spoken and written widely about cults.  In 1995, he received the Leo J. Ryan Award from the "original" Cult Awareness network and was honored as the Albert V. Danielsen visiting Scholar at Boston University.  (