Is Falung Gong a dangerous cult? Is it a cult at all?

I’ll admit it right at the beginning: I’ve always found there to be something creepy about the Falun Gong. I remember seeing practitioners in Taipei sitting with their eyes closed meditating endlessly. I remember their anti-CCP literature. I remember meeting a group of practitioners at the local annual China celebration day in Phoenix and finding them generally icky. But just because I find them creepy doesn’t mean they are a cult, let alone a dangerous one.

This excellent article presents the argument of one of the best informed China Hands I’ve ever read, Ian Johnson, who argues that the FG is not a cult.

In “Wild Grass: Three Portraits of Change in Modern China,” Ian Johnson writes that the “cult” label was designed to “[cloak] the government’s crackdown with the legitimacy of the West’s anti-cult movement.” Johnson argues that Falun Gong does not satisfy common definitions of a cult: “Its members marry outside the group, have outside friends, hold normal jobs, do not live isolated from society, do not believe that the world’s end is imminent and do not give significant amounts of money to the organization.”

One FG watcher quoted in the article, on the other hand, argues that it could be considered a cult because of its Mao-like deification of founder Li Hongzhi.

His ideology is similarly characterized by moral superiority, defining others as absolute evil, dehumanizing enemies by labeling them snake spirits and possessed by ghosts, extolling the virtues of selflessness and sacrifice, emphasizing the necessity of enduring physical hardship, harassing critics, and denigrating science in favor of his purportedly infallible truths.”

Then, in the same article, David Ownby, author of “Falun Fong and the Future of China,” also makes the argument that Falun Gong is not a cult.

“I found that the group generally passed the smell test,” he said. “Yes, they accord a high degree of veneration to [Li Hongzhi] but he’s not around very much so the possibilities of abuse are much reduced. Yes, members are asked to contribute materially to the organization of events, but in my experience that is completely voluntary. Members keep their jobs and remain in society.”

I remember a reference in Peter Hessler’s book China Driving to a young woman living in the Chinese countryside who had loved being a Falun Gong practitioner. For her it was a social outlet; she enjoyed doing the breathing exercises with fellow practitioners, and they were disappointed when the government banned the practice. Hessler elaborates:

Falun Gong was hard to define. – in some ways it felt like a religion or philosophy, but it was also a basic exercise routine. All of these elements combined to create something enormously popular, and this was especially true in the economically challenged parts of northern China. In Sancha, practitioners liked having a new structure to their lives, and soon others began to join them. By the late 1990s, it seemed most villagers met every morning on the lot at the top of the dead-end road. Cao Chunmei and Wei Ziqi became part of the faithful, and years later she described that period fondly. “Wei Ziqi didn’t drink or smoke in those days, because Falun Gong says you shouldn’t do that. And he was so angry then. It seemed the people in the village were happy we all spent time together in the morning.

I have to have mixed feelings about the FG because there is a cultish element among the core group of fanatics, the ones who write for Epoch Times, but for the most part I don’t believe the Falun Gong has ever been dangerous. They were stupid when 10,000 of them materialized in front of Zhongnanhai, which they should have known would totally freak the government out. (It was the largest unauthorized congregations of demonstrators since the 1989 student movement in Tiananmen Square.) That guaranteed their status as an enemy and a threat to the CCP, whose greatest fear is masses of people gathering together without its approval.

The most inane argument I’ve had with my fenqing friends over the years has been their insistence that the government is so hard on the Falun Gong because practitioners don’t believe in seeing doctors when sick. The government, my friends argued, crack down and jail thousands of FG practitioners because they are concerned for their health. Of course, if the government was so concerned about its citizens’ health it wouldn’t allow them to die in cancer villages or suffer lead poisoning, a gift from nearby factories. It wouldn’t have so aggressively covered up the “AIDS villages” in Henan Province. A really dumb argument: the brutal crackdown is all about compassion. A great excuse for the brutal beatings and arrests of thousands of innocents.

Anyway, in the end I’m still conflicted, because some of the FG fanatics do indeed meet the criteria for cultists. But I believe the vast majority of practitioners simply saw it as a way to exercise and socialize. A cult? In some ways, for at least some of the practitioners. Dangerous? No. Who have they ever hurt? Yes, they scared the crap out of the CCP with the demonstration of their organizational capabilities, but they were non-violent and non-confrontational. I think at the end of the day it might depend on how you define a “cult.” The generally accepted criteria, according to Ian Johnson, is that cultists only marry within their group, they resist traditional jobs, they are totally committed to a hierarchical structure around a central personality, they are isolated from society and accept violence. The Falun Gong doesn’t match the criteria. But I can also understand why a lot of people see them that way.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 25 Comments

CCP is the cult.

July 18, 2014 @ 3:07 pm | Comment

There are similarities, in my view, between FLG now and the CCP in the 1950s. Both managed to mobilize people who would go through a lot of hardship for the respective “goals”. Both organizations seem or seemed to hold a huge promise, something worth to suffer and even to die for.

That’s why the CCP calls FLG a cult – they are more afraid of a FLG granny than of any civil-rights movement. FLG is apparently believed to tick too much the way the CCP once did. That’s an obvious reason for China’s rulers to be very afraid.

There may be reasons to ban FLG – maybe. FLG reminds me of other religiously-inspired movements in China’s history – I don’t believe that religion is the only thing on Li Hongzhi’s mind. But no matter if FLG is banned or not: practitioners are citizens, with all the rights that are enshrined even in China‘s constitution.

Authorities that violate their own constitution to prosecute people and organizations they fear are themselves lacking legitimacy. As I doubt the CCPs legitimacy, I have no reason to believe their claims about Falun Gong.

July 18, 2014 @ 4:25 pm | Comment

FLG is a cult in my book, at least based on the deluded fanaticism of the the members I’ve run across (mostly Epoch Times people who reacted when I cast doubt on the “millions of CCP members quitting” BS story they kept running). That doesn’t make it right to ban them, however.

July 18, 2014 @ 10:39 pm | Comment

PS – Richard, am interested to hear your views on all the people quitting RT right now, as they seem to have gone through a similar journey to your own at Global Times.

July 18, 2014 @ 10:41 pm | Comment

I’ve always thought of the FLG as a cult, but this article did raise some interesting reasons why it may not be. As I said, it is a cult for the fanatical core, but not for most of its practitioners, for whom it was simply for relaxation and socializing.

FOARP, there is no comparison between the reporter resigning from the RT and my leaving the GT. Whole different stories (which I’d rather not revisit now).

July 19, 2014 @ 9:35 am | Comment

Chinese gov’t and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is a cult. They keep to themselves, they marry among each other, they don’t have normal jobs, just jobs created from the CCP. Members of the CCP live isolated from society and the world(purified air, food sourced from Mongolia, air conditioned, lots of maitai). They believe that the world’s end is imminent and give significant amounts of money to each other in the CCP as tribute.

Chinese gov’t and CCP is a cult. Their ideology is similarly characterized by moral superiority, defining others as absolute evil, dehumanizing enemies by labeling them imperalists and mogols trying to take over the world. Communist party always extolling the virtues of selflessness and sacrifice, emphasizing the necessity of enduring physical hardship, harassing critics, and denigrating science in favor of their purportedly infallible Marxist/Lenonist/Maoist truths.”

July 19, 2014 @ 3:17 pm | Comment

They are a cult, harmless or otherwise. They still claim there is widespread organ harvesting of FLG practitioners in China, without evidence except for anecdotes from their supporters. Human rights activists such as Laogai campaigner Harry Wu give them a wide berth. To me they resemble Scientology in that they are a mysteriously well funded organisation – where do all the funds come from to run newspapers, TV stations and to underwrite touring Chinese dance shows?

July 21, 2014 @ 4:43 pm | Comment

@Richard – I don’t know, a lot of the stuff being put up by GT could have been copied word-for-word from RT. GT and RT are both examples of pretty much the same kind of phenomenon.

July 22, 2014 @ 1:28 am | Comment

Mick, the “they” you are referring to is the hard-core fanatical core I reference above, who are indeed cultists. But I don’t think that necessarily makes the entire FLG movement a cult. See the criteria for a cult in my post. And for the record, I have always maintained on this blog tyhat the FLG is a cult. This article made me think twice about that, and there is more to the FLG than the story they propagate about body parts. For most of them, it was only about exercise and socializing.

FOARP, let me draw a distinction between the GT and the RT. There is no instance that I know of in which the GT actually made stuff up, i.e., created false stories. They put a jingoistic spin on things and many of its stories are permeated with propaganda. But I don’t know when/if they ever simply invented a story. The RT, on the other hand, seems to be doing exactly that, simply telling lies about what happened and making shit up. So while there may be similarities as both are propaganda arms of their respective governments, I do see a line of distinction.

July 23, 2014 @ 8:30 am | Comment

@Of course, if the government was so concerned about its citizens’ health it wouldn’t allow them to die in cancer villages or suffer lead poisoning, a gift from nearby factories. It wouldn’t have so aggressively covered up the “AIDS villages” in Henan Province.

But that is CCP’s MO. They only care about what “others” are doing but couldn’t gave shit about what they are doing. For example, today’s food crisis.

CCP are so strict on food standard on foreign companies than the lax attitude on their domestic companies.

July 25, 2014 @ 11:20 am | Comment

Speaking of RT, yes they can be conspiratorial at times but regarding the downing of the airplane, the US intelligence has confirmed that Russia has no direct involvement. That contradicts everything the US media has been telling us and what Obama, Hillary, and Kerry has been telling us.

The US media vilifying RT coverage is so blatant bias and proof that US media is conspiratorial, sensationalized, flat out wrong. For example, CNN’s Cuomo battling an RT reporter makes Cuomo looks like an deranged propagandist for the US government.

July 25, 2014 @ 11:30 am | Comment

“Russia Today” is pretty bad – but at least everyone knows that it is a propaganda outlet. Western media in general are still somewhat ahead in terms of quality, but Westerners tend to overrate them. Who of you here has heard about congressional efforts to turn the Voice into an instrument of public diplomacy?

Another case in point: Radio Deutsche Welle. As China is the main topic here, this interview might be of interest.

It is alright – and it’s a duty, too – to point out what is going wrong abroad. But it is as much a duty to look at what’s going wrong at home. That’s not about playing one thing down at the cost of the other. But too often, arguments about how bad the others are makes people blind for dangerous trends at home.

July 25, 2014 @ 12:31 pm | Comment

Was Ernst Barlach an early FLG cultist? After all, he created a flying Granny.

July 25, 2014 @ 1:03 pm | Comment

Whether the FLG is a cult for China’s purposes, is solely in the hands of the Chinese courts and legislature. The matter has been through multiple open trials in China, accordingly to legal process (such as exhaustion of appeals), and the FLG has indeed been found to be an illegal cult. Donations and support of the criminal cult would in themselves be illegal.

Good riddance.

Listening to the Voice of America and the various other propaganda broadcasts that lie so badly they are outlawed from being broadcst to the American people, Washington still insists that China must accept the FLG, warts and all. The Chinese people differ on that viewpoint.

July 27, 2014 @ 4:57 am | Comment

In comparison, the American political system is a cult. Despite decades of bad results, there is still a Cargo Cult type confidence in the “system”, and it is rigged such that no reform is possible.

Why are Americans so very sold on the cult?

Most rational people would agree that a nation needs a top leader that is decisive, intelligent, experienced. (You mean like Xi?)

The American political system simply is incapable of ever coming up with someone that meets all of those criteria.

Look at the system of choosing leaders in America, as perhaps an off-planet alien first arriving on Earth would: Every few years, perfectly coiffed politicians get into open TV contests to see who can best carry soundbites, and who can best tell lies (campaign promises being such a well recognized oxymoron, NOBODY expects actual delivery of these promises). Based SOLELY on such performance and pageantry, “aided” by dirty, demagogic attack ads (based entirely on fear and prejudices like the racist ads against Chinese) for months on end, society decides on who gets to assume power and “lead”. After they take office, the “leaders” take care of their real constituents – those who paid. Moreover, even after being elected (or perhaps because they have been elected), these “leaders” continue to spend 140% of their waking moments on their raison d’etre – 70% of time in raising money, 50% of time talking to the real constituents (see above) and address their issues, and the rest of the time on leading.

Do you see ANY reform on the horizon that will change that?

In stark contrast, looking at what the Chicoms did in the last 35 years, it was clear that the guiding principle was “amplify what works, and discard what does not”. In that period of time, the entire Chinese ruling party had been one big reform project, and beneficial changes are still ongoing. Top leaders all have decades of experience, working through the ranks and subjected to peer review all the way. Only the most dedicated and best performing cadres rise to the very top. IDEOLOGY is not important anymore, results are. The results are there for all to see. Beijing was (and is) the only form of government capable of, has a plan for, and actually did, double the living standards of the great majority of citizens every 8 or 9 years, for the past 35.

How long does it take Washington to double your living standards?

There are lots that other governments can learn from Beijing. The willingness to try new things, to reform, regardless of ideology, is one such important thing

July 27, 2014 @ 5:02 am | Comment

Whether the FLG is a cult for China’s purposes, is solely in the hands of the Chinese courts and legislature.

Thanks for making me laugh, Zhuubaajie. If Falun Gong does have political ambitions and if they should ever replace the CCP dictatorship, I’m sure Li Hongzhi & Cie. will have Chinese courts and legislature, too.

July 28, 2014 @ 2:15 am | Comment

Is Zhuubaajie saying that whether FLG is a cult should be left up to people like Zhou Yongkang to decide?

July 29, 2014 @ 8:39 pm | Comment

The aliens come from other planets. The names that I use for these planets are different . Some are from dimensions that human beings have not yet discovered. The key is how they have corrupted mankind. Everyone knows that from the beginning until now, there has never been a development of culture like today. Although it has been several thousand years, it has never been like now.

The aliens have introduced modern machinery like computers and airplanes. They started by teaching mankind about modern science, so people believe more and more science, and spiritually, they are controlled. Everyone thinks that scientists invent on their own when in fact their inspiration is manipulated by the aliens. In terms of culture and spirit, they already control man. Mankind cannot live without science.

The ultimate purpose is to replace humans. If cloning human beings succeeds, the aliens can officially replace humans. Why does a corpse lie dead, even though it is the same as a living body? The difference is the soul, which is the life of the body. If people reproduce a human person, the gods in heaven will not give its body a human soul. The aliens will take that opportunity to replace the human soul and by doing so they will enter earth and become earthlings.

When such people grow up, they will help replace humans with aliens. They will produce more and more clones. There will no longer be humans reproduced by humans. They will act like humans, but they will introduce legislation to stop human reproduction.

July 30, 2014 @ 9:07 am | Comment

Chinese gubmint: They’ll love you to death.

July 30, 2014 @ 1:54 pm | Comment

Pardon me for my ignorance. What is Falun Gong? Is it a religious group? What do they believe? Is it a pantheist cult or religion, or a monotheist one?

August 4, 2014 @ 11:02 am | Comment

@Wolfbella: I think this talk might provide a few clues as to what FLG’s beliefs are about, and why the CCP is nervous about them.

August 6, 2014 @ 11:32 pm | Comment

The aliens come from other planets

Did The Clock fall over and hit his head?

August 7, 2014 @ 10:41 am | Comment

Every zombie is an alien – on almost every planet.

August 7, 2014 @ 12:03 pm | Comment

From what I’ve seen of them they’re pretty obviously a cult that I’d want nothing to do with.

August 12, 2014 @ 9:05 am | Comment

Whether FLG is a cult or not doesn’t matter now but I can safely conclude that it’s a useless and hopeless group. Not that we know FLG has ever managed to spread the message of what it’s preaching, to any other race other than just to the Chinese. Reading its propaganda paper, The Epoch is like reading to the viewpoint of some extremists who will go to any length to slander and smear the Chinese Government as if there is no tomorrow.

August 24, 2014 @ 8:39 pm | Comment

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