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Posted on: Sunday, February 11, 2001

Why East, West can't meet on Falun Gong

By Tom Plate

About every decade or so, it seems, a transcendent trauma passes over China. In 1979, the Chinese people mourned the casualties of the enormously bloody China-Vietnam war. Ten years later, it was the Tiananmen explosion. And now it is the Falun Gong craziness.

Certainly, the Falun Gong phenomenon is hard for reasonable people to figure. Religion or cult?

As a spiritual movement, Falun Gong, at least at its fringes, does not appear to be moving in the same direction as, say, the followers of Mother Theresa or the Maryknoll missionaries. Though undoubtedly arising out of China’s need for spiritual sustenance, Falun Gong has spawned elements that clearly see nothing wrong in dousing themselves with gasoline and lighting a match — and with a 12-year-old included in the act.

Whether this image reminds you more of the 1963 Buddhist monk in Vietnam, the 1978 Jones-town cyanide massacre or the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo subway nerve-gas attack may depend on your attitude toward Beijing.

But the image is unnerving, period.

Beijing is obviously rattled. Westerners who fail to appreciate the lingering terror of China’s Cultural Revolution cannot hope to understand Beijing’s seeming overreaction to Falun Gong. Not since the Civil War has America endured anything so thoroughly devastating. (The domestic roiling over Vietnam wasn’t even close.)

At the same time, while some of China’s misery is the result of historical experience, including all the outside interventions and exploitations over the decades, some is Beijing’s own doing. Just as the West needs to try harder to understand China’s obsession with civil disorder, China’s elite must try harder to break away from the psychological chains of its nightmarish past.

That can’t possibly happen if it continues to fixate upon it.

In the "Tiananmen Papers," an alleged eyewitness account of the secret deliberations of China’s elite during the 1989 crackdown, maximum leader Deng Xiaoping is quoted as worrying: "Imagine for a moment what could happen if China falls into turmoil. If it happens now, it’d be far worse than the Cultural Revolution."

The authenticity of these papers may be questioned, but there’s no doubt that the memory of Cultural Revolution terror is what’s causing the Falun Gong panic today among China’s party elders. They see danger in any large-scale nonconformity so clearly organized and focused.

Under these circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that the well-established Chinese track record for overreacting has helped fuel a world media image that, however exaggerated and overwrought, is drearily consistent.

And so Beijing’s crackdown on the Falun Gong predictably horrifies Americans but does not really astonish. It’s just the same old story of repression and more repression, right? The same old left-wingers are running the place, no?

To a degree, yes. But even more so, it’s the story of the Communist Party hoping to ride the tiger of change and still stay in the saddle.

That’s why you see the government saying that the Falun Gong is nothing more than a fringe religious group, but treating it as a mortal threat.

Too bad. It would be better for Beijing to treat the Falun Gong as much ado about nothing. For this crackdown will further obscure for the West the fuller story of China, which is about massive ongoing change and positive economic achievement, due in part to growing acceptance of Western economic ways.

Obviously, there are Falun Gong elements praying for a continuation of the elite’s clampdown mentality. Knowing Beijing’s propensity for knee-jerk reaction, some organizers have been looking to do everything possible to elicit that very response. In particular, Hong Kong, the shining star of Deng Xiaoping’s "one country-two systems" legacy, has begun to see a lot more of the Falun Gong game.

The Falun Gong’s target is Beijing. So Falun Gong’s fringe elements are taunting a tormented tiger and in the process wrapping the Western media, always grateful for a dramatic picture, around their little fingers.

Thus for China and Hong Kong, further tragedy looms on the horizon. After all, Americans, by and large, tend to regard the Falun Gong as a religious-freedom issue, pure and simple. They generally do not know that Beijing permits some officially approved and registered religions to practice openly.

Nor would they care: From the perspective of U.S. ideology, the separation of church and state rejects the notion of all religious licensing.

But far-out cults such as the Branch Davidians are a striking reminder that even religious groups — as well as government law enforcement — can go too far. This looks to be the case, this time Chinese style, once again.

Tom Plate, a UCLA professor, is also a columnist with the The South China Morning Post. He can be reached at

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