20 years on, Falungong survives underground in China

Sitting lotus-style on an apartment floor, two women quietly rotate their arms in front of them -- a rare sight in China where public displays of Falungong meditation have all but disappeared.

It is a shadow of the spiritual movement's heyday in China, where the group once boasted more than 70 million followers before it was outlawed in 1999, giving police carte blanche to persecute members.

But 20 years on, the group has remained stubbornly persistent, even as practitioners in mainland China continue to face arrests and torture, according to rights groups.

Before the crackdown, Falungong members would congregate in parks in large numbers to practise "qigong" meditation. Now they do their slow movement exercises behind closed doors.

"It doesn't matter how the Communist Party suppresses (Falungong), I don't think about it too much," one of the women, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic, told AFP.

"I just do what I want to do," she said.

Falungong, which emphasises moral teachings, was once encouraged by Chinese authorities to ease the burden on a creaky health system after it was unveiled in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, who emigrated to the US four years later.

But after over 10,000 Falungong members surrounded Communist Party headquarters in central Beijing on April 25, 1999, to protest the detention of some of their members, the government leapt into action.

Then-president Jiang Zemin issued orders to eliminate the group, which was later declared an "evil cult" -- a tactic to justify the repression, scholars say.

Top officials "see Falungong, first and foremost, as an ideological and political threat", Maria Cheung, a University of Manitoba professor who has researched the movement, told AFP.

The demonstration had been the biggest protest in Beijing since the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy sit-in in 1989.

'Flesh and blood'

Following the protest, Chinese authorities launched a special security bureau known as the "610 office" to suppress and monitor Falungong followers.

Practitioners and rights groups have also reported death, torture, and abuse at labour camps.

One woman from northern China recounted a traumatic period when her father was pressured by local authorities to beat his younger sister, who was a "very resolute practitioner of Falungong".

He was "forced to break his own flesh and blood, resulting in my aunt hating her own brother for many years," she told AFP, shuddering with tears.

David Ownby, a history professor at the University of Montreal who has studied Falungong, said cults emerge in China because the officially atheist state has successfully kept traditional religions weak.

"That means that part of the market is open to groups that are not sanctioned," he said. "That is the basic paradox at the heart of the religion policy."

A Falungong follower in China, who joined in 2010, told AFP that her dissatisfaction with society and family life turned her towards the spiritual movement.

"I thought that maybe a bit of (religious) faith would make me better," she said, adding that she had also been exposed to Buddhism.

While Falungong survives underground in mainland China, it has swelled among the Chinese diaspora, as followers have fled overseas in search of asylum.

Falungong is practised in over 70 countries, according to Falun Dafa Info Centre, the group's press office.

The movement has also turned "hard-edged" over the years, said Ownby, with some academics reporting harassment for calling Falungong a sect or cult.

Levi Browde, the centre's executive director, said he believes if harassment has occurred, it is simply an effort by Falungong practitioners "to provide more information to the scholars".

More political stance

It is about "making sure we're not adding momentum to the wave of violence and death that engulfs the lives of Falungong practitioners throughout China", he said.

The spiritual movement has also adopted a more political stance in some parts of the world.

In Hong Kong, where Falungong activists hand out flyers and try to talk to people -- especially mainland tourists -- the movement has taken on a stridently anti-communist tone.

One key slogan, seen on banners and blared through loudspeakers is: "The heavens will destroy the Chinese Communist Party".

Originally published by AFP on April 25, 2019