Revenge of the Forbidden City: The Suppression of the Falungong in China, 1999-2005

André Laliberté ponders the party's clampdown on an organisation that seems to pose little threat

March 25, 2010

James Tong presents a riveting account of the ongoing efforts of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to clamp down on Falun Gong, a religious movement it considers a threat. This monograph is a tour de force given the extreme sensitivity of the topic and the extraordinary difficulty unbiased researchers face when both protagonists in this drama seek to belittle or exaggerate the claims of their adversary. Tong's honest expose of these constraints and the strategies he employs make this fascinating volume a model of investigative research. It should be required reading for those keen to know more about the workings of the CCP, even if it will not shed light on the organisation that it opposes. David Ownby and David Palmer have published excellent work on the latter, but Tong helps complete the picture via a treasure trove of information about the other side in this tragic confrontation.

In his study of the campaign to eliminate the Falun Gong, which was launched in 1999, Tong shows that market forces have not eroded the CCP's capacity to punish actors it disapproves of, and to monitor Chinese society generally. His opening chapter sets the stage by pointing to a major puzzle: the survival and prosperity of the CCP state despite widespread predictions of its decline. In this context, the campaign against Falun Gong is a case study of the state's coercive capacity. Tong goes on to describe the investigation, police crackdown, propaganda campaigns and conversion efforts by government agencies. He analyses the institutions used against the Falun Gong, looks at the Herculean task of organising party meetings to announce the ban, and assesses the campaign's effectiveness.

His concluding chapter presents the key features of the authoritarian regime unveiled by his investigation: the CCP's undisputed leadership, its ability to enforce compliance at the local level and the absence of resistance in the civil service. The National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, he adds, have failed to perform their constitutional roles as checks and balances. Sadly, the anti-Falun Gong campaign has compromised the rule of law and failed to elicit much protest from civil society.

When Deng Xiaoping moved China away from a planned economy and opened it up to foreign investment, there were hopes that political reform would follow. Although the Tiananmen Square massacre appeared to put an end to that illusion, the continuation of economic reform by Deng's successor Jiang Zemin led to renewed expectations that market forces would bring change. But the spectacular economic growth that followed did not bring political liberalisation. The opportunities afforded to millions of individuals to move to cities in search of a better life - or what international and Chinese corporations call labour mobility - may represent progress for those who escaped rural destitution, but it did not bear out optimistic predictions of the rise of a middle class eager for more political rights.

Although the CCP has allowed consumers the freedom to choose from an ever-expanding range of goods in everything from foodstuffs to cars to tourist destinations, there are domains of public life in which choice remains tightly limited. Religious belief remains one of the areas in which the supply remains regulated, to borrow from the sociologist Fenggang Yang. Within the framework of CCP policy, Chinese citizens can practise their religion in any of the designated premises under the authority of the Buddhist, Taoist, Islamic, Protestant and Catholic national associations and their local branches, in cooperation with the state's office of religious affairs. But although folk beliefs can be tolerated, and a few adherents of religions such as the Jewish or the Baha'i faith can practise their religions, the state does not tolerate other Chinese religions such as the Way of Unity (Yiguandao) and the Heavenly Virtue Teaching (Tiandejiao), both of which are recognised in Taiwan. The state is even likelier to repress new religious movements, especially if they attract a great number of followers.

The emergence of the Falun Gong in 1999 represented a completely unexpected event for observers outside China. This was not the case in China itself, where that organisation has generated some controversy. Outsiders were puzzled by a movement that seemed utterly disconnected from the narrative of the democracy movements that emerged in the 1980s, and by the lack of political motivations expressed by adherents. For non-Chinese, the ferocity of the Falun Gong clampdown appeared all the more puzzling because of the absence of a political agenda. Why would the state seek to repress a group who claimed that their teachings of breathing exercises were helping to improve public healthcare? Indeed, it would seem to be a self-defeating and counterproductive move by the CCP, in light of the fact that, historically, repression has driven religious groups to become enemies of the state.

Tong's remarkable study does not explain why the attack on Falun Gong occurred, but he states clearly why tolerance of the movement will be impossible until the CCP has a change of mind or the regime alters beyond recognition. In other words, this is a task for historians of the future.

Revenge of the Forbidden City: The Suppression of the Falungong in China, 1999-2005

By James W. Tong

Oxford University Press

282pp, £32.50

ISBN 9780195377286

Published 10 December 2009

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