Suspicions that shape a nation

Falun Gong - A Bitter Revolution - China's New Nationalism

January 28, 2005

China's 'baffling' and brutal reactions to domestic and foreign challenges are explicable when set in context, argues Jackie Sheehan

Maria Hsia Chang's concise account of Falun Gong's development and the Chinese Communist Party's response to it brings together material previously scattered over press archives and non-governmental organisation reports, and her book would be valuable for this service alone. It aids understanding of the CCP Government's crackdown on Falun Gong and similar groups, "the intensity and brutality of which have astounded and baffled the world". Even those familiar with what goes on inside China's penal system and psychiatric institutions were taken aback by the scale and force of the campaign against Falun Gong, given that the targets seemed mainly to be pensioners meditating for the sake of their health.

The CCP's fear of Falun Gong makes more sense given the profile of its typical followers: CCP members, ex-government or ex-army personnel seem to be overrepresented, and members of top leaders' own families were rumoured to belong to the group before the CCP began to move against it in mid-1999.

A 10,000-strong peaceful demonstration on April 25, 1999 outside the gates of the CCP leadership compound in Beijing, too, belied Falun Gong's insistence that there is no political dimension to its aims or actions. And Falun Gong, a qigong (energy cultivation) group whose founder, Li Hongzhi, has blended elements of Buddhism, Taoism and folk religion into a belief system in which he is a deity, is not merely about healthy meditation and exercise. As Chang makes clear, the goal of adherents is individual human salvation. Among the symptoms of moral decay leading to imminent apocalypse that only the cultivated will survive are homosexuality and women's liberation. This suggests that even though some other persecuted groups in China have sympathised with Falun Gong in its suppression, strict followers of Li's teachings are unlikely to return the favour.

Chang's book provides the historical context in excellent summaries of the major Chinese religions, sects and millenarian rebellions. The CCP does not need reminding how often such groups have brought down a dynasty, and its own -at first sight disproportionate - response is contextualised in a section on the persecution of other faith groups. This also discusses the Chinese authorities' limited understanding of the concept of "rule by law" and its penchant for retrospective legislation to justify acts of suppression and censorship that violate the international human-rights conventions to which it is a signatory.

One weakness of the book is that Chang does not try to reconcile contradictory assertions about Falun Gong - for example whether it is a formally structured organisation or an amorphous, non-hierarchical network - but presents them without comment. It also lacks explicit discussion of the problems of using official Chinese sources and sympathetic accounts taken from the international press and from religious groups with vested interests in portraying a religious upsurge in China. Another is its handling of the comparison between Falun Gong and the CCP. The argument that the CCP protests too much because it is itself anti-scientific, superstitious and cultish has much validity, but this is lost in a hysterical and inaccurate invocation of the Cultural Revolution's Red Guards as bands of roving cannibals ravaging China. Would that the author had been as fair to the CCP and the Red Guards as she generally is to Falun Gong.

Rana Mitter's study of the May Fourth Movement of 1919 and its lingering influence on Chinese politics does exactly what it says on the tin - it provides a readable narrative history, accessible to students and a general audience, that makes explicit the resonances that May Fourth and the invocation of the names of Li Dazhao, Lu Xun, Zou Taofen and Cai Yuanpei have for Chinese and China specialists. As the author freely admits, specialists will not find much that is new to them here, but a case can easily be made for a book of this type, drawing on the specialised and often local studies of recent years in an attempt to take a fresh look at the big picture. The pleasures of this book include its treatment of the publications of the May Fourth era, which considers such publishing as a business as well as a noble cause. The selections quoted from the "Readers' Mailbox" agony-uncle feature of Zou Taofen's Life magazine really bring the era to life, and this is material not otherwise accessible to the general reader. The potted introductions to key figures of the Twenties and Thirties are useful, although they seem less likely to prompt anyone to read these writers than the equivalent passages in Jonathan Spence's The Gate of Heavenly Peace (1982). Mitter praises Lu Xun's talents as an ironist - and one who is funny - elsewhere, but does not demonstrate them here.

The book could have said more about anarchism in the May Fourth era. There is now a decent specialised literature on the subject, and one of the book's themes in the early sections is the paths not taken in China's politics and alternatives to the not-at-all inevitable rise of the CCP. here the book moves on to a consideration of May Fourth's legacy in the later 20th century, there are more serious flaws, namely the extended and, to my mind, unhelpful analogy that sets the relationship between Weimar and Nazi Germany alongside that between May Fourth and the Cultural Revolution. To depict the Cultural Revolution as the reductio ad absurdum of May Fourth iconoclastic anti-traditionalism and triumphant youth requires us to ignore the constructive role of grassroots political mobilisation in the Cultural Revolution. The Red Guards did not give rise to China's post-Mao "thinking generation" and democracy and human-rights movements in a purely reactionary way, but Mitter's thesis disregards the positively anti-authority, democratising impulses of the grassroots movement.

Peter Hays Gries has produced a perceptive and timely study of the "new nationalism" that characterises China's self-identified "Fourth Generation". Despite the fact that this generation is far too young to have experienced the invasion or occupation of China, much less the "century of humiliation" that preceded the Second World War, it is preoccupied with issues of national identity and perceived foreign slights and disrespect.

Manifestations of this phenomenon can be seen in the popular reaction, especially in internet chatrooms, to incidents such as the US bombing of China's Belgrade embassy in 1999 and the 2001 collision between a US surveillance plane and the Chinese fighter that was shadowing it, as well as in vocal anti-Japanese sentiment among young Chinese.

Gries convincingly establishes the importance of his topic, especially in the realm of Sino-US relations, pointing out that "words have consequences" and that a spiral of mutual dehumanisation and demonisation does not make the world a safer place. He demonstrates that new nationalism is affecting Chinese foreign policy, citing the link on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website provided for Chinese "netizens" to express their views. The outside world is beginning to realise that the Chinese Government has a domestic constituency, the views of which have to be taken seriously at moments such as that of the Belgrade bombing or the surveillance plane incident, and that outbursts of popular anger in China are not being stirred up or orchestrated by the CCP itself.

Gries's social-psychological approach to nationalism leads him to a more complex and interdependent understanding of Chinese national identity as it has been expressed over some of these events. He focuses on China's major bilateral encounters, the US and Japan, and on how the development of narratives of the national past shapes national identity. The book is recommended particularly to those interested in the debate over the Nanjing massacre of 1937 and its role in Sino-Japanese relations. Such readers will find its discussion of how the conflict has been played by both sides to the audience of world opinion thought-provoking. Gries's discussion of the co-existing "heroic" and "victimisation" narratives of China's Second World War experiences and analysis of China's commemoration of its role in the Korean War will similarly be of value to anyone working on those topics.

But the book could most profitably be read by those who have contributed to the development of mutual suspicion and hostility across the Pacific in the first place, not least America's China-bashers, whom Gries depicts as projecting their fears and fantasies on to a China that is not demonstrably aggressive. For their part, the new nationalists pay almost excessive attention to the Western press and give too much credence to unrepresentative views, so that anti-China extremists have a "disproportionate impact on the shape and evolution of Chinese nationalism".

Concluding with some thoughts on the future of Sino-US relations, Gries is critical of analysts who infer Chinese intentions from capabilities, whatever their conclusions, and appeals for more appreciation of the complexity of human motivation and of the powerful role of emotions in the making of foreign policy, warning against a trans-Pacific "zero-sum identity competition" that could override common Sino-US interests in a peaceful and stable East Asia.

Jackie Sheehan is senior lecturer in contemporary Chinese studies, Nottingham University.

Falun Gong: The End of Days

Author - Maria Hsia Chang
Publisher - Yale University Press
Pages - 188
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 0 300 102 5

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