One of the unexpected side effects of China’s economic reforms over the last 20 years has been a flowering of religious expression and organisation. Local temples and cults, ‘folk religions’, Confucianism and Taoism–all have gained millions of believers, as have Buddhism, Islam and many varieties of Christianity. The Chinese state has responded in many different ways, ranging from outright repression to official attempts at co-option. The city of Putian in Fujian province, for example, has promoted its mythical status as the birthplace of Mazu, a sea goddess much worshipped in Taiwan, to attract Taiwanese investors. And in the 1980s local authorities in Xinjiang province rebuilt mosques and funded pilgrimages to Mecca to win back support from the Muslim population.
Straightforward repression has been much more common, however. Tibet and underground Christian churches in central China have borne the brunt of this, but since 1999 the Falun Gong movement has been the target of one of the largest centrally directed waves of repression since Tiananmen Square. Thousands of the movement’s followers have been jailed or thrown into psychiatric hospitals, and many have died from their treatment. One of the most shocking things about Danny Schechter’s book is the detail it gives about the everyday brutality in China’s jails.
Falun Gong is a religious/spiritual movement based on a mixture of Buddhism, Taoism and traditional qigong exercises (an exercise system which supposedly promotes mental and physical health). There are hundreds of similar movements in China–Falun Gong has been singled out for repression because of a peaceful mass demonstration it organised in 1999. After a number of local groups had been harassed by the police, the movement called a protest on 25 April 1999 in Tiananmen Square. Between 10,000 and 15,000 people turned up, making it the largest protest in Beijing since the uprising of 1989. The demonstration was entirely peaceful, but it scared the government rigid.
The government isn’t so much scared of what the movement is as of what it could become. China’s history is full of examples of similar religious movements that have become the focus of mass anger and peasant rebellion. The Taiping rebellion, which ravaged southern China from the 1840s to the 1860s, is the best known of these, but there have been many more. Schechter sketches many of the ways that people have lost out in the market reforms–growing unemployment, the collapse of social and health services, rising inflation, greater insecurity–and shows how Falun Gong has recruited not only among the most disaffected sections of Chinese society but also among Communist Party members and the elderly. In the absence of any left wing or working class focus, Falun Gong could well become a lightning rod for the anger of workers and peasants.
Falun Gong also scared the government by seeming to come out of nowhere. How did it gain 2 million adherents without the Communist Party realising? Part of the answer lies with its highly sophisticated use of the internet. One estimate is that 9 million Chinese people have direct access to the internet, and it’s obvious that this is now much too widespread for the government to police–a factor that can help many other opposition movements to grow.
Schechter has at times quite a narrow, legalistic focus, and much of the book is taken up with Falun Gong writings and denunciations from the Chinese press which are of limited interest. But it’s a good snapshot of one of the lesser known facets of China today, and is written with a powerful sense of justice. It’s also well worth reading for the light it shines on US imperialism and its relationship with China. Though it’s done in passing, Schechter illustrates the diverse and contradictory attitudes of different sections of US capitalism and the US state towards China’s new-found economic power. If you’ve ever thought that US policy towards China faces both ways at once, this book will help to explain why.
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