On April 25, 1999, around 5AM, a considerable crowd began clustering around Beihai Park, in central Beijing.# No one carried a banner or megaphone. No one shouted slogans. It wasn’t much out of the ordinary for one of China’s largest parks in the heart of this metropolis… that is, until the group began moving westward, across Beihai bridge, toward Zhongnanhai: the central government complex of the Chinese Communist party.
By 8AM, more than 20,000 had gathered on Fuyou St, in front of the General Office of the State Counsel, in a series of silent, orderly lines. Still, not a banner or sign in sight. It remained entirely unclear what the bizarre gathering was about. By now, Luo Gan, Party Secretary of Legal and Political Affairs had no choice but to call Jiang Zemin, the General Secretary of the Party and the country’s highest authority.
As Luo explained the situation, Jiang grew increasingly worried. Whoever was behind it, it was surely a protest — the first in the history of the People’s Republic to occur at Zhongnanhai, and the largest in Beijing since the 1989 crisis which still haunted Jiang. Comprehending the situation’s severity, Jiang tersely ordered Luo to “figure it out.” So Luo tapped Zhu Rongji, China’s Premier, the country’s second-highest-ranking official, to assist in bringing an end to the mysterious standoff.
But Luo and Zhu’s first move wasn’t to call in security forces to break up the demonstration. Instead, they would negotiate. Upon meeting with Luo and Zhu, the gathering’s leaders made their purpose clear; they were practitioners of a type of qigong — or slow movement exercise — known as Falun Gong, and they demanded the release of fellow practitioners arrested during a demonstration days earlier in Tianjin, a nearby port city. Zhu and Luo were confused. They had heard of Falun Gong, but they’d known qigong as merely a form of gentle exercise meant for the elderly.
To mobilize so many people almost in an instant seemed an impossibility. More worrying, the five leaders present for the negotiations were employees of the Army’s Chief of Staff department, Beijing University, and the Ministries of Supervision, Railways, and Public Security: crucially important institutions for the regime.
Over 6 hours, Luo and Zhu ultimately defused the situation by conceding to all the group’s demands, promising to release the Tianjin practitioners, that the government had no quarrel with qigong groups such as theirs, and that all present at Zhongnanhai would be safe from prosecution. Beijing had caved. The crowd had won, and so they dispersed.
But Zhu was only number two. His promises were still subject to the approval of Jiang Zemin.
And for Jiang, the whole thing was nothing short of a disaster. Later that night he penned a letter to high party members, chastising them for their lack of awareness and demanding answers. What was this group? How did they mobilize such numbers? And who was in charge?#
Almost nothing is known about what happened behind the party curtain between that day and June 7th, when Jiang convened a meeting of the Politburo standing committee and gave a speech which left no room for ambiguity. “The Central Committee Team on Falun Gong shall take immediate actions to organize resources, track down the Falun Gong organizational structure throughout China, formulate a crackdown strategy, and be fully mobilized to break and wipe out Falun Gong. We shall not wage a war without preparations.”# His philosophy, since the day he took power amidst the 1989 crisis, had always been very simple: “We do not negotiate with protestors.”
Around midnight, the morning of July 2oth, 88 days after the unprecedented and mysterious gathering, the government finally issued its real response. Security forces across the country were dispatched to arrest Falun Gong leading members. Protests erupted in response.# Within two days, the government formally announced the ban on the practice of Falun Gong.# The war between Falun Gong and Beijing, still raging to this day, had begun.
How did this happen?
Our story starts some years before the founding of this bizarre cult, in the 1980s: for China, a time of enormous change. The father of the revolution, Mao Zedong, is dead. In his place is Deng Xiaoping, a man with little taste for his predecessor’s central planning, repression, and cult of personality which had left millions of Chinese bodies in his wake. Deng wanted China to open up, to cultivate innovation, and that meant relaxing the government’s iron grip on the economy and society.
The social change was massive. Free from total fealty to Marxism and atheism, many found themselves adrift: unmoored from any tradition thanks to years of government repression, yet yearning for spiritual fulfillment. In turn, new religious movements proliferated, each with their own blend of modern sensibilities and attachment to the past.
Nothing, however, rivaled the explosive popularity of qigong, a slow movement exercise that connected the health of the body with the health of the spirit. To Deng’s eyes, Qigong was, in a sense, an effort to modernize Chinese spirituality in a distinctively Chinese way. But it wasn’t just the nation’s spirituality that was changing. Deng’s social opening also relaxed political censorship, allowing people to speak about politics in ways that would have, just a few years earlier, resulted in arrest, disappearance, or murder by state forces. However, loosening censorship without any real democratic reform meant China’s starry-eyed youth had a taste for freedom, while the government withheld the good stuff. Then, in the spring of 1989, it happened: that event which haunted Jiang.
Tens of thousands of students descended on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, not far from Zhongnanhai, to call for democracy. For a moment, a few top party officials wavered. But as the movement grew, surpassing 100,000 people in the heart of the capital, hardliners brought in the army and opened fire. In the end, casualties reached into the thousands. Deng had little choice but to replace his protestor-sympathizing General Secretary with his polar opposite: Jiang Zemin, a man who had at this moment, just one thing in mind, “We do not negotiate with protestors.”
By 1993, Jiang had solidified his hold on power and once more tightened the party’s grip on political activity. But Jiang was no mindless tyrant—he saw a difference between political, also known as dangerous, activity and harmless social groups. He had no interest in reigniting Mao’s total war on society.
And that was obvious, because Jiang’s government continued to support the qigong craze which was still going strong. If nothing else, it seemed an effective way for senior citizens to keep in shape and out of state-funded medical care.
But qigong wasn’t just about bodily wellness — it was about spiritual health. Apparently unbeknownst to Jiang, that placed it squarely at the center of something the government very much still intended to control: religion. Because with the blossoming of new religious movements, to paraphrase Voltaire, come both fools…and scoundrels. After all, fools who follow scoundrels are fools not following the state.
One such scoundrel was about to make an enormous impact in China. His name is Li Hongzhi.
Now, according to Li’s own telling, written after his rise to prominence, his early life was about the craziest thing you’ve ever heard—mentored by masters of Eastern spirituality, by age 8 he could levitate and turn invisible, you know, the usual. The more…plausible story—he was a horn player in a police marching band and a low-level, pencil-pushing clerk.
So, mediocre man that he was, in the 1980s Li joined the fad: another drop in the qigong bucket. But as it turned out, he was pretty good at it. This could be Li’s time to shine…
In 1992, he held his own qigong workshop, and it was a big success! Looking for a way to burnish his credentials so he could keep the game going, Li went to the government-backed Qigong society to register himself as an official ‘master of qigong’ and his organization as an official practice which he called “Falun Gong.”
Now, it’s important to pause here—Li was registered with the Chinese government to do all of this stuff. What’s more, the government seemed to love this guy. Li conducted workshops and gave talks at state universities and even became a symbol of China’s opening up to the world, lecturing at the Chinese embassy in Paris and touring America where he was made an honorary citizen of Houston, Texas, among other places.
With all his official credentials and government relationships, Li and Falun Gong were getting even more popular. From 1992 to 1994, he hosted 56 workshops with at least 60,000 total attendees. At its peak, Falun Gong had at least three million practitioners in China, though Li himself would claim much higher—absurdly higher—numbers.
Speaking of Li’s more outlandish claims, around the end of 1994, Li went and published a guide to his teachings, which read an awful lot like a religious text: and a pretty strange one to boot. Mixing Buddhism, Taoism, and qigong—no problem—but add Li’s ideas, and, “What I meant was, ‘No. Problem.’ Because what you get is a bizarre theology which promises super-powers like eternal youth, flight, invisibility, and mind control to his followers, just so long as they aren’t gay or married to someone of another race. Beeecause also heaven is racially segregated and interracial children are vehicles for aliens—who by the way created modern medicine—seeking to possess human bodies and take over the world.
Still, for now, most in the government didn’t bat an eye, but a few took notice. Li’s claims, especially about medicine, were dangerous. Worse still, those paying attention could tell Falun Gong was becoming an all-consuming obsession for its practitioners, a potential threat to the party’s grip on society.
But before most of the party was aware, local state-run news organizations across China picked up the scent of a good story and began running articles and TV segments critical of Falun Gong in 1996. In response, Falun Gong practitioners bombarded the outlets with letters demanding they retract their statements.
Now, the letter-writing campaign hadn’t been Li’s initiative—his adherents had done it all on their own. But Li liked what he saw. He co-opted their efforts, transforming Falun Gong’s theology to follow suit. From now on, responding to criticism from the government would be considered a necessary part of achieving spiritual perfection.
Still, despite losing their official status in the Qigong society and this attention from government outlets, no clear, coordinated opposition from the government reared its head, and the group muddied along in a legal grey area, theoretically exposed but apparently un-targeted.
But this couldn’t go on forever. Despite Li’s apolitical professions, his theology—implicitly critical of the government’s Marxism and skeptical of modern science—could be tolerated no longer.
So in April of 1999, this tenuous standoff broke. A Chinese physicist named He Zuoxiu published a scathing attack on the practice of qigong. In response, Falun Gong practitioners descended on Tianjin university, where He worked, for a massive protest. The police countered harshly, attacking protestors and arresting 45 of them.
For those fiercely faithful to Falun Gong, this was a crisis. They had to do something big. Another small, localized protest would be insufficient, either to secure the arrested practitioners’ release or to correct the record on qigong. They had to go to Beijing. So, on April 25th, 1999, around 5AM, a considerable crowd began clustering around Beifai Park, in central Beijing. Then they marched on Zhongnanhai.
So how did a huckster with a shabby background come to convince the CCP that he and his organization posed the greatest threat to the Party since the Tiananmen protests of 1989? Well, in some ways that’s the wrong question. It was the party’s repression that so upset society and paved the way for scoundrels like Li, the party’s paranoid need for self control that radicalized the group into political action. Falun Gong’s theology and worldview were unhinged from the beginning, but it really developed into a political force, one that demanded extraordinary devotion from its members, thanks to political repression. In other words, it was the party’s own fear that brought some 20,000 Falun Gong practitioners to Zhongnanhai on April 25th and transformed a slow movement exercise group into a fierce enemy…
A fierce enemy that wouldn’t be quashed so easily. Protest and opposition from Falun Gong was far from over.
Andrew Walder, China Under Mao (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 2015), 124, 169. ↩︎
Frank Dikotter, China After Mao: The Rise of A Superpower (Bloomsbury: New York, 2022), 28-32. ↩︎
Junpeng Li, “The Religion of the Nonreligious and the Politics of the Apolitical: The Transformation of Falun Gong from Healing Practice to Political Movement,” in _Politics and Religion _7 (2014), 184; Andrew B. Kipnis, “The Flourishing of Religion in Post-Mao China and the Anthropological Category of Religion,” in The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 12 no. 1 (2001), 34. ↩︎
David Ownby, Falun Gong and the Future of China, (Oxford University Press, 2008), 59-64. ↩︎
Dikotter, 28-32. ↩︎
Ibid., 88-92. ↩︎
This brief account of the 1989 Tiananmen uprising and subsequent massacre comes from Chapter 5 (pg. 109-139) of Dikotter, China After Mao. ↩︎
David Palmer, Qigong Fever (Columbia University Press: 2007), 24,178. ↩︎
Ownby, 82. ↩︎
Ibid., 81. ↩︎
Ibid., 85. ↩︎
Andrew Junker, Becoming Activists in Global China: Social Movements in the Chinese Diaspora (Cambridge University Press: 2019), 75-76. ↩︎
Ibid., 75-77. ↩︎
“A Chronicle of Major Historic Events during the Introduction of Falun Dafa to the Public,” Falun Dafa, 8 October 2004, http://en.minghui.org/emh/articles/2004/10/8/53286.html. This is a Falun Gong source but at least three leading Falun Gong scholars (Tong 2002, Owenby 2008, Junker 2019) consider the estimates plausible, not least because when Falun Gong exaggerates figures, as it often does, they tend to be absurdly high. ↩︎
Palmer, 259-260. ↩︎
Ownby, 117-123. ↩︎
Ibid., 82, 89, 107. ↩︎
Li, “Religion of the Nonreligious,” 192-193. ↩︎
Ibid., 193. ↩︎
Junker, 78. ↩︎
Ibid., 77-80. ↩︎
Li, “Religion of the Nonreligious,” 189-190; Ownby 166-168. ↩︎
He Zuoxiu, “I Do Not Approve of Teenagers Practicing Qigong,” Youth Science and Technology Outlook, 11 April 1999. ↩︎
Junker, 80-81. ↩︎