Falun Gong is a new religious movement. Falun Gong was founded by its leader Li Hongzhi in China in the early 1990s. Falun Gong has its global headquarters in Dragon Springs, a 400-acre (160 ha) compound around Cuddebackville in Deerpark, New York, near the current residence of Li Hongzhi. Falun Gong’s performance arts extension, Shen Yun (“Divine Rhythm”) and two closely connected schools, Fei Tian (“Flying Sky-Being”) College and Fei Tian Academy of the Arts, also operate in and around Dragon Springs.
Falun Gong aspires to enable the practitioner to ascend spiritually through moral rectitude and the practice of a set of exercises and meditation. The three stated tenets of the belief are Truthfulness (真, Zhēn), Compassion (善, Shàn), and Forbearance (忍, Rěn). These principles have been repeated by Falun Gong members to outsiders as a tactic for evading deeper inquiry, and followers have been instructed by Li to lie about the practice.Together these principles are regarded as the fundamental nature of the cosmos, the criteria for differentiating right from wrong, and are held to be the highest manifestations of the Tao, or Buddhist Dharma.
Most Falun Gong estimates in the same period placed the total number of practitioners in China at 70 to 80 million. Other sources have estimated the Falun Gong population in China to have peaked between 10 and 70 million practitioners. The number of Falun Gong practitioners still practicing in China today is difficult to confirm, though some sources estimate that tens of millions continue to practice privately.
Demographic surveys conducted in China in 1998 found a population that was mostly female and elderly. Of 34,351 Falun Gong practitioners surveyed, 27% were male and 73% female. Only 38% were under 50 years old. Falun Gong attracted a range of other individuals, from young college students to bureaucrats, intellectuals and Party officials. Surveys in China from the 1990s found that between 23 and 40% of practitioners held university degrees at the college or graduate level—several times higher than the general population.
Falun Gong is practiced by tens, and possibly hundreds of thousands outside China, with the largest communities found in Taiwan and North American cities with large Chinese populations, such as New York and Toronto.
Persecution in China
On 20 July 1999, security forces abducted and detained thousands of Falun Gong practitioners who they identified as leaders. Two days later, on 22 July, the PRC Ministry of Civil Affairs outlawed the Falun Dafa Research Society as an illegal organization that was “engaged in illegal activities, advocating superstition and spreading fallacies, hoodwinking people, inciting and creating disturbances, and jeopardizing social stability”. The same day, the Ministry of Public Security issued a circular forbidding citizens from practicing Falun Gong in groups, possessing Falun Gong’s teachings, displaying Falun Gong banners or symbols, or protesting against the ban.
The aim of the ensuing campaign was to “eradicate” the group through a combination of means which included the publication and distribution of propaganda which denounced it and the imprisonment and coercive thought reform of its practitioners, sometimes resulting in deaths. In October 1999, four months after the imposition of the ban, legislation was passed in order to outlaw “heterodox religions” and sentence Falun Gong devotees to prison terms.
Hundreds of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners are estimated to have been extrajudicially imprisoned, and practitioners who are currently in detention are reportedly subjected to forced labor, psychiatric abuse, torture, and other coercive methods of thought reform at the hands of Chinese authorities. The U.S. Department of State and Congressional-Executive Commission on China cite estimates that as much as half of China’s reeducation-through-labor camp population is made up of Falun Gong practitioners. Researcher Ethan Gutmann estimates that Falun Gong practitioners represent an average of 15 to 20 percent of the total “laogai” population, a population which includes practitioners who are currently being held in re-education through labor camps as well as practitioners who are currently being held in prisons and other forms of administrative detention. Former detainees of the labor camp system have reported that Falun Gong practitioners comprise one of the largest groups of prisoners; in some labor camp and prison facilities, they comprise the majority of the detainees, and they are often said to receive the longest sentences and the worst treatment. A 2013 report on labor reeducation camps by Amnesty International found that in some cases, Falun Gong practitioners “constituted on average from one third to 100 per cent of the total population” of certain camps.
According to Johnson, the campaign against Falun Gong extends to many aspects of society, including the media apparatus, the police force, the military, the education system, and workplaces. An extra-constitutional body, the “610 Office” was created to “oversee” the effort. Human Rights Watch (2002) commented that families and workplace employees were urged to cooperate with the government.
Observers have attempted to explain the Party’s rationale for banning Falun Gong as stemming from a variety of factors. Many of these explanations centre on institutional causes, such as Falun Gong’s size and popularity, its independence from the state, and internal politics within the Chinese Communist Party. Other scholars have noted that Chinese authorities were troubled by Falun Gong’s moral and spiritual content, which put it at odds with aspects of the official Marxist ideology. Still others have pointed to China’s history of bloody sectarian revolts as a possible factor leading to the crackdown.