This article was first published on the Institute for Peace and Conflict Website.
Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar
In April 1999, a decade after the Tiananmen Square massacre in China, an encore of the ’89 tragedy unfolded at the same venue. The scale of proportions was the same and so were State anxieties that unleashed mass persecution. In the event, the State came down with its bludgeons on over 10,000 followers of the Buddhist inspired Falun Gong spiritual movement, government assessment placed the number of practitioners at over 70 million. The number of casualties in the crackdown and the subsequent repression which continues to date remains uncorroborated, however estimates suggest over 3,700 deaths in re-education labour camps and custodial torture and a shocking 65,000 in fatal organ harvesting.
Falun Gong philosophy is centred on the Buddhist concept of Dharma Chakra and its morality driven by Truthfulness, Compassion and Forbearance. The Movements only plea is to be given recognition, not as some “lunatic fringe” (as state intelligentsia had labelled them), but as a legitimate entity of the People’s Republic of China. So what was it about these gentle devotees that brought upon the ire of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)? It certainly could not have been their deep breathing and smooth flowing rhythmic exercises that invited brutal battering, extrajudicial imprisonment in the tens of thousands, psychiatric abuse, torture, alleged fatal organ harvesting and a continued repression that has forced millions of adherents underground.
Most puzzling is the persistent severity of the crackdown and the vicious denunciation of the Movement (membership said to be more than the CCP) as a heretical one. Particularly so, when the labour is pacific in nature and is neither irreverential nor has it set out to desecrate the communist state. At which time why the Central Committee of the Politburo considers it a menace to the “stability and unity” of the Middle Kingdom remains perplexing. Despite persecution, the fact is that Falun Gong, even today, remains the preferred life style choice of millions of mostly elderly Chinese many of who are in positions of power. Stability of political dispensation and territorial unity is considered to lie at the heart China’s national interests. To the CCP, it is non negotiable and any event that is perceived to even remotely endanger these interests, sets into motion an extreme response. The extraordinarily brutal reaction to root out Falun Gong, an idea that can be traced back to two millennia of Chinese civilization, in the name of upholding recently imported principles of Marxism-Leninism is all the more inexplicable when one notes that these latter principles have long since been buried when the state adopted “State Controlled Capitalism” to drive their economic policies. Is it that the politics of commercialism and economic change can surge ahead divorced from the politics of the state without undermining stability and unity? Or will we in the immediate future witness devolution of economic activities sacrificed at the altar of centralized political power? And what of the States abiding belief in the idea of Da yitong or the imperial concept which saw politics and socio-economics as two sides of the ‘Great Systemic Whole’ which never quite collapsed with the Qing Dynasty in 1912? It is significant that today the political dispensation in China, with its siege mentality, repressive social policies and a self ordained (almost imperial) historical mandate; finds itself at odds with the consequences of its economic vigour and any social dynamic that seeks to make moral interpretations contrary to that by the CCP. Falun Gong is convinced that the practice of atheism has enabled the Communist Party to interpret freely what is virtuous and what is good or bad. Such a flexible approach is abhorrent to the movement for it gives to the ruling elite the powers to blur the distinction between the corrupt and law-abiding. Morality then becomes an act of mass belief that the Party is invariably “truthful, magnificent and exalted.” Falun Gong practitioners, on the other hand, evaluate right or wrong based on truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance. And this is where the rub comes, for to the CCP any form of spirituality gives people an unchanging standard of good and bad. This obviously hinders the Party’s perpetual efforts to “unify” people’s thinking in order to “stabilise” their own position. The consequences of sharing, the hitherto monopoly on societal power, may explain the fears within. Thus far China’s splendid economic surge and its exhortations to its people to find “goodness” in getting rich fast has muzzled the impulse to pluralism in political thought and indeed has postponed the need to reckon with the contradictions between central political power and economic vitality. However, as the current economic downturn shrivels political options, the probability of a face off between an “old state” against new societal impulses becomes a reality. It is true that the Peoples Liberation Army may tip the balance, as with the Tiananmen Square uprising of a quarter a century earlier, the old state (albeit in mauled circumstances) may triumph; but this only puts off the inevitable. In 1859, John Stuart Mill, the British political economist, suggested in his philosophical work On Liberty that “a State which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes, will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished.” Repression against the Falun Gong represents one more such dwarfing in a litany which began with Mao’s invasion of Tibet, the “Great Leap Forward,” The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the massacre of Uighurs, Tiananmen Square massacre and the Umbrella Revolution. In each of these seismic episodes the State responded brutally to societal events as it shielded its all consuming hankering for political power; at the same time the incidents exposed a deepening fear within. Whether today we can distinguish the concluding steps of a despotic regime in a last ditched attempt to turn back the clock on economic reforms and cling to autocratic power; or the emergence of a new political order that is in sync with the socio-economic vitality of the Chinese people, remains an arguable proposition.