An American student at 'MIT of China' discovers Falun Gong and experiences the dark summer of 1999, when it became banned
I stood transfixed at the lone white notice posted at eye level on the thin evergreen’s trunk, the sole trace of human hands in this somewhat unkempt Beijing park.
While my faltering Chinese language skills made its message a challenge to decipher, its air of officialdom, if not its pompous presence, tacked as it was on the tree, signaled something ominous.
Absent that morning was what made the rough hewn plot of pines and dirt normally so alive—its people. And of course, all the life that they brought with them—their sounds, their smiles, their friendship.
The two or three dozen figures that normally animated the park each morning were alarmingly absent this morning. Not a one could be seen. Nor heard. Though it was in 1999, I still recall how overwhelming the silence was. If birds chirped nearby or bike pedals squeaked, as they must have, I heard them not.
Where had everyone gone? What had so dramatically, and suddenly, altered the fabric of the park?
To say the silence was abnormal would be understatement. Normally, come morning time the park would be transformed into a cultural gymnasium of sorts. This was a site where practitioners of Falun Gong gathered for “group exercises” of meditation and tai-chi like movements.
70 Million or More Every Day
It was July of 1999, and the park was one of several on the campus of Tsinghua University, where I was then living and studying. Students, faculty, and staff gathered for Falun Gong at various parks like this each day, young and old, professors and custodians alike. Their assembly was a most remarkable expression of community.
I had long known about China’s own version of the physical culture movement, and its ability to gather and motivate otherwise disconnected segments of people. It was the indigenous practice of qigong, of which Falun Gong was one variety, that had excited the masses of China in the 1980s and early 90s. Millions of Chinese citizens—hundreds of millions, by some estimates—were taking to the parks for fresh air and qigong.
It was a fascinating phenomenon to me, as a student of Chinese culture and comparative religion.
It seemed every adherent of qigong had some story of healing, tapping unseen energies, or things otherwise miraculous.
Many in America had caught a glimpse of this in 1993 when Bill Moyers’s Healing and the Mind series featured a “master” of qigong and his students, visiting their practice site in Beijing’s Purple Bamboo Park. But few could begin to sense the size, scope, or fervor of what was taking place.
I came to know much about China’s qigong movement from research during my senior year of college and my own apprenticeship, during a medical anthropology course, with one such Philadelphia-based master from China.
But little had anyone in the U.S. heard of Falun Gong, despite the fact that by 1999 it had grown to become what was decidedly the largest, and most significant, of all qigong forms. It had swelled to some 70 million-plus devotees in just seven years, and could be seen in most any park throughout China. It was a household name much like Pilates or yoga is here.
Yet as of January 1999, when I made my travel plans, there was nothing written about Falun Gong in the academic literature, and not a single story on it in the Western press. It was a cultural blind spot, as it were.
The presence of Falun Gong quickly became unmistakable after arriving in Beijing and settling into my campus. Just in the course of biking to my language classes I would pass anywhere from one to three Falun Gong groups, exercising with their trademark postures and formations.
Scientists and Intellectuals Embracing Falun Gong
It had taken root on campus, home to China’s scientific elite, just it had across China. Indeed, over 300 members of the Tsinghua community were making Falun Gong a part of their life by the summer of 1999. Counted among them were some of China’s leading physicists, chemists, and graduate students.
It readily became apparent that Falun Gong couldn’t be quickly dismissed as “folk superstition” or charlatanism—as certain critics of qigong had by that time asserted. Qigong itself was something of a controversy in that it was decidedly, even unabashedly, old and traditional, yet there it was springing up in a contemporary China obsessed with modernization and often uncomfortable with its past.
It was somewhere in that liminal space between past and present, mystical and rational. It was bound to galvanize. Where one landed in the debates depended on one’s vision of China’s future.
While much of China’s cultural heritage had been destroyed under Mao and his “revolutionary” campaigns, plenty of remnants survived—even if tattered and bruised. And many, like qigong, were re-emerging.
Falun Gong was fascinating to me in that it was particularly steeped in China’s cultural heritage, and embracing of it, without the same anxieties that other qigongs seemed to evince. And yet many found it still “scientific” and reconciled with notions of modernity. Hence its popularity at even at Tsinghua, the “MIT of China.”
Sunshine Before Darkness
I was arriving at Tsinghua at both the best of times and worst of times.
On the positive side, it was a period of relative ease and openness. It was easy to get to know the local Falun Gong practitioners, and soon I was joining them in the park for exercises. In the evenings they invited me to join them in reading and discussing the practice’s teachings. That was how I got to know one alumnus of the university, Zhao Ming. It was in his small, bare-bones apartment just outside the northern gate that we assembled.
People could share intimately about their experiences with Falun Gong in those days. There was always time to chat after meditation as we sat together in the park, working the pins and needles out of our legs.
I came to know two persons rather closely—one a grad student, Huang Kui and another a junior faculty member, Jun. There was a generosity of spirit and sincerity that permeated their being, from the smiles they so readily flashed to the gestures of help extended to me, a bumbling foreigner in a new and foreboding city.
I not only came to appreciate the physical effects of the practice, which were surprisingly tactile, but also the worldview it contained and bespoke of—as foreign as parts of it were to me, at first. Occasionally, I even entered into that world.
‘If it is really yours, you will not lose it’
There was the time, for instance, when I locked up my bike—something customary in a city rife with bicycle theft—at the park before practicing. When one of the members of the Falun Gong group noticed, he chuckled a bit and shared with me that I needn’t do that here.
I laughed, and assured him I wasn’t worried about him or any of the other Falun Gong taking it. It was the others out there I was protecting against, I said. My response was met with warm chuckles from both he and a couple others, who had now become privy to our conversation.
“No, I mean you don’t need to worry about anyone taking it,” he said. “If it is really yours, you will not lose it; if it is not supposed to be yours, you won’t be able to keep it, however you may try.”
I couldn’t fully make out the logic, but knew that there was a metaphysic at work and presumably it stemmed from the Falun Gong’s writings—which I clearly hadn’t mastered yet, it must have seemed.
Just a week or so later, however, my friend’s lofty advice took on a new element of believability when a classmate’s well-locked-down bike was stolen while mine, which I had forgotten, somehow, to lock, was passed over despite being adjacent to it.
It was as if the workings of some unseen cosmic order had been glimpsed in that moment. I felt humbled before the possibility of how little I perhaps knew about life, causality, and fate. Were my Falun Gong friends on to something? Had they access to some higher order of existence?
The more time I spent with this community, the more I could begin to understand the practice’s popularity. Either it had an inexplicable knack for attracting the nicest stock of people, or some means of producing them.
With time, I came to conclude it was the latter.
Little did I realize how fortunate I was, both on a personal level and as a student of cultural history, to have shared in our experiences together. (I was, I would later learn, the only Westerner in China at the time engaged with Falun Gong, be it as participant or observer.)
Nor did I appreciate how bad my timing was.
I had arrived in Beijing on the eve of what was to become arguably the most systematic persecution of a group of Chinese people in the Party’s 50-year rule.
That was what the tacked-up notice in the park signified on that sultry morning.
I was witness to the beginnings of a state-orchestrated campaign that would have done Mao proud, a program the likes of which China hadn’t seen in the ten years since the Tiananmen Massacre.
“Falun Gong has been banned by the People’s Republic of China,” the notice declared in official diction.
“It is hereby illegal to gather to practice or propagate the teachings of Falun Gong, just as it is to disseminate any literature or materials that do similarly.” I read on, but the words soon failed to register.
It was July 22, 1999, and Falun Gong was now officially illegal.
Shock set in as I tried to fathom that the way of life, if not very identity, of my friends and acquaintances had just been outlawed. Literally, overnight.
I looked in vain for my closest associates at Tsinghua University. Huang Kui and Jun were nowhere to be found. Nor were Zhao Ming or the others.
I could not find them. Nor could I find out much of anything about what was happening.
State-Controlled Media Blitz and Book Burnings
Sure, there was news aplenty about Falun Gong’s banning. But it was little more than thinly-veiled diatribes, eerily the same in every state-controlled publication. All pretenses to objectivity were cast to the wind in favor of the official mandate to discredit Falun Gong. The portrayals of adherents as irrational, cultish, and dangerous would later pave the way to officially sanctioned violence.
At the end of one month, the (un-aptly named) People’s Daily alone had run 347 articles criticizing Falun Gong. The airwaves, for their part, were saturated with starchy news anchors reading barbed scripts parroting the same tune. On the street, everyone was talking about the ban.
The one voice that wasn’t present was that of Falun Gong practitioners themselves.
That was the idea of course, as planned by the Party-state apparatus. To silence the group was the first step toward crushing it. And only with Falun Gong silent could the Party redefine it.
Carefully choreographed public book burnings soon ensued.
Falun Gong Winning Hearts
Tsinghua was dealt an especially heavy blow since it provided such a counter-example to the Party line: here were China’s leading thinkers and scientists, practicing the allegedly “backwards” Falun Gong. Just how serious the Party took this challenge was evident when the military was dispatched to campus, brandishing machine guns.
This wasn’t to be a bloodbath, like Tiananmen, however. Falun Gong was more a moral threat than a political one. It represented a threat, a potential, that the Party could not live with: that people might find something meaningful in their lives that was altogether unmediated by the Party or governed by its scarcity economy. It represented an alternative site of fulfillment, a new, spiritual economy if you will. And as such, it didn’t exactly mesh with the vision of a Party-led modernity that certain officials wanted, or needed.
Unwittingly, with its metaphysical path to health and happiness, this heterogeneous band of meditators had done what no amount of regimented “political study” and “patriotic education” could for the Party. It had won the hearts of the people.
Such being the case, the ban on Falun Gong was implemented with startling intensity.
Surveillance, Arrests, Executions
Some adherents were swiftly arrested and removed from site, particularly those who might be “influential” in the public’s eye. Some were pressured to the margins, as was the case for many Tsinghua students; dozens were kicked out of school. Others had to go underground to avoid arrest.
I myself became subject to surveillance. Regularly I would spot undercover police following me, or even filming me. One individual revealed that my phone was tapped and my emails were being read. One well-placed source said that executions had begun.
What was to be a year-long stay thus ended after two months. I reluctantly forfeited the fellowship I had won and returned home. It was no longer safe to be in Beijing.
I never did find my closest Falun Gong friends again that summer, before leaving. Only two years later would I learn what had become of them. Two, Kui and Jun, had been arrested, a news story told, and sentenced to five and seven years in prison. Jun had committed the “crime” of printing an informational leaflet about Falun Gong from the Internet. Kui had tried to form an independent newspaper. That paper was in fact The Epoch Times.
Both friends, I later learned, were subjected to torture while in custody. One has not been heard from to this day. The other recently escaped China, and is trying to put his life back together in the U.S.
Zhao Ming, meanwhile, was sent to a labor camp on the outskirts of Beijing, where he was brutally tormented with electric batons for months.
Questions About the Future
While I had traveled to Beijing in the summer of ’99 primarily for language training and out of socio-historical interest in Chinese physical culture, I left with a very different, and rather complicated, view of today’s China.
My experiences with Falun Gong, and the remarkable oppression it met, have led me to rethink much about China and its state of being.
What is one to make of a ruling entity that so arbitrarily wields power, even to the point of attempting to legislate the inner, private, spiritual life of its citizens? And on what footing is a nation to enter the future if it is so insecure, or undecided, about its past?
I also believe we continue to see the fallout of all this, albeit in less obvious ways. Before leaving China, I often asked myself what would become of this nation when its leaders arrest and torture citizens who embrace values like honesty and kindness? What happens when you criminalize being a good person?
The litany of contaminated goods fiascoes (such as melamine in baby formula) issuing forth from China has provided a sad answer. I doubt China’s rulers have made the connection. They’re probably too busy silencing their critics.
Though I haven’t been back to Tsinghua for some time, I’m told the park remains largely unchanged. And silent.
Matthew Kutolowski is a Ph.D. student at Columbia University studying Chinese religion and culture.