Why is Falun Gong Persecuted in China?

“Why did the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ban Falun Gong?” “Why does the Chinese government see Falun Gong as a threat?” Many wonder this when they hear of what is happening in China. 

The most basic answer is that there is no good explanation. When a regime like the Chinese Communist Party's decides to launch a brutal, costly campaign of abductions, torture, and killing against 100 million meditators, it is difficult to fathom what might have motivated such an irrational, destructive choice.

That being said, there are several interconnected factors and dynamics at play that can help shed light on how this tragic persecution befell China.

At the bottom of the page, a few explanations that are commonly cited but do not hold up upon closer scrutiny are briefly examined as well:

The numbers explanation: Falun Gong became too popular too fast

By the mid-1990s, weekend Falun Gong exercise sites with thousands of participants, like this one in Guangzhou, were a common site throughout China.

By the mid-1990s, weekend Falun Gong exercise sites with thousands of participants, like this one in Guangzhou, were a common site throughout China.

Falun Gong, which was taught in public for the first time in 1992, numbered over 70 million practitioners in China only seven years later, according to the Chinese government's own estimates (source), and over 100 million by Falun Gong estimates. Falun Gong had become, as the U.S. News and World Report put it in 1999, “The largest voluntary organization in China, larger even than the Communist Party,” whose membership at the time stood at 65 million. The Communist Party was intimidated by this rapid rise to popularity and feared it might have competition in Falun Gong. One of the first signs that the Party feared Falun Gong’s popularity came in 1996 when Falun Gong books were banned almost immediately after becoming nationwide bestsellers. 

The control explanation: Falun Gong grew too independent for the Party’s liking

“The Communist Party saw in Falun Gong’s independence a dangerous precedent although its activities were apolitical and moreover, beneficial to Chinese citizens.”

Certain Communist Party leaders also saw Falun Gong’s independence as a threat. Falun Gong’s independence became manifest in the ability of practitioners, who could be found throughout China and in every social strata, to communicate among themselves and organize their own activities (including collective meditation sessions with thousands of people and a large gathering to petition the government in response to abuses). The totalitarian Party, which to this day continues to tightly control the media, courts, education system, and religious institutions, saw in Falun Gong’s independence and ability to coordinate activities a dangerous precedent, even if those activities were fundamentally apolitical and beneficial to Chinese citizens. 

Beyond Falun Gong's organizational capacity, the CCP does not wish people to think independently, or make decisions about what is right or wrong based on higher principles rather than Party diktats. That is why it has gone to great lengths over the past sixty years to persecute, neuter, and undermine religious faith, Chinese traditions, and potentially democratic institutions like an independent judiciary (analysis).   

The fact that among the Falun Gong were many dedicated Party members did not assuage the regime; on the contrary, it fueled its fears that it was in competition with Falun Gong. 

The ideological gap explanation: Falun Gong promotes a set of values different from the Party’s

In spite of China’s turning to a market-economy in recent decades, the atheist Communist Party still clings to an officially Marxist ideology (even if few officials actually believe in it). Some Party leaders saw Falun Gong, with its belief in the existence of Buddhas, Daos, and gods, and its conviction that anyone can reach a divine realm through self-refinement, as being in conflict with Party ideology.

“In fact, the so-called ‘truth, kindness and tolerance’ principle preached by Li Hongzhi [Falun Gong’s founder] has nothing in common with the socialist ethical and cultural progress we are striving to achieve.”
CCP mouthpiece Xinhua News Agency, 1999

Others feared that Falun Gong's moral code undermined the Party's Leninist tactics for controlling society. Where Party-controlled media deceive the public, Falun Gong emphasizes truthfulness; where the Party calls for people to struggle against each other, Falun Gong urges kindness; and where the Party uses violence to enforce its will, Falun Gong teaches strict nonviolence. Ironically, Xinhua, the official CCP news agency, acknowledged this embarrassing reality in 1999 (see quote).

Falun Gong thus joined the list of faiths persecuted by the CCP. Indeed, all religions in China have been, and in many cases continue to be, persecuted, including being coerced to permit Party interference in their internal affairs or theology. The differences lie in the degree of persecution, the number of people involved, and the amount of effort that the Party puts into persecuting each particular group at any given moment. 

The individual factor explanation: Jiang Zemin’s jealousy and opportunistic maneuvers played a decisive role 

Jiang Zemin’s decision to launch the campaign against Falun Gong received little genuine support from other top Party leaders. Then-Prime Minister Zhu Rongji had taken a conciliatory approach toward Falun Gong, and some evidence suggests that current leader Hu Jintao did not see Falun Gong as a problem either (see CNN report). 

But with a handful of supporters, led by Luo Gan, Jiang dictated the anti-Falun Gong stance by presenting the group as the biggest threat to the Party, labeling Falun Gong an “evil religion ” (analysis), creating the 6-10 Office, and pushing forward legislation to retroactively justify the ban (see Human Rights Watch report). 

Why would Jiang do such a thing? For two reasons. First, as funny as it may seem, journalistic accounts and inside sources suggest that Jiang was acutely jealous of Falun Gong’s popularity and saw it as undercutting his own bid to go down in history as the PRC’s third paramount leader (following Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping). 

Second, as analyst Willy Lam and others have suggested, Jiang saw an opportunity—by attacking Falun Gong and creating a Maoist-style campaign along with the state of crisis that accompanies it, Jiang could use the campaign “to promote allegiance to himself” and maneuver to gain politically (see CNN report). 

Why has the campaign continued so aggressively even after Jiang's retirement? Although Jiang transferred power to Hu Jintao in 2002-2003, he arranged for members of his political faction to remain in top positions within the Politburo and Party security apparatuses. These people, like Political-Legal Committee head Zhou Yongkang, have been able to maintain and even intensify the campaign. Reports from inside China, however, do reveal increasing tensions between Jiang’s faction and Hu Jintao’s, including over the Falun Gong policy (fact sheet).

The CCP is at it again explanation: To survive, the regime has repeatedly targeted different groups

As the book Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party illustrates, throughout its over six decades in power, the CCP has run one campaign after another targeting various groups. The Nine Commentaries explain how the Party has repeatedly applied the 95-5 rule: It tells the Chinese people that only a small group of enemies is being targeted; the "good" 95 percent will not be affected as long as they clearly dissociate themselves from the “bad” 5 percent. This way, the targeted group is quickly alienated. With nearly all Chinese having seen someone they know fall victim to the CCP's abuses, friends, colleagues, classmates, even family members rush to be identified with the "good" majority out of fear of persecution. 

The trick is that the 5 percent “bad group” constantly rotates—first it was wealthy people and their families, then people with overseas connections, those with religious beliefs, intellectuals, democracy advocates, and so on…now it’s Falun Gong. 

While it is true that such campaigns have become significantly fewer since Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, the Party’s persecution of Falun Gong from 1999 onwards—with its use of propaganda, show trials, study sessions, and labor camps—does hark back to the Maoist era.

A struggle session during the Cultural Revolution. Some of the tactics used by the CCP in its campaign against Falun Gong harken back to Mao's time.

A struggle session during the Cultural Revolution. Some of the tactics used by the CCP in its campaign against Falun Gong harken back to Mao's time.

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Other explanations that have sometimes been cited by Western media, but are less-than convincing and even inspired by the CCP's own propaganda:

The  menace explanation: Falun Gong is a danger to society

For Chinese officials in the Foreign Ministry, embassies, and consulates, as well as Chinese journalists and scholars who toe the Party line, the explanation is simple: Falun Gong is banned because it is a menace to society and any rational government would do the same. 

The fact that the Communist Party is actually the only government to have banned Falun Gong while it is practiced freely around the world in over 70 countries is never considered. Nor has the Party been able to explain how tens of thousands practice Falun Gong just 100 miles away in Taiwan without the government or media there complaining about it being a menace. In fact, in the culturally similar Taiwan the situation is quite the opposite—Taiwanese officials praise Falun Gong, students take it for extra credit, and it is taught in jail to prisoners as part of their rehabilitation program (report). 

“The House of Representatives calls upon the Government of the People’s Republic of China to immediately cease and desist from its campaign to persecute [Falun Gong]… and to immediately release Falun Gong practitioners, detained solely for their beliefs.”
U.S. House Resolution 605, adopted March 2010

Similarly, a wide range of international actors—including United Nations Special Rapporteurs, prominent human rights groups, and democratic governments—have repeatedly referred to the campaign against Falun Gong as one of unjustified religious persecution rather than as a legitimate government policy to rid society of a supposedly negative influence. 

A variation of the menace explanation, one commonly cited in the media—that Falun Gong was banned as an “evil cult”—is also false. It wasn’t until three months after the persecution began that Communist Party leaders attempted to label Falun Gong an "evil cult" in what was clearly a political move rather than the outcome of measured analysis or independent investigations. At the time, the Chinese public was becoming increasingly sympathetic to Falun Gong's plight and international criticism of the Party's actions against Falun Gong was growing. Jiang Zemin used application of the "cult" label to shift the spotlight from perpetrator to victims, undercut sympathy for Falun Gong, and retroactively justify the ongoing arrests of tens of thousands of innocent people. In fact, as noted by Amnesty International, the English term itself is a manipulated translation of the word used in Chinese (analysis).

The shock explanation: The April 25, 1999 gathering led to the ban

Some have argued that Falun Gong was banned because it made the miscalculation of staging a large demonstration right across from the Party leaders’ Zhongnanhai residence in Beijing on April 25, 1999. 

There is no doubt that the April 25 gathering, actually directed at the State Council Office of Petitions not the neighboring Zhongnanhai government compound, was a key development. Most notably the gathering marked the point in which Jiang Zemin came in to formally lead the anti-Falun Gong policy. 

Still, in addition to being legal under the Chinese constitution, the gathering was a reaction to early forms of persecution already taking place. It came three years after Falun Gong books had been banned from publication, after two years of criticism in state-run media and harassment by state security agents, and was an immediate reaction to the arrest and beating of practitioners in nearby Tianjin (analysis).

If there were no persecution already taking place, why would 10,000 people bother petitioning the government to stop persecuting them? 

The collective memory explanation: Party leaders feared another religious rebellion

According to this explanation, Party leaders saw in Falun Gong similarities to past religious movements that turned violent and overthrew dynasties, such as the Yellow Turbans of the Han dynasty, the various White Lotus sects, and the Taiping and Boxer uprisings of the Qing dynasty. The parallel, however,  is a very limited one. Unlike those past groups, Falun Gong is not interested in gaining political power and completely rejects the use of violence. 

Even if some feared that Falun Gong might turn violent and come to resemble those past rebellions, Falun Gong’s entirely nonviolent response to persecution from day one until today should have long ago dispelled such fears. 

Finally, Falun Gong has come to oppose the Communist Party only following years of persecution. The writings of Falun Gong founder Mr. Li Hongzhi and the views expressed by Falun Gong practitioners in China and overseas make it clear that Falun Gong has no interest in taking over political power in China.

Rather, Falun Gong activities have two key aims—ending the horrific persecution of innocent people and informing the world's people about Falun Gong, lest they become complicit in the CCP's crimes and live to regret it in the future.