Memo To: Zhu Rongji, Premier, People’s Republic of China
From: Peter Signorelli
Re: Friendly advice
In all honesty, as friends of China, we at Polyconomics have to say that your government’s efforts to portray the Falun Gong (“The Practice of the Wheel of Dharma”) as a tool of Western forces hostile to China have no credibility. I think you know that, Mr. Premier. With all due respect, there is no evidence to support your assertion. Falun Gong is an indigenous development, a spiritualist movement, one that draws heavily on non-Western concepts and doctrines. The government's decision this week to televise the self-immolation in Tiananmen Square of five Falun Gong adherents is an attempt to portray the association as a dangerous, fanatical, brain-washed cult. What it instead demonstrates is the desperate measures to which segments of China's population must resort because other forms of redress are not available. The Communist Party of China (CCP) is demonstrating its weakness, not its strength, in the campaign to shut down and smother the Falun Gong. Just as the self-immolations by Buddhists in the 1960s and 1970s in Vietnam did not diminish but instead escalated as repression increased, the acts in Tiananmen last week will not be the last of their kind.
China insists it allows freedom of religion, but only five faiths are officially recognized in China (numbering in the hundreds of millions according to some of your officials), and each must be registered with the state (Buddhism, Catholicism, Taoism, Islam, and Protestantism). Adherents of unofficial (and therefore illegal by Chinese law) organizations of these faiths and spiritual movements are growing rapidly, well outpacing even CCP memberships. We see, though, an intensifying of crack-downs and harsh treatment for any congregation not registering with the state. The fear of instability prompted by the potential for a linking of students and workers as almost occurred in Tiananmen, feeds the current severe repression of any religious or spiritual group not directly under Beijing's authority.
We understand that the entire past century in China has been one of tremendous instability: fundamental revolution, civil wars, foreign occupation and aggression, forced isolation from global political economy, brutal, harsh rule, famine, death, despair and destruction on a large scale. In the 20th century there were no institutions, traditions or practices in China that were grounded in real experiences of democracy, of the rule of law, or of an appreciation of the integrity of human dignity, etc. You have had to feel your way since the post-WWII civil war. China still is doing so.
When Deng Xiaoping went beyond the economically disastrous legacy of Mao, he envisioned the combination of foreign investment and trade with rapid economic growth as the means by which China would avoid disintegration and social disruption. In the decision to embrace the advantages of a free-market economy, Deng allowed, to an extent, the “withering” of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideology. This has produced an intense spiritual void throughout China. The Falun Gong spirituality basically provides an outlet for those caught in the painful incongruities of China's dramatic transitions. Surely you are aware that some accounts report that one-third of Falun’s membership is made up of CCP members (although such membership is prohibited). It has a great following among those who are especially vulnerable to the transitions now underway -- the urban unemployed, marginal farmers, small businessmen, unemployed peasants, retired women on fixed incomes, the "ordinary" people and the disenchanted, disgruntled, despairing.
The totally unexpected appearance of 10,000 Falun Gong adherents in front of elite Communist Party headquarters in Beijing on April 27, 1999, demonstrating for freedom of practice, panicked your party’s leadership and produced an intense crack-down on all unofficial religious activity. We only can speculate as to how Deng might have responded to this crisis, but we clearly know that the reaction of President and CCP secretary-general Jiang Zemin actually heightens potentials for social conflict and instability. Deng at least established an implicit social contact with the Chinese population: "Enrich yourselves" within autonomous private realms without fear, but do not attempt to promote or support any political effort to challenge the regime. With the end of communism as a unifying ideology in China, though, the current leadership is failing at every attempt to promote an acceptable alternative. With all due respect, Mr. Premier, the past campaign to instill a "socialist spiritual civilization" was a major failure. This is shown by the likelihood that Falun Gong's adherents may outnumber the CCP’s total membership of 55 million.
Yet there still prevails an effort to use “communist” ideology to contain the disruptions that are occurring because of economic development and transition -- brute force, authoritarianism, ideological exhortation -- all of which are desperate measures ultimately doomed to fail. Prosperity has not solved the contradictions of economic mobility and expansion, and the regime has yet to devise any modern governing framework for the country. What Jiang and others may not realize is that the strategy to squelch and smother the Falun Gong and various religious activity (now being extended into Hong Kong) shuts off any escape valve for pent-up pressures.
That is why we see the resort to self-immolation, the last appeal, the most dramatic way of making known that options to vent do not exist for those whose livelihoods and lives are thrown into turmoil by the necessary economic transitions.
Some Western analysts misinform when they portray the Falun Gong as another of China's many millennarianist sects or messianic cults, such as the Boxers or the Taiping Religious movements that weakened and dealt blows to the Imperial dynasty which fell in 1911, but it is mere superficial impressionism or disinformation to suggest that Falun Gong is of that nature. The Falun Gong would exist in one form or another, thrown up because its existence is necessary in a country where there are so few avenues to express discomfort with the way life has become in this socio-economic transition. The CCP still is wedded to the goal of a rich, potent and mighty China, but it risks an exposure of its rigidly elitist privileges and the aspirations of the majority of citizens with its repression of the Falun Gong and any similar associations. Some misguided members of the leadership may seek to exploit the Falun affair in order to restore the former ideological prowess of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism and for a cleansing within the party. Yet, as you know, previous such attempts have disrupted or slowed China's economic growth, causing even more social dislocation.
We understand the complexities of debates and discussion within the CCP, among them the fear of some that with a free-market economy an undesired free-marketplace of ideas might also ensue. A robust civil society is their greatest fear as they see that as an opening of the door to chaos. Thus far, no one in the leadership has articulated the need for public institutions through which those at the bottom or simply those without voice might express their concerns and demands. Mr. Premier, I direct this memo to you because at least you are more inclined to push harder for economic reforms as a means of staying ahead of growing socio-economic discontent (and you even tried to mediate with the Falun in April 1999), but as it is Jiang who is at the helm, in his present state of mind the likelihood is for the emergence of one, two, many more such Falun Gongs. I pray you find a way to let him see that your nation needs the Falun Gong and should find ways to make it flourish.