Cults, State Control, and Falun Gong

Cultic Studies Review, Volume 2, Number 2, 2003

Cults, State Control, and Falun Gong: A Comment on Herbert Rosedale's "Perspectives on Cults as Affected by the September 11th Tragedy."

Thomas Robbins, Ph.D.


There is a distressing possibility that elements of the American “Anticult Movement” may support the Chinese government’s severe measures against Falun Gong. The latter is regarded as an apocalyptic cult which disorients members and is analogous to American “destructive cults.” This position downplays the following: 1) the mass mobilization of FG at a huge peaceful demonstration was perceived as a political threat to the regime and elicited brutal repression; 2) a less autocratic and more secure regime would probably not have reacted so brutally; 3) accounts of psychopathology are used as justification for an extreme crackdown initiated for other reasons; 4) persecution has often had the effect of eliciting or heightening apocalypticism and wild behavior in a sect, and finally, 5) one cannot ignore the decisive context of persecution which entails a very authoritarian regime which insists that the Communist party must dominate the Chinese society and control or destroy all possible rivals capable of mobilizing grassroots support.

Over a year ago I became slightly alarmed when I heard that Chinese officials had attended a meeting of the “anticult” American Family Foundation (AFF). I feared that the American Anticult Movement (ACM) would end up actually supporting the brutal persecution of Falun Gong in China. I asked my friend Ben Zablocki, a member of AFF, what were members’ attitudes toward the Chinese measures against Falun Gong. I seem to recall being reassured by my friend that most members tended to see the conflict of Falun Gong with the Chinese state as an instance of a “a big cult picking on a small cult,” i.e., a “plague on both your houses” attitude which, while perhaps disdaining Falun Gong, was not enthusiastic over current modes of persecution. On the other hand I also vaguely recall my friend acknowledging that he had not personally attended the actual session of the annual AFF conference in which a Chinese delegation made a presentation, and thus he might not be as well informed about the members’ response as he might be.

I am quite certain that my good friend responded honestly to my query but possibly he was not that well informed about what his AFF colleagues were thinking, or perhaps the latter have changed their attitudes in the last year or so. In any case my original anxiety has now been re-awakened by a paper by Herbert Rosedale (President of AFF) which was originally presented by the author at the meeting of the China Anti-Cult Association in Beijing, December 2001, and which was published in the AFF Web journal, Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 2, No. 1, 2003.

Mr. Rosedale’s paper affirms the likelihood of “striking analogies” between the threat posed by (Western) “destructive cults,” which AFF scholars have been discussing for years and “the current situation which exists in China, both with regard to the country’s perception of the need for regulation of leaders, practitioners and supporters of Falun Gong, and to past experience with, and the appearance on the horizon of, other groups that threaten the rights of citizens and the stability of the society as a whole in China.”[1] Rosedale’s paper discusses the dangers of sinister “destructive cults.” The urgency of understanding and combating “cults” is said to be heightened by the horror of 9/11/01 because destructive cults and terrorist groups are basically similar. Some of Rosedale’s points and warnings may be valid, but what interests me however, is what the author does not say. I could not find in the pre-publication draft which I downloaded any actual discussion of the brutal extreme persecution of Falun Gong and other groups in China or any awareness of the relationship of this persecution to the authoritarian (many would still say totalitarian) nature of the Chinese party state and its ruthless determination to maintain the domination of the Communist party over the society and to destroy any group or movement whose claims on the loyalty and fervor of participants may overshadow or rival that of the Marxist party. The whole context of Chinese authoritarian state control and rejection of ideological pluralism is swept under the rug, and by implication seems to be viewed by Rosedale as more or less benign or at least basically irrelevant to the necessary control policies of the Chinese state toward Falun Gong, which are dictated by the pathological nature of the cult.

Presumably Mr. Rosedale’s original quasi-governmental audience would not have appreciated any reference to the absence of democracy, ideological pluralism, true religious freedom or autonomous “civil society” in Maoist China.[2] In omitting any acknowledgement of the obvious Mr. Rosedale was conceivably just being polite. However, the effect is somewhat as if a “cult apologist” such as myself were to address a Branch Davidian audience on the Waco tragedy without making any acknowledgement that David Koresh and his associates bore some responsibility (along with the FBI and the BATF) for the casualties. Can the problem of Falun Gong in China really be discussed intelligently without reference to the context of quasi-totalitarian party control over Chinese society and the general suppression of dissidents? Rosedale’s complaints about the media and human rights advocates’ one-sided emphasis on the persecution and victimization of Falun Gong and their neglect of the dangers that the wild and sinister movement poses to Chinese society clearly give the impression—at least in the absence of any disclaimers (which did not appear in the draft I read)—that the author more or less endorses the Chinese state’s program of furious repression.

I will address the issue of the “dangerousness” of Falun Gong later in this paper. But first I will briefly discuss the actual measures which Chinese officials have taken to deal with Falun Gong. A reader of the Rosedale essay could get the impression that Chinese officials are reasonably trying to cope with a wildly destructive movement. However, Falun Gong is hardly the only religious group which Chinese authorities persecute, indeed, the brutal suppression of political dissidents in China is well-known.

Stringent Persecution

To some extent the persecution of Falun Gong by the Communist regime is continuous with the persecution of deviant groups in traditional (Imperial) China. Rosedale notes the heritage of wild, theocratic and apocalyptic sects in Chinese history. He does not note the fierce persecution of such groups, nor does he recognize the roots of politicized, dissident sects in the traditional, Imperial Chinese view that religion and governance are inseparable. The notion of a “separation of church and state” is alien to Chinese tradition. In this context a new spiritual revelation necessarily implies a new political regime. The disruptive potential for messianic insurgency is therefore maximized and became a continuous theme in Chinese history. Theocratic dissident sects reflect the interdependence of religion and politics in traditional China, which still persists. There is likewise little “separation of church and state” in contemporary China, e.g., the Communist regime recently directly appointed the new Tibetan Buddhist “Panchen Lama” (supposedly the 17th incarnation of the original Lama). The alternative Panchen Lama appointed by the Dalai Lama and supported by most of the monks was shunted aside by the atheist regime, which presumes its ability to discern who really is the true incarnation of the original Panchen Lama. (It is as if President Bush were to appoint the next Mormon “prophet.”) In any case despite the “striking analogies” Mr. Rosedale discerns between destructive cultism in China and the West, the distinctive totalitarian religiopolitical context of Chinese treatment of religious minorities shouldn’t be ignored.

Whatever their ultimate origin, dissident sects in Imperial China were brutally persecuted. Professor Scott Lowe writes:

In the coached, formulaic “confessions” of NRM [new religious movement] leaders preserved in official documents we can discern the motives that government inquisitors projected upon these groups. Under torture, leaders usually “confessed” to being frauds who had tricked their followers into seditious behavior in order to gain power and wealth. Many also confessed to outrageous acts of sexual license and flagrantly immoral behavior. It is significant that the charges brought against the leaders of Chinese NRMs hundreds of years ago are virtually indistinguishable from the accusations made today against modern “cult” leaders in the mass media, East and West. And of course, these same formulaic charges of financial and sexual exploitation are currently being brought by the government of the PRC [Peoples Republic of China] against the leaders of a wide range of NRMS.[3]

Much of what is now going on in China manifests continuity with pre-Maoist patterns. Chinese Buddhist monasticism may never have fully recovered from the “Great Persecution” under the Tang dynasty in the ninth century. In Dr. Lowe’s view, “The suffocating regulation of monastic Buddhism since the founding of the PRC [Peoples Republic of China] in 1999 might plausibly be viewed as a simple continuation of earlier patterns of social control, though it must be acknowledged that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has proven far more efficient and severe than any of its predecessors.”[4]

Despite his Marxist veneer, Chairman Mao “was very much a product of his culture.”

Like his imperial predecessors, he believed in the almost magical power of society-wide conformity and felt personally threatened by all ideological dissent. Since religions are competing ideologies, providing alternative centers of power and allegiance, they ultimately had to be eliminated. As an exponent of a totalistic political system, Mao was incapable of allowing religion to exist in a separate (non-secular) realm independent of politics . . . .[when religions failed to die out in a socialist context, as anticipated] . . . all public believers in any religion were subjected to re-education; those who continued to profess their faith faced imprisonment, torture and even death. As the recent histories of Falun Gong, Zhong Gong, the Protestant Christian “shouters” and other less well-known groups have shown, 21st century NRM members still face re-education, imprisonment, torture and death.[5]

The Constitution of the PRC guarantees to citizens “the freedom of religious belief.” “However, the Constitution rather pointedly does not recognize the right to engage in religious practices or propagate religious teachings. Since the founding of the Peoples Republic in 1949 several laws have been employed to restrict severely the outward expression of a wide range of religious practices in Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, Christian, sectarian, and popular traditions.”[6]

In the last two decades the PRC has more or less ceased to pursue Mao’s goal of suppressing all persisting religious activity. “However, one can easily overestimate the degree to which the police state is in decline; the forces of control are still strong and have recently demonstrated their power and the length of their reach.”[7] The commotion over Falun Gong may even have somewhat reinvigorated the repressive control apparatus.

Registered religious groups approved by the Religious Affairs Bureau are allowed to operate freely “so long as they follow strict government regulation and engage in approved activities. The government still deals harshly with unregistered groups arresting leaders and raiding meeting places.”[8] Apologists for the repressive regime will imply that the suspect unregistered groups are wild and dangerous cults, potential Aum Shinrikyos. A few may be, but according to Professor Lowe, “it is surely significant that the number of practicing Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, affiliated with unregistered churches is thought to be much greater than the number in the official churches.” “While the beliefs and practices of many of the unregistered churches meet general standards of Roman Catholic or Evangelical Protestant orthodoxy, some deviate significantly.”[9] These latter “less mainstream groups” receive the most intense scrutiny and are most likely to be labeled “cults.”

Of course to deviate from the mainstream (in addition to being unregistered) is not necessarily to be violent or destructive. In the United States it is not customary to apply intense state scrutiny to Holy Rollers or other out-of-the-mainstream groups. Mr. Rosedale does not make any distinction between a group that might be dangerous or abhorrent to practically any society, such as an Aum Shinrikyo, and a group or leader who might be dangerous to an entrenched, authoritarian party autocracy, such as a Panchen Lama who is not chosen by the government or an unregistered Catholic Church which recognizes the Pope rather than the state as its ultimate authority in ecclesiastical matters. But a defensive, authoritarian ruling party is likely to conflate the two categories of “danger” and see politically dissident sects as pathological in general.

We have noted above that involuntary commitment is one of the measures which is applied to persistent loyalists of Falun Gong (as stated by Dr. Lowe). The use of “psychiatric terror” in China against political and religious dissidents has recently attracted substantial attention in the form of a book, Dangerous Minds by Robin Munro co-published by Human Rights Watch,[10] and a review essay “China’s Psychiatric Terror” on the Munro volume published in the New York Review of Books by Jonathon Mirsky.[11] The World Psychiatric Association (WPA) voted overwhelmingly last September to send a delegation China to “investigate charges that dissidents were being imprisoned and maltreated as ‘political maniacs’ both in regular mental hospitals and in police-run custodial institutions known as the Ankang.”[12] A scheduled “educational” visit of the MPA delegation next will focus specifically on the treatment of Falun Gong devotees.[13]

According to Mirsky, Munro’s book shows that the psychiatrists who staff the Ankang institutions “tend to assume their patients are mad because of their political beliefs or actions. The diagnoses made in both the political dissident and Falun Gong cases, ranging from ‘delusions of reform’ to ‘paranoid psychosis’, are highly reminiscent of the long-discredited label of ‘sluggish schizophrenia’ that the Soviets used to apply to their dissidents and religious nonconformists.”[14]

The number of alleged political prisoners detained in Chinese psychiatric facilities has periodically risen and fallen. According to Munro there was a marked rise in 1979 after the Democracy Wall episode and again after the Tiananmen Square demonstration in 1989 when many demonstrators and sympathizers were arrested.

The numbers detained by forensic psychiatrists declined again in the early 1990s. But with the persecution of the Falun Gong, beginning in mid-1999, tens of thousands were detained, arrested, charged, imprisoned, and sometimes tortured—and several hundred were sent to mental hospitals. The number of those detained is now so high that many are confined in ordinary mental hospitals rather than the Ankang institutions in which apparently there is not enough room.[15]

As Mirsky notes, owing to secrecy the details as to what actually happens to religious and political dissidents in Ankangs is hard to determine. Munro presents a 1987 account by a former prisoner at a Shanghai facility who claims that inmates were viciously tortured. Some Falun Gong devotees claim to have been treated with brutality, particularly in prisons.

Of course one may choose to doubt what Rosedale terms the “alleged mistreatment” of religious sectarians in terms of brutality, imprisonment and abusive involuntary confinement as a strategy of political control. However, one always goes out on a bit of a limb when accepting at face value the defensive denials of an extremely authoritarian/totalitarian regime (or for that matter an extremely authoritarian “cult”). For many years the Soviet Union was accused of “psychiatric terror” in terms of a politicized abuse of mental hospitals to control and incarcerate political and religious dissidents. These claims were denied vehemently by the Soviets even after they withdrew in protest from the World Psychiatric Association in 1983. The WPA only readmitted the Soviet Union in 1989 after the Gorbachev reforms, “when their psychiatrists finally admitted the abuses and slowly set about correcting them.”[16] In other words the hidden authoritarian secrets ultimately surface.

Rosedale complains about distorted equations of American anticult counseling procedures applied to persons leaving cults and the “deceptive and coercive recruitment processes” of cults. The latter entail a climate of “coerced conformity” which impedes exit from a group. “People who are counseled and choose to leave the group still have the option to return to the group if they so desire.”[17] Rosedale does not acknowledge that this ‘right of re-entry’ is precisely what is denied to Chinese Falun Gong devotees whose “cult” is outlawed and whose members’ sectarian persistence risks prison or forced hospitalization.

A Dangerous Cult and Disturbed Cultists?

It may be claimed, of course, that Falun Gong members (and political dissidents) institutionalized in Chinese mental hospitals are really seriously disturbed—driven crazy by sinister mind control. But as we have seen and will see further, an official diagnosis can be transparently spurious and politicized, as in the Chinese psychopathological diagnoses of “delusions of reform.” Munro cites an article in an official Chinese police encyclopedia which identifies “people taken into police psychiatry” as persons “commonly known as ‘political maniacs’ who shout reactionary slogans, write reactionary banners and reactionary letters, make anti-government speeches in public and express opinions on important domestic and international affairs.”[18] Munro also presents the case of a forty-five-year-old female religious devotee related in 2000 in the Chinese Journal of Clinical Psychological Medicine. The woman, notes Mirsky, “was arrested for being a member of Falun Gong and practicing the qigong exercises.” She was allegedly “having a mental disorder caused by practicing an evil cult” (an official diagnosis). However, notes Mirsky, “the only ‘mentally dangerous’ symptom or activity cited in the forty-five-year-old woman’s police psychiatric report was: ‘even after the government declared Falun Gong to be an evil cult, she refused to be dissuaded from her beliefs and continued gathering people to practice Falun Gong’.”[19]

Presumably the arrested political dissidents demonstrating or sympathizing with demonstrators in 1989 Tiananmen Square (or the earlier dissidents writing politically incorrect slogans on “Democracy Wall”) were not motivated by psychopathology and mind control. Or does Mr. Rosedale feel that Chinese political dissidents, repressively controlled in a manner similar to Falun Gong members and labeled “political maniacs,” are really disturbed and brainwashed? Whatever the problems of Falun Gong, it appears that the institutional police psychiatry system in China is politicized and corrupt such that Chinese diagnoses of pathology cannot be uncritically accepted at face value when applied to political and religious dissidents.

Falun Gong claims that its qigong exercises improve spirituality, understanding and health.

Until 1999 Falun Gong was praised as beneficial in mainstream Chinese medical journals and high officials were among its millions of practitioners; its influence and membership have spread abroad. In 1999, after ten thousand Falun Gong members participated in a silent vigil outside the Beijing compound where China’s top leaders live and work, the group was condemned as a “heretical cult organization” (the term was also used in Confucian times for ideologically heterodox sects and superstitions) and an “evil cult.” Thousands of adherents were imprisoned and some three hundred were reportedly confined in mental hospitals.[20]

Although huge antigovernment antiwar demonstrations are tolerated in the United States, an entrenched, defensive ruling party of a quasi-totalitarian autocracy is likely to react differently. The giant 1999 rally, transpiring outside of residential party compounds (whose locations were generally secret) was obviously interpreted as representing a dangerous threat to the regime. What had been previously accepted and praised was suddenly extremely stigmatized. From 1982 to 1999 traditional qigong practices had been widely promoted and endorsed in China by reputable scholars. Although originally promoted as secular health practices, a religious awakening in China may have led to an increasing religious significance being conferred on the practices. In late 1999, however, the regime’s original proscription of Falun Gong was “extended to all qigong groups regardless of their beliefs or leadership,”[21] although enforcement of prohibitions of exercises not performed under the specific auspices of Falun Gong has been regionally variable.

The Chinese authorities clearly reacted to the mass mobilization of Falun Gong as a threat to their regime, particularly in a global context in which most other Communist regimes were in trouble and shortly disappeared. The demonstrative, defiant behavior of Falun Gong since its proscription has no doubt reinforced the authoritarian regime’s perception of a subversive conspiracy. “The brutal suppression of Falun Gong continued through 2002 . . . . yet despite thousands of arrests, quick trials followed by harsh prison sentences, and the involuntary commitment of large numbers of defiant practitioners to mental hospitals, the movement managed to stage numerous spectacular protests which included numerous hijackings of government TV cable signals and even the disruption of nation-wide satellite television broadcasts.”[22]

The authoritarian regime has largely responded to the growth of Falun Gong as a subversive political threat. To legitimate its severe persecution it has depicted Falun Gong as a wild and pathological threat to society in general and to individuals. However, it wasn’t until a huge demonstration and mobilization appeared to threaten an insecure authoritarian regime that severe persecution with thousands of arrests and hundreds of involuntary commitments ensued. Falun Gong became absolutely insupportable because, in the context of an insecure autocratic regime, its demonstrative tactics, its impressive mass mobilization, and it perceived infiltration of middling and even higher party ranks appeared to pose a definite political threat, although this might not have been the case in the context of a more secure democratic regime.

To justify an image of Falun Gong congruent with that purveyed by the Chinese regime, Rosedale cites some tragedies including the twelve-year-old girl’s suicide. Rosedale’s reference to “suicidal conformity” in Falun Gong (and his comparison to Heaven’s Gate) is unwarranted as only a tiny minority of Falun Gong members has committed suicide and no evidence is presented by Rosedale of either systematic suicide training or “mass suicide” in Falun Gong. Bracketing the difficulties with accepting automatically at face value “facts” purveyed by a manipulative, authoritarian regime, this may indeed indicate some degree of apocalyptic frenzy among Chinese Falun Gong members. (We shall note later a warning on this score by an important researcher on NRMs who has studied Canadian practitioners, and who, while continuing to denounce persecution, is concerned about increasing apocalypticism and politicization). It should be noted, however, that the alarming stories about the internal milieu of Falun Gong pertain largely to phenomena subsequent to severe persecution.

Persecution and Apocalyptic Frenzy

At this point it is necessary to give some attention to the historical evidence for severe persecution having the effect of producing or substantially extrapolating apocalyptic excitation and its sometimes extreme behavioral concomitants. In the context of the Roman persecution of Christians, the apocalyptic, prophetic, and ecstatic Montanist sect (a sort of movement within a movement) emerged in the second century in Phrygia (in Asia Minor). “Montanism blended the prophetic and orgiastic native Phrygian religion with exalted preaching about the approaching end. The orthodox [Christian] clergy took fright.”[23] But why did Montanism develop? Referring to the work of Eusebias of Caesarea, the first great Church historian, a modern scholar notes, “we can probably date the emergence of Montanism to circa 172 and associate it with a reaction against the pogroms and persecutions that were being inflicted there on the Christians.”[24]

Ecstatic and glossalalic, the prophet Montanus traveled with two female sub-prophets, Maximilla and Priscilla. “People summoned by the prophets to attend the inauguration of the Millennium abandoned homes, families and work to stream into the countryside. Wars and rumors of wars were freely prophesied, and death by martyrdom was prepared for by continence and fasting was enjoined as the command of the Holy Spirit.”[25] Given both the apocalyptic origins of Christianity (i.e., the earliest Christians had expected Christ’s imminent return) as well as the threatening persecutions, Montanus’ message did not appear all that implausible.

The Christians of Lyons were somewhat sympathetic to Montanism. “They too believed that the approach of antichrist and the end of all things was near and that their own sufferings were an indication of this.”[26] “The new prophecy spoke for an age that awaited the end of the age.”[27] However, after peaking in the second and third centuries, Montanism declined particularly in the cities and became mainly a religion of the Christian peasantry. It retreated back to Phyrgia where it had started. The remnant of Phyrgian Montanism was later persecuted by the early Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. The later Phyrgian Montanists responded by burning themselves in their churches,[28] an act which may have begun a Byzantine-Muscovite tradition of incendiary collective suicide in a context of rigorous persecution. This tradition culminated in the huge mass suicides associated with the schismatic, severely persecuted Old Believer movement, on which the present author has written and which may have entailed twenty thousand deaths in the late seventeenth century and two or three thousand deaths in each of several particular spectacular incidents.[29] In an article on Russian Messianism Vatro Murvar describes the rationale of ritual suicide in an emergent Russian tradition of martyrdom:

The basic doctrine, professed repeatedly in various periods by religious virtuosi, was that true believer’ commitment calls for baptism by fire, gar, through which the seal of Antichrist is finally broken . . . . The favorite way of practicing gar was to lock themselves up and perish together by setting fire to the building during the religious ceremony.[30]

Interestingly not all the various communities of Russian Old Believers during the most stressful period near the turn of the eighteenth century were suicidal. There were “moderates” who denounced the suicidal proclivities of extremists and accused suicidal leaders of tricking their followers into death pacts through deception (false reports of troop movements) and hallucinogenic drugs. These in-movement critics sounded somewhat like contemporary “anticultists,” as I have noted.[31]

The primary “suicidal” behavior among early Christians entailed a sometimes unnecessary embrace of martyrdom. I refer here not simply to a refusal, once the all-important question was put to an arrested Christian, to disavow Jesus or to sacrifice to the emperor, but to a phenomenon whereby obscure individuals who would ordinarily have escaped seizure merely by lying low and keeping quiet deliberately called attention to themselves and stridently put themselves in harms way.[32] There was other self-destructive behavior. The great third century theologian Origen appears to have castrated himself. “He showed . . his ascetic and extreme temperament by taking Matt 19:12 [plucking of one’s own offensive organs] literally, an act not altogether unusual even among the orthodox of the time.”[33]

Parenthetically there seems to have been an arguably “cultic” quality to early Christianity. For Celsius, the pagan apologist and anti-Christian writer, Christianity “was not a matter of souls being saved . . . . but an attempt to subvert society, to destroy family life, and to sow disaffection among the subjects of the Empire.”[34] According to Celsius, when manipulative Christian proselytizers “get hold of children in private, and silly women with them, they are wonderfully eloquent, to the effect that the children must not listen to their fathers, but believe them and be taught by them.”[35] “There was,” W. H. Frend affirms, “an element of truth in Celsius’ remarks. Proselytization was one of the causes of Christian unpopularity . . . . In times of stress families were driven apart, and the women members who were Christian sometimes found their worst enemies in husbands, fathers and brothers who had been shamed by their action.”[36] For many Christians such as the outstanding writer Tertullian, commitments to Jesus demanded rejection of the world which was governed by Satan. “We turn our back on the institutions of our ancestors,” wrote Tertullian.[37] One can imagine what would be the response in some quarters if such a statement were made today by a “Moonie.”

We do not here argue that persecution explains all wild sectarian behavior and associated apocalyptic notions. Indeed, early Christianity was apocalyptic from the outset. We do maintain that persecution is a salient factor. Destructive extremism in unconventional groups may not always be a function of persecution and hostility from the environment, but these phenomena, if present, cannot simply be ignored. Extremist behavior cannot be treated as simply intrinsic to a particular movement as a “cult” or “destructive cult” without an examination of context—a flawed approach, which John Hall terms “cult essentialism.”


In a study of early Mormons, Grant Underwood concludes that, “the single greatest factor in propelling a movement to emphasize a rhetoric of apocalyptic judgment and vengeance seems to be the persecution from those around them.”[38] Apocalyptic millenarians may use “frightening and vindictive rhetoric” but they generally do not see themselves as “midwives of the millennial kingdom,” i.e., they generally prefer to be left alone. Mr. Rosedale might justifiably respond that intramovement abuses may certainly transpire in a group which is “left alone,” although I feel that Rosedale may have an overly broad conception of insupportable abuses, i.e., subtle psychological pressures and not merely beatings, etc. In any case, Professor Underwood’s view suggests that the apocalyptic orientation, which may be related to internal abuses and extreme behavior, is itself influenced by a perception of environmental animus.

Absent severe Chinese persecution, would there have been suicides in Falun Gong? Did some alleged suicides take place in prison? Are prison suicides all that uncommon anywhere and are not Chinese prison conditions rather harsher and oppressive (and thus more likely to produce despair) than American prisons? Given the brutal persecution of Falun Gong a handful of suicides do not appear to be either shocking or evidence of a sinister intrinsic destructiveness. On the other hand the controversial tumult characterizing the recent/current early period of the movement may have a permanent influence on Falun Gong, which may have recently gone (or may now be going) through its “formative” stage.

There does indeed appear to be indications of some volatile apocalyptic ferment among the Falunists, which has been noted by Dr. Susan Palmer, who has also denounced the “extraordinary cruelty and violence” perpetrated against devotees, “their families and friends.”[39] Dr. Palmer has studied Canadian Falun Gong members and in May of 2001 attended a conference in Ottawa of a thousand mostly Chinese practitioners at which Master Li spoke. Li’s message, which later appeared on the internet, was apocalyptic, and compared to earlier missives somewhat politicized.

Master Li makes three statement that suggest Falun Gong’s protest movement is revisiting its strategy. First, he says the aim of “cultivation” is no longer individual improvement or even enlightenment (consummation). Second, he announces that we are living in the “Fa-rectification” period (when Fa, or divine law, triumphs over evil). Therefore, the role of all disciples is to engage in the collective work of activist protest against the “evil” of Jiang Zemin’s persecution of the Falun Gong.[40]

Thus, “beneath the rational pursuit of human rights and the familiar rhetoric of religious liberty is a rapidly evolving apocalyptic theology fueling Falun Gong’s civil disobedience in China.”[41] At the conference, “Master Li was urging his disciples to stop being victimized, and to participate in a cosmic war that is being waged on many plans.” Initially Li had insisted that Falun Gong was not political and that practitioners should not oppose the authorities. “They should respond to even the most brutal persecution with forbearance.” But in a recent letter, “he identified party chairman Jiang and his minions as ‘demons’ and urged his students to stop cooperating with ‘evil’ . . . he was showing them how to fight back—using psychic powers.”[42] Prior speeches by Li Hongzi heard by Palmer just a year earlier had tended to focus on miraculous healings, solving problems at home and work, moral upgrading, etc. “Now, the overriding concern was to ‘suffocate the evil’.”[43]

Palmer feels that this shift “is understandable, considering the extraordinary cruelty and violence perpetrated against these sincere and upright people, their families and friends.” Nevertheless, she finds “something appalling in the fact that more than two thousand have chosen to place themselves [through civil disobedience] in a situation where they have died horrible, painful deaths . . . . were they moving into a holocaust? The Chinese government was obviously not going to change its barbaric methods of social control.”[44]

Like that of the Montanists, the apocalyptic wildness of the Falunists is either partly or largely a consequence of sustained severe persecution. Unlike Mr. Rosedale, Dr. Palmer can warn against a growing apocalyptic and political theology and its consequences while contextualizing these developments in terms of continuing and intensifying persecution, and, moreover, strongly denouncing brutal oppression, which Rosedale, at least in the conference paper I downloaded, does not.

Postscript: Belief and Heresy

One of the most curious aspects of Mr. Rosedale’s essay is his radical devaluation of the importance of belief. For Rosedale, “in dealing with religious groups that become destructive cults, the content of the religious beliefs is secondary and to focus on them is distraction.” This view reflects a model of the cult which is common among “anticultists”: the cult as a “con game” or criminal/mafia type organization. The leaders are thought to want only power and profit and merely manipulate beliefs, which they do not themselves take seriously and which do not significantly influence their behavior.

This model has elements of truth, and with regard to particular groups it may be nearly totally true. I once discussed with Michael Langone of the AFF an “eternal life cult” which appeared to be promising adherents actual immortality. Dr. Langone doubted whether the leaders actually believed their claims and he may have been right. But I suspect that many “cult leaders” strongly believe their doctrines (or some of them) and that is why some of them are so dangerous. Adolf Hitler operated somewhat as a mega-cult leader and also in some ways as a con man. But had he not deeply believed in the demonic depravity of Jews would six million of the latter have died? Had Hitler not viewed Slavs as only one rung above Jews, the behavior of Nazi occupation authorities in Russia and E. Europe would not have been so notoriously more oppressive than the behavior of Nazi authorities in Western Europe. Hitler did not merely manipulate prejudice to “scapegoat victims.” He was a “true believer.”

I could give more examples. Let me suffice with one more. Most conventional fundamentalist churches are committed to apocalyptic and millennialist doctrines. But they are “pre-tribulationist” and believe in “The Rapture” such that they do not expect to have to endure the persecution, violence and chaos of the “Great Tribulation” and the Reign of Antichrist. This belief probably operates as sort of safety valve: the leader and the devotees will not in their view have to endure the maximum persecution and terror, and so the actual threats they do face are somewhat less weighty and partly sub-eschatological. The political leader or force who seems threatening is probably not Antichrist, who will not rule until the “Saints” have departed the planet. The believers are thus not under maximum threat. In contrast some of the wilder Christian groups are “posttribulationist” (or “midtribulationist”) and anticipate having to endure all or part of the Tribulation. Such an expectation leads often to militant survivalism and puts a premium on self-defense, amassing weapons, etc. This enhances volatility. (The Branch Davidians are said to have been in effect mid-Tribulationists). So beliefs and doctrines can have significant tangible consequences.

The importance of religious beliefs probably varies from group to group. The content of beliefs may sometimes be more effect than cause. But Mr. Rosedale’s absolutist statement is too glib. Beliefs can be sincere (for better or worse) and can strongly influence behavior.

I suspect that underlying Rosedale’s extreme devaluation of the significance of beliefs is the desire of Rosedale and other activist critics of cults to not think of themselves (and be thought of by others) as “heresy hunters” persecuting belief. It is generally conceded that in America freedom of religious belief, unlike freedom of religious action, is absolute. “The law knows no heresy” is a principle of constitutional law enshrined in US v. Ballard (1944). If the role of belief is only marginal, anticult activism and the promotion of state “regulation” of cults may not seem to amount to a persecutory heresy hunt.

Some critics of the activist critics of cults may believe that, notwithstanding protestation, there is a concealed attack on beliefs in some attacks on cults in the West. Be that as it may, the Chinese persecution of Falun Gong, which has been stigmatized by officials as a “heretical cult,” does persecute beliefs. In a recent excellent article, “Chinese Law and the International Protection of Religious Freedom” in the Journal of Church and State, Carolyn Evans maintains that some Chinese control policies violate elements of international law in part because the Chinese are trying to extirpate belief, which contravenes the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which the Chinese are supposedly committed.[45] Dr. Evans has examined the Chinese legitimations of their policies:

The Chinese government’s arguments, moreover, suggest an attempt by the authorities to reach into the internal beliefs . . . of its people – something that is clearly prohibited by International laws. As the wording of Art. 18 makes clear only the manifestation of a religion can be limited; the right to have a religion or belief is absolute. While the Chinese government emphatically rejects the notion that it interferes with the religious belief of its people, the constant references to the “superstitious” nature of Falun Gong and the argument that it “blasphemes” against religions suggest that the government is judging the beliefs themselves [my emphasis] rather than their undesirable manifestations. Similarly the government assumes that the apocalyptic beliefs of the movement and its rejection of modern medicine make it clear that it is a “cult” rather than a religion.[46]

Evans notes that in China members of Falun Gong and other highly stigmatized sects are held in custody for “re-education,” a procedure which Evans maintains is analogous to coercive deprogramming. Evans further suggests that “detention for re-education, as well as the process of re-education itself, amounts to coercion,” which is barred by international law.[47]

So, I restate my earlier point that whatever “analogies” Mr. Rosedale perceives between Falun Gong and destructive American groups, in evaluating Chinese policy, one cannot ignore the overall context of authoritarian state control. China is no longer trying (as Mao attempted) to totally eradicate religions. However, “The government is [still] committed to transforming China into an atheist state and believes that the decline of religion is inevitable.” Until this happens that government will allow a limited number of ‘official’ religions. But from a religious freedom standpoint, “Official religions are only permissible so long as there is still freedom for people to belong to other, non-official religions.”[48] Such freedom only exists in China to the degree that repressive rules are not uniformly enforced in practice. The government meddles in internal religious matters (e.g., appointing the new Panchen Lama) to ensure that religious practice and training is subordinate to “patriotic” imperatives.

This is not freedom of religion. The transgressions and excesses of Falun Gong in China, which may have been exaggerated, cannot justify the brutal persecution which Chinese authorities have applied to the dissidents.[49] Some of the control measures such as involuntary hospitalization have also been employed against political dissidents. The “psychopathology” rationale for such tactics cannot simply be accepted at face value. Nor can the claims of authorities to not be persecuting beliefs in their attacks on a “heretical cult” be accepted. The overwhelming context of an intolerant, authoritarian regime cannot be overlooked. Brutal persecution evokes and extrapolates the very excesses and apocalyptic frenzies which may be complained of, thus fueling and rationalizing more persecution.[50]

Note: This paper was largely written before the Falun Gong symposium appeared in Nova Religio in Spring, 2003. The paper does discuss the views of S. Palmer and R. Loewe published elsewhere.

[1] Herbert Rosedale, “Perspectives on Cults as Affected by the September 11 Tragedy,” paper presented in Beijing at the Meeting of the China Anti-Cult Association, December 2001.

[2] According to Professor Scott Lowe, China does not have an independent anti-cult movement, i.e., Chinese anti-cult organizations are ultimately government controlled. Scott Lowe, “Religion on a Leash: NRMs and the Limits of Chinese Freedom,” forthcoming in Phillip Lucas and Thomas Robbins, eds. New Religious Movements and State Control Around the Globe (New Religious Movements in the Twenty-First Century), Routledge Books, 2003/2004.

[3] Lowe. “Religion on a Leash.”

[4] Lowe. “Religion on a Leash.”

[5] Lowe. “Religion on a Leash.”

[6] Lowe. “Religion on a Leash.”

[7] Lowe. “Religion on a Leash.”

[8] Lowe. “Religion on a Leash.”

[9] Lowe. “Religion on a Leash.”

[10] Robin Munro. Dangerous Minds: Political Psychiatry in China Today and its Origins in the Mao Era. Human Rights Watch/Geneva Institute of Psychiatry. 2002.

[11] Jonathon Mirsky. “China’s Psychiatric Terror,” New York Review of Books, Vol. L, No. 3, Feb. 27, 2003.

[12] Mirsky. “China’s Psychiatric Terror,” 38.

[13] Mirsky complains about the too exclusive focus of the forthcoming WPA investigation on Falun Gong members. “While members of Falun Gong are indeed detained in mental hospitals in large numbers, it seems unjustifiable for the WPA to exclude virtually all other political detainees about whom Mr. Munro provides so much evidence.” “China’s Psychiatric Terror,” p. 38.

[14] Mirsky. “China’s Psychiatric Terror,” p. 38.

[15] Mirsky. “China’s Psychiatric Terror,” p. 41.

[16] Mirsky. “China’s Psychiatric Terror,” p. 40.

[17] Rosedale. “Perspectives on Cults as Affected by the September 11 Tragedy.”

[18] Mirsky. “China’s Psychiatric Terror,” p. 39.

[19] Mirsky. “China’s Psychiatric Terror,” p. 40.

[20] Mirsky. “China’s Psychiatric Terror,” p. 40.

[21] Lowe. “Religion on a Leash.”

[22] Lowe. “Religion on a Leash.”

[23] W.H.C. Frend. The Early Church. Fortress Press, 1962, 1985. p. 69.

[24] Frend. The Early Church. p. 69.

[25] Frend. The Early Church. p. 69.

[26] Frend. The Early Church. p. 70.

[27] Frend. The Early Church. p. 71.

[28] E.R. Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety. Cambridge University Press. 1965. p. 67.

[29] Thomas Robbins, “Apocalypse, Persecution and Self-Immolation.” pp. 205-219 in Catherine Wessinger, ed, Millennialism, Persecution and Violence. University of Syracuse Press, 2000. Dr. Wessinger’s book collects sixteen original case studies which probe the interrelationship of millennialism, persecution and significant outbreaks of violence in different contexts. The groups studied include early Mormons, Tiapings, Russian Old Believers, Solar Templars, People Templars, Aum Shinrikyo, Branch Davidians, Native Americans at Wounded Knee and others. Persecution was definitely a factor in the Old Believer episodes, as was the movement’s initial apocalypticism and the authoritarian politicoreligious context of Caesaropapism and lack of church-state separation.

[30] Vatro Murvar. “Messianism in Russia: Religious and Revolutionary,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Vol. 14, No. 3. pp. 229-257, 1978.

[31] Robbins. “Millennialism, Persecution and Violence.”

[32] To avoid the whole issue of whether to accede to government demands that they publicly reject Christianity and sacrifice to the Emperor, “Christians had only to lie low, avoid being too obvious on the day appointed for the sacrifice, and then resume membership of the church. Only prominent Christians were pursued . . .” Frend. The Early Church. pp. 99.

[33] Frend. The Early Church. p. 86.

[34] Frend. The Early Church. p. 63.

[35] Quoted by Frend. The Early Church. p. 63.

[36] Frend. The Early Church. p. 63.

[37] Quoted by Frend. The Early Church. p. 80. Tertullian ultimately joined the Montanist sect.

[38] Grant Underwood. “Millennialism, Persecution and Violence: The Mormons.” pp. 43-61 in Catherine Wessinger, ed. Millennialism, Persecution and Violence. U. of Syracuse, 2000.

[39] Susan Palmer. “Listening to Master Li.” Montreal Gazette. June 9, 2001, p. B5.

[40] Palmer. “Listening to Master Li.” p. B5.

[41] Palmer. “Listening to Master Li.” p. B5.

[42] Palmer. “Listening to Master Li.” p. B5.

[43] Palmer. “Listening to Master Li.” p. B5. See also Susan Palmer “From Healing to Protest: Conversion Patterns Among the Practitioners of Falun Gong,” Nova Religio, Vol. 6, No. 2, April 2003, pp. 348-365.

[44] Palmer. “Listening to Master Li.” p. B5. See also the recent piece by Patsy Rahn, “The Chemistry of a Conflict: The Chinese Government and the Falun Gong”, Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 14, No. 2, pp. 41-65, 2002. Like Palmer, Rahn believes that the millennial message of Falun Gong is presently being intensified partly as a response to state persecution. Although Falunist teachings continue to condemn violence, Rahn believes that there is at least a potential justification for violence in Master Li’s evolving and increasingly dualist message. “As groups feel an increased frustration of their ultimate goal and an increased persecution, their apocalyptic idea’s may increase and the battle between good and evil intensify”, p. 56.

[45] Carolyn Evans. “Chinese Law and the International Protection of Religious Freedom.” Journal of Church and State. Vol. 49. No. 4 (Autumn, 2002). pp. 749-774.

[46] Evans. “Chinese Law and the International Protection of Religious Freedom.” p. 764.

[47] Evans. “Chinese Law and the International Protection of Religious Freedom.” p. 765.

[48] Evans. “Chinese Law and the International Protection of Religious Freedom.” p. 770.

[49] Mr. Rosedale’s statement that, “all members of Falun Gong have individual rights that should not be abridged” is welcome; but given the spectacular Chinese repression, it is hardly an adequate response to egregious persecution. Rosedale’s statements concerning the limits of religious freedom may have some abstract validity but cannot justify such heavy handed and brutal policies as the Chinese State has ruthlessly pursued.

[50] The Journal, Nova Religio just published a large symposium on Falun Gong. (Vol. 6, No. 2) entailing nine papers which appeared in the Spring of 2003. Particularly salient in terms of this essay are four contributions: Susan Palmer, “From Healing to Protest” (see note 43 above); Gareth Fisher, “Resistance and Salvation in Falun Gong: The Promise of Forbearance”; Bryan Edelman and James Richardson, “Falun Gong and the Law: Development of Legal Social Control in China”; and Craig Burgdoff, “How Falun Gong’s Practice Undermines Li Hongzhi’s Totalistic Rhetoric.”