A chronicle of the Falun Gong's emergence and its relation to other millennial movements throughout the long history of China has now been published (Chang, 2004), and it should provide psychiatrists a more objective understanding of the broader religious cultural issues than was previously available. Chang's explanation, which is similar to that of other experts on China, is that the Falun Gong spiritual/alternative healing movement filled a vacuum that appeared in Chinese life in 1982 with the collapse of Maoism as a coherent ideology, the turn to a market economy that left behind many sectors of the population, and the growing gaps in China's provision of health care to its citizens (Forney, 2001). In less than two decades the Falun Gong movement numbered in the millions. The Internet was the "medium" that allowed the Falun Gong to recruit members across the Provinces of China.
Chang describes the landmark protest of April 25, 1999, when the courageous Falun Gong "defied the state." Jiang Zemin, then president of China, was driven in his personal limousine through the crowd of 10,000 to 16,000 Falun Gong practitioners who gathered unexpectedly for a peaceful demonstration at the high-walled compound in Beijing where the leaders of China work and live. Jiang, peering through the tinted glass windows, was reportedly shocked to see members of the communist party, minor government officials, middle-aged and elderly people; these were not the young political upstarts of the pro-democracy movement who had rallied 10 years before in Tiananmen Square. What Jiang saw for himself was a well-behaved group of older Chinese citizens defying their government, holding in their hands the blue book of their leader, Master Li Hong-Zhi.
Chang has carefully worked her way through Master Li's writings and she characterizes the Falun Gong as a millennial movement, the title of her book is Falun Gong: The End of Days. This is not the prevailing understanding in the West, but it is central to her thesis. The respectability and decorum of the Falun Gong protesters averted an immediate repressive reaction. But in the weeks that followed it became clear to the government that the Falun Gong numbered in the millions, and they were prepared to militantly protest any public derogation of their practices or of their leader. Jiang Zemin, Chang tells us, was well aware that throughout the history of China millennial groups had toppled governments. Chang provides a brief overview extending from the 1st to the 20th century: the Yellow Turbans, the Mahayan Rebellion, the White Lotus, the Eight Trigrams, the Taiping Rebellion, the Boxers. She believes that several of the early communist leaders of the 20th century began in similar groups. Chang's account of this history and the amazingly rapid growth of the Falun Gong in China explain for the first time why Jiang Zemin and the Chinese government embarked on its cruel campaign of persecution against a non-political movement.
If Chang explains what happens, she certainly does not excuse it. With remarkable objectivity she goes through the catalogue of Falun Gong beliefs and practices. Unlike human rights advocates and most of the Western media, she has made it clear that Falun Gong is not just about people practicing a variant of traditional Chinese exercises and abiding by the moral law of Zhen, Shan and Ren (truth, benevolence and forbearance). Those little blue books the Falun Gong protesters were holding contain the revelations of Master Li Hong-Zhi. Li has proclaimed himself divine and only he can teleport the law wheel (the Falun) into the practitioner's body. The Falun with his help will restore youth and health and will get rid of the bad karma.
Li tells his followers, "If I cannot save you nobody else can" (Chang, 2004). He claims to be superior to Jesus and the Buddha Sakyamuni who appeared here on earth, while he is "not of the universe" (Chang, 2004). He has claimed that he can fly, walk through walls and has many other supernatural powers (Chang, 2004). Li's revelations about aliens here on earth and the threat they pose to humanity (e.g., their harmful science with its Western technology and medicine), their goal of obtaining our perfect human bodies and so on are carefully detailed. The dubious reader can confirm or deny Chang's evaluation by consulting the writings of Li that are available on the Web (Hong-Zhi, 1998).
For psychiatrists the crucial lesson in Chang's exposition is that Falun Gong practitioners have accepted Li's teachings as their personal and spiritual reality. For example, they believe--according to those teachings--that Li has implanted the wheel of law into their abdomens and the more advanced practitioners can actually feel it rotating. They feel this even though Li has said the Falun exists in a different dimension. (The Falun is the Buddhist symbol appropriated by the Nazis and known in the Western world as the swastika.) This implanted wheel is the Falun Gong practitioners' indoctrinated and widely shared spiritual belief, not a bizarre somatic delusion. They believe that the wheel is protecting their health and rejuvenating them. Ironically, Chinese psychiatrists unfamiliar with the Falun Gong's teachings have cited the patient's belief that he has a wheel in his abdomen as the obvious proof of their diagnosis that a practitioner was psychotic. Chinese psychiatrists who reviewed these reports failed to recognize these "proofs" as failures to understand the spiritual beliefs of their patients.
Chang identifies Li's revelations as a syncretic blending of Buddhism, Daoism, classical Chinese folk religion, magic and unidentified flying objects. However, she makes it quite clear that the Falun Gong is not the evil cult portrayed by the Chinese authorities. This is a much more balanced and contextual account than was previously available to psychiatrists and it is striking that, in her description of the persecution of the Falun Gong, Chinese psychiatrists are not at the forefront of their government's aggressive measures nor is systematic misuse of psychiatry central to the suppression of the Falun Gong. Furthermore, her account explains why an ethical psychiatrist unaware of Falun Gong beliefs might honestly, if incorrectly, think a practitioner was mentally ill.
As we know from other accounts, Jiang Zemin decided in 1999 to eradicate the Falun Gong (Ping, 2003). To that end the government created a special office, The 610, with plenipotentiary authority to root the Falun Gong out of Chinese society. Laws were passed criminalizing the Falun Gong. A propaganda campaign was initiated at home and abroad that labeled the Falun Gong an "evil cult." The founder of the Falun Gong was declared a criminal and--since he had already fled to the United States--China demanded his extradition. Chinese authorities identified "leaders" of the Falun Gong, arrested them and sent them to prison. Practitioners who nonetheless persisted in gathering and protesting were met with police brutality and sent to temporary holding areas, jails, prisons and labor camps.