Mao Zedong died in 1976, and since then, two big things have happened to China. The first is the explosion of the Chinese economy. Everybody has been talking about that. The other is the explosion of religion.
The distinguished sinologist Professor David Ownby went so far as to tell a United States congressional committee: “I would wager that the growth rate in popular participation in both official and unofficial religions in China has been equal to, if not greater than, the growth rate of the Chinese economy over the past 25 years.”
So, while many of us were glued to the Olympics in Beijing recently, it is worth reflecting on the treatment China has been dishing out to the persecuted religious organisation, the Falun Gong. Although it is less well-known in this country than the Dalai Lama and the Buddhist struggle for Tibetan autonomy, the Falun Gong is arguably a far more significant organisation.
Mao once claimed that “religion is poison,” and he systematically repressed faith. Yet, in the decades after his death, China experienced a charismatic revival. It began with the popular rediscovery of traditional Chinese medicine, and developed into claims of miraculous healings, and something remarkably similar to speaking in tongues. The whole phenomenon had a New Age feel, and became amazingly successful, gaining up to 100 million followers (more than the 77 million claimed for Anglicanism).
The star of this powerful revival, known as the qigong, was a former government official and amateur trumpet player, Li Hongzhi, the founder of Falun Gong. His writings became essential reading for millions of Chinese, filling parks around the world with stretching Falun Gong exercisers.
The Falun Gong might seem a bit wacky for Christian sensibilities — rather gnostic, from the stuff I have read from Master Li — but it is a peaceful organisation, whose teachers are not allowed to charge for handing on their version of enlightenment. It just got far too big — with a larger membership than the Communist Party — and this flashed red for the deeply anti-religious imagination of the Chinese government.
So, in 1999, the Falun Gong was banned, and derided as an “evil cult”. Li Hongzhi now lives in New York. But many of his followers are not so lucky. According to the United Nations, 66 per cent of all Chinese torture cases involve a member of the Falun Gong, and half the labour-camp population are members.
Many believe that there is an extensive programme of forced organ-harvesting taking place. Amnesty International has been jumping up and down to highlight this wicked behaviour — and so should we.
(c) Giles Fraser is Anglican vicar of Putney, and a well-known media commentator and writer.
A version of this article first appeared in The Church Times, and is reproduced with grateful acknowledgment.