Falun Gong: Beliefs and Demographics

2010 Annual Report

Practice and beliefs

Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, is a spiritual practice that belongs to the Buddhist school, though it is not related to the religion of Buddhism. It consists of a meditation, four gentle qigong exercises, and the moral teachings of founder Mr. Li Hongzhi.

At the core of Falun Gong’s philosophy are the values of truth, compassion, and forbearance (Zhen, Shan, Ren). The teachings of Falun Gong hold these to be the most fundamental qualities of the universe itself, and take them as a guide for daily life. Through consistent practice, adherents of Falun Gong seek to gradually relinquish selfishness and negative attachments in order to achieve a state of altruism, greater insight and awareness, inner purity, and physical health.

The ultimate goal of the spiritual practice is to approach what in the Asian tradition is known as “enlightenment” or “attaining the Dao” (or “Way”). As researcher Leeshai Lemish describes in a recent article:

One could argue that Falun Gong includes many ideas found in traditional Buddhist and Taoist practices. As one adherent explained it to me, a Falun Gong practitioner seeks to bring the same kind of sacred commitment to spiritual elevation that a monk or a nun has to daily life in the secular world, without departing from it to seclusion. That is, one uses the trials and tribulations of life (be it at work, school, or in the family) as opportunities for spiritual growth. [1]

Given its comprehensive moral philosophy and ultimate goal of spiritual attainment, Falun Gong constitutes a religion in terms of how religions are commonly defined in the West. However, it lacks formal hierarchy, has no system of membership, no fees, and no places of worship or devotional practices.

The practice was first popularized in northeastern China in May 1992 by Mr. Li Hongzhi and at the time operated under the auspices of the state-run China Qigong Research Association. It soon drew millions of aspirants, as more people took up the practice, having witnessed the dramatic improvements to both physical health and mental well-being experienced by practitioners.

Demographics

In late 1998, the Chinese government estimated the number of adherents nationwide to be approximately 70 million, a number later cited on multiple occasions by Western media outlets such as the New York Times and Associated Press in the spring of 1999. [2] At the time, practitioners spanned all Chinese provinces and social strata, from elderly rural farmers to urban intellectuals, factory workers to military officials.

When the crackdown on Falun Gong officially began on July 22, 1999, the Communist Party issued a revised estimate of the Falun Gong population, claiming it was just over 2 million. This move was an apparent attempt to downplay the popularity of Falun Gong and the number of individuals affected by the ban at a time when it was widely acknowledged that tens of millions were known to be practicing. The Communist Party’s revisionist accounts of Falun Gong’s popularity was remarked upon in the New York Times only ten days after the ban was implemented. [3]

As to the current numbers of Falun Gong adherents in China, it is extremely difficult to gauge the precise figure due to the scarcity of information and the absence of any formal membership roster. Nonetheless, information from several sources indicates that the number is in the tens of millions.

In May 2009, Falun Gong’s main Chinese-language website, Minghui.org, reported that based on experience interacting with practitioners inside China, approximately 200,000 underground “materials sites” exist. At each “materials site” Falun Gong adherents establish secure internet connections through which they download information from Mingui.org and use it to produce underground literature for wider distribution. Each “materials site” is said to provide literature to 100 to 200 Falun Gong practitioners on average, reaching as high as 1,000 in some cases. These statistics would indicate that 20 to 40 million people inside China continue not only to practice Falun Gong in private, but to also maintain some level of contact with other Falun Gong adherents, including those overseas.

Information relayed in 2009 to Western media by a Chinese human rights lawyer further supports this estimate:

Han Zhiguang of the Beijing law firm Gongdao says Falun Gong members in China today number in the tens of millions, the London Telegraph reported Friday. ‘We do not know the exact number but one thing is certain: It is expanding,’ Han told the Telegraph. [4]

The activities of the thousands of Falun Gong practitioners living outside China are undeniably more visible than those of their counterparts in the mainland. Nevertheless, as of early 2010, the vast majority of Falun Gong adherents remain inside China. Indeed, the above estimates place the size of that persecuted population far above that of several major world religions, including Judaism and the Ba’hai faith.

Notes:

[1] Leeshai Lemish, “Media and New Religious Movements,” transcript of paper presented at the 2009 CESNUR Conference, Salt Lake City, Utah, June 11–13, 2009; http://www.cesnur.org/2009/slc_lemish.htm

[2] Seth Faison, “In Beijing: A Roar of Silent Protestors,” New York Times, April 27, 1999; Joseph Kahn, “Notoriety Now for Movement’s Leader,” New York Times, April 27, 1999; Renee Schoff, “Growing group poses a dilemma for China,” Associated Press, April 26, 1999. For the precise wording of the relevant excerpts from these articles, see: /article/517/.

[3] Seth Faison, “Followers of Chinese Sect Defend Its Spiritual Goals,” New York Times, July 30, 1999

[4] “Falun Gong said to total tens of millions,” United Press International, April 24, 2009; http://www.upi.com/Top_News/2009/04/24/Falun-Gong-said-to-total-tens-of-millions/UPI-47081240585793/