There are those who believe religion and politics don't mix, or that they shouldn't be allowed to mix. On the other hand, religion can and does often assume political overtones which can have far-reaching ramifications for a society. Whether these ramifications are desirable or destructive often depends on what side you're on. We have seen religious organisations play a pivotal role in engineering social and political change, sometimes in collaboration with other segments of civil society.
Organised religion has, from time to time, emerged as a powerful force in society, particularly in highly religious countries like the Philippines where the Catholic church has a very visible presence. In China where religion does not quite thrive so well, the role of religion has been somewhat subdued. In the last couple of years, that picture has gradually changed as China woke up to the reality of an obscure sect known as Falun Gong.
According to Falun Gong followers, their purpose is merely to practise breathing exercises which are supposed to be beneficial to their health. Breathing exercises are not unusual in the East. They come in all forms and shapes. Qi gong exercises are based on the notion of qi, which refers to the cosmic forces in the body and the universe. The concept of qi is also central to much of traditional Chinese medicine. On any given day across Asia you'll encounter people doing exercises in the parks and other open spaces. These exercises combine body movements with meditation and controlled breathing techniques. They are particularly popular with the elderly.
The controversy that surrounds Falun Gong is that the authorities in China believe it to be more than just a religion. To them it is nothing but an evil-cult. Up until 1999 many people in China did not even know about this sect whose leader lives in North America. It all came to light when one Professor He Zuoxiu wrote an article warning about their deceitful lies. A theoretical physicist, Professor He spends his time exposing and ridiculing all forms of pseudo-science.
Ironically, the mainstream press took a dim view of Professor He's views and he was only able to publish his article in a little-known magazine. In the past his views had not generated much reaction. The Falun Gong expose opened a pandora's box. Angry Falun Gong followers quickly assembled outside the Beijing leaders' compound where they held a vigil demanding an apology. This was the first highly publicised protest by the hitherto unknown sect. It transpired, however, that they had on previous occasions held similar vigils around the homes or offices of people who had tried to portray them in a negative light. Their vigils are said to be peaceful, but when 10,000 people camp outside your premises for days or months, peaceful assumes a new complexion.
The authorities in China are leaving nothing to chance. They banned the sect and quickly undertook a systematic clampdown. In spite of a heavy security presence, sect members have, on numerous occasions, managed to hold meetings in high profile venues like Tiananmen Square where they insist on proceeding with their exercises even as the police rain blows on them and cart them away into custody.
The treatment of these sect members has intensified human rights attention on China with foreign observers criticising the authorities for their heavy-handedness in the police brutality which some claim has led to the death of many followers. The authorities in China are convinced that this evil cult is a threat to national security and must be crushed at all costs.
In trying to understand the full impact of this emergent social phenomenon, it is worth clarifying what constitutes a cult. Experts see two dimensions: the religious and the social. As for the religious, cults tend to deviate from mainstream religious beliefs and, in effect, set themselves in competition against such religions, offering themselves as a more viable alternative. They often tend to have charismatic leaders who assume god-like status with the claims they either make or encourage about their supernatural powers and the sheer power they seem to exercise on their followers. The teachings of the Falun Gong are considered to be a deviation from orthodox Buddhism.
The social dimension refers to their rejection of popular social practices and conventions. Members of cults are taught, for example, to abandon their families and all aspects of the material world. Cults are known to urge their members to destroy or otherwise dispose of their material possessions and even to eschew medical treatment. Herein lies the danger. There have been too many cases of doomsday cults leading their members into mass suicide or otherwise causing the deaths of innocent people. From the infamous Jonestown disaster in Guyana in 1978 to more recent cases like the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas, Aum Shinri Kyo in Japan and the Restoration of the 10 Commandments in Uganda.
It may well be that the majority of the Falun Gong are well-adjusted citizens who just want to get on with their breathing exercises - in which case their persecution is suspect. On the other hand there is always the risk that powerful leaders are manipulating innocent and ignorant followers for selfish political, spiritual or other ends. If that is the case, there is cause for alarm.
Opinion is sharply divided in Hong Kong. The Falun Gong recently held a highly-publicised international conference here. The central authorities in Beijing were none too pleased and they made their displeasure known in no uncertain terms. However, under the one-country two systems policy, the ban on the mainland does not hold in Hong Kong and the sect members are quite within their right to assemble as long as they respect Hong Kong laws.
However, Beijing has sternly warned about the possibility of the sect using Hong Kong as a base for anti-China political activities. This has in turn generated a lot of political heat with the Hong Kong government vowing to keep a close watch on the sect's activities and, more controversially, considering whether to invoke the Societies Ordinance against them. Pro-Beijing leaders have similarly been urging the government to rein the sect in. However, the pro-democracy lobby and human rights activists have spoken vehemently against these proposals, claiming they are an unacceptable restriction on civil liberties.
The Hong Kong authorities appear to understand that any effort to enforce the ordinance to rein in the sect would further escalate the controversy and have far-reaching consequences. Yet, they have to be seen to be sensitive to the concerns on the mainland. It is not an easy balance to strike.
Beijing has reason enough to be concerned. Religious activities, though rare, have had pretty dramatic effects on the political landscape in the past. There have been many religious and quasi-religious uprisings in China in the past, of which some of the most memorable are the Boxers, the White Lotus and Tai Ping which rebelled against the Qing dynasty.
When Beijing warns that efforts to turn Hong Kong into a base for subversive activities would not be tolerated, they mean it. Hong Kong authorities are paying heed. A few weeks ago when members of the sect set themselves alight in Tiananmen Square, it began to look as though the authorities' and indeed many ordinary people's worst fears were coming true. It seemed like a sign of things to come, the doomsday scenario in which mass suicide would lead to the death of millions. To many observers, such a scenario, while perhaps far-fetched, cannot altogether be discounted, especially when so little is known about the sect and its leadership.
About Ken N. Kamoche
Ken N. Kamoche was born in Kenya and currently teaches management in Hong Kong. He holds degrees from Nairobi and Oxford (Rhodes Scholar). He worked in Uganda as it emerged from the Idi Amin chaos, Somali weeks before it descended into civil war, and Poland while it was still truly communist. He has published four books on management and has completed a novel. 'An end so still' is his first collection of short stories. He is a columnist for Kenyan newspapers and on www.G21.net.
(The Daily Nation, February 18, 2001)
Original text from: http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/55/404.html