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Robert M. Liu

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A Debate Plus a Dilemma
By Robert M. Liu   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Saturday, December 10, 2005
Posted: Saturday, December 10, 2005

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While fortunately for the Chinese government, there is no armed struggle and no military rebel base in China today, for it to lose a moral debate to even a meditation group like Falungong may have unpredictable consequences. For in traditional Chinese culture and civilization, there is a strong Confucian belief that moral values prevail in the long run.

A Debate Plus a Dilemma

-- by Robert M. Liu

One day in the mid-1990s when I was still living in the then-British Crown colony of Hong Kong, I was invited to act as an interpreter for a British carpet manufacturer that was trying to sell its products in the China market. I was told to contact the manager of a privately run Chinese company that specialized in purchasing foreign carpeting materials for use in China's newly built hotels.

I found Mr. Zhang, the manager, in his hotel on Nathan Road, Kowloon, before the business negotiations started. He was a bespectacled, small, energetic, swarthy-looking man in his mid forties. Although he didn't speak a word of English, he had traveled much of the world on business and was just back from Australia, where he had visited a carpet manufacturer's workshops.

As we were waiting for the representatives of the British company to come to the meeting, I began to ask Mr. Zhang questions about China. "I hear many people are grumpy or even opposed to the economic reforms despite the improvements the reforms have brought about in China. Is that true ?"

"Yes," he responded. "In fact it's not just many people. I would say most people are opposed to the reforms."

His words surprised me, because I believed -- I still do -- that the policy of reform and openness initiated by the Chinese government in the late 1970s had improved the Chinese people's livelihood as a whole. "Why?" I wondered aloud.

The explanation then given by Mr. Zhang was so philosophical that it made a deep impression on my mind, causing me to remember him as a wise man full of life experience. "So-called successful people are those who have foundations," he proceeded to make me comprehend as I looked at him thinking he must be among the successful, "but most people have no foundations."

Puzzled, I asked, "What do you mean by foundations?"

"For instance, if you have expertise in a certain area, you have a foundation. If you have guan-xi (Chinese for special connections with bureaucrats), you have a foundation. If you have received a good education, you have a foundation. In short, anything that can help you succeed is a foundation for you," he said.

I nodded as I began to grasp the meaning of his words now. "Anyway, the economic reforms have created opportunities for people to become successful," I tried to remind him that he himself was a beneficiary of the reforms.

But he corrected me, "The economic reforms have created opportunities for those who have foundations to become successful, not just any kind of people. To succeed, you have to have a certain foundation. If you have no foundation, you can't seize opportunities. Those who have foundations to enable them to succeed are always in the minority. The majority have no foundations, can't take advantage of the opportunities brought about by the reforms, and can't succeed. So they oppose the reforms."

Truth is just that simple, I thought, though I was -- and still am -- a believer in "Trickle-Down", the supply-side economic theory about successful people' wealth trickling down to the bottom of the food chain thereby helping create jobs for the needy. The thing is that there is a big difference between being successful and being able to survive on a low-wage job -- those at the bottom of the food chain remain grumpy anyway.

Now, let's see what is left for the majority who have no "foundations" as Mr. Zhang mentioned to me about ten years ago in Hong Kong, namely, those who haven't received a good education, don't have rich parents, don't have rich uncles, don't have expertise in any area, and don't have any special connections with bureaucrats.

They still have two things left for them: life and God. Oftentimes, though, the less fortunate don't even have good health, and the only thing they can turn to is God. Thus, the demand for God (i.e. spiritual or religious service) is huge. Today, there are millions of Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, in China, and the Chinese government is concerned about the expansion of underground churches, which operate without government permission and whose activities cannot be monitored by the authorities as the state-run Patriotic Church's activities are.

Still, Beijing should count itself lucky that Chinese Christians, including those who attend underground churches, are not anti-government subversives since all the Christian countries in the West are trying to improve their relations with China. Besides, from a pragmatic perspective, Chinese leaders certainly know that if the less fortunate do not turn to Jesus Christ, they might turn to something else that could result in social unrest. If religion is an opiate for the masses as Karl Marx believed, now is the time to use it to enhance social stability in China.

But it appears that something politically potent is already happening. Beijing's security apparatus has identified it as a threat to the authority of the 60-million-strong Communist Party of China (the CPC). You may not believe this, but by all appearances, the Chinese government takes it seriously. The alleged threat comes from a meditation group called Falungong.

The group's name consists of three Chinese characters: "fa", "lun" and "gong". In the Chinese language, "fa" means law, and since the meditation group has incorporated Buddhist beliefs in its practice, "fa" may also refer to the power of Buddha's law. The character "lun" means wheel. And the character "gong" refers to the art of mediation. Put together, the three Chinese characters signify a meditation "Art of Buddha's Powerful Wheel of Law".

When I first heard "Falungong", I said to myself, "What a ridiculous name! What has meditation to do with Wheel of Law?" But then, it dawned on me that whoever had founded this meditation group must be a shrewd person with business acumen and a good knowledge of China's market conditions.

China is a country with thousand-year-long Buddhist traditions, which are fascinating not only to Chinese residents but to Westerners as well. If you have ever seen Martial Art movies featuring Bruce Lee or films showing Buddhist monks in meditation or fistfights, you may be led to believe that Buddhist meditation practices will make you more healthy, which may be true .

According to media reports, at its height, membership of Falungong exceeded ten million including members of the Communist Party. Falungong practitioners are mostly from China's lower classes, such as unemployed or laid-off workers, under-educated housewives, retired workers. They probably do believe that "Buddha's Powerful Wheel of Law" will bring them hope and good luck.

The group was allowed to grow until spring of 1999 when about ten thousand Falungong members surrounded Zhongnanhai, the site of China's central government in Beijing, in protest against criticisms of Falungong in the state-run press. Soon, it was banned, because the government no longer regarded it as a mere meditation group.

First, Beijing decided that Falungong was a religious cult and had to be eliminated. Then, a confrontation between the powerful Communist Party of China and "Buddha's Powerful Wheel of Law" (i.e. Falungong) ensued.

Somehow, the group is capable of raising quite a bit of money. Now, it publishes a Chinese- language newspaper called "The Epoch Times". Based outside of China and apparently run by well-educated liberal intellectuals, it claims to be "The Most Widely Distributed Global Chinese Newspaper", calling for freedom and democracy in China and predicting the downfall of the Communist regime in Beijing.

Printed anti-Communist materials from the group have been smuggled into China and posted on the streets of Chinese cities. Its founder, Li Hongzhi (now in exile), is said to have been a soldier in China's Communist-controlled People's Liberation Army. If that is true , Mr. Li may be well informed on the CPC's organizational techniques and therefore capable of using similar methods to organize and expand his group at the grassroots level to agitate for Falungong practitioners' rights in public squares.

All this must have unnerved the CPC, causing what was originally designed as a crackdown on a religious cult to deteriorate into a bureaucratic overkill, resulting in numerous allegations that Falungong members have been tortured. Other reports claim that since 1999 more than 2700 Falungong members have died from torture or persecution. The Epoch Times has even published photographs of severe torture wounds on the bodies of Falungong practitioners.

This doesn't look good for the CPC. It helps Falungong to win sympathy and causes the CPC to lose face and grassroots support. It also provides potent ammunition for the editors of The Epoch Times to highlight the ugly side of the CPC's one-party rule, even as China's moderate leadership tries hard to improve its image in the international community.

Believing Falungong to be a subversive political organization, the government is undoubtedly concerned that the group may infiltrate the Communist Party, the military and the bureaucracy. But, putting aside the issue of whether political freedoms should be allowed or not, the problem with Falungong is that while it is likely that the core organizers of the group are politically motivated, ordinary Falungong meditation practitioners are not.

How much would an under-educated housewife of a Falungong meditation practitioner know about how to subvert the government? Perhaps, she really thinks that "Buddha's Powerful Wheel of Law" will turn round and round till her illness is gone. Yet, it is just such unfortunate, politically ignorant, little people who are bearing the brunt of the police overkill.

Are those allegations of torture true ? I don't know. The point is that if people believe the allegations are true , they would see the CPC's one-party rule in a very negative light. Now that even United Nations investigators believe that torture practices are widespread in China, it is difficult for the Chinese government to deny the allegations.

In a previous article entitled "A Set of Interesting Historical Parallels", I mentioned an ancient Chinese theory about history repeating itself in 60-year cycles. In the last chapter of my political treatise on the China issue "A Guide to Chinese Affairs", published in autumn of 2000, I also mentioned this theory, citing a series of similar events which took place in modern Chinese history at an interval of 60 years. Now, I would like to go back 60 years to 1945 to look at what was happening then.

In the late summer of that year, Japan surrendered, enabling the Chinese government of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek of the Nationalist Party of China (or the Kuomintang or the KMT) to return to Nanking (now known as Nanjing) from Chongqing, a city in China's mountainous Sichuan Province.

By then, the Communists led by Mao Zedong had become a formidable force both militarily and politically, what with the growth opportunities created by the Japanese invasion of China and Joseph Stalin's material support.

The KMT government was unable to put down the Communist rebellion in the northern part of the country. Moreover, it kept losing grassroots support in such large cities as Shanghai, where liberal intellectuals were sympathetic toward the Communists, who having infiltrated every sector of society were calling for freedom and democracy in China and promising to liberate the country from the oppressive one-party dictatorship of "the Kuomintang Reactionaries", thereby bringing hope to the people.

As you can see, "freedom" and "democracy" are very effective brand names in the market of politics -- they always sell. What these two terms really mean depends on who uses them. But anyway, in the 1940s, the KMT government was not a symbol of freedom and democracy. The Communists and their liberal intellectual friends claimed that the KMT government was corrupt, had tortured political dissidents and was governing the country in an autocratic manner. All these claims were true .

In consequence, the KMT government lost a moral debate to the Communists who were waving the banner of freedom and democracy -- though had the liberal intellectuals foreseen that Mao would crack down on them in the 1950s and would plunge the country into a political disaster euphemistically called "the Cultural Revolution", they would not have supported the Communists in the 1940s. But that was another matter. The fact is that the Communists won the moral debate, won the military battle on the ground, and eventually won political power in China in the 1940s.

Back to the present, I guess I see quite a few similarities between today's CPC government and the KMT government of 60 years ago.

First, take the following as an example: Not very long ago, a Shanghai-born friend of mine invited me to have dinner in his house. His parents were there, back from a trip to China. His father was more than 80 years ago and had lived under the KMT government as a young man before the 1949 Communist takeover. I asked the old man if it was true that bureaucratic corruption in China today was as rampant as it had been during the days of the KMT government. He replied in ancient Chinese, "You guo zhi er wu bu ji." Translation: (The bureaucratic corruption in China today) exceeds that of the KMT by any standard.

Secondly, as mentioned above, the CPC government is currently being accused of using torture to suppress dissent, just as the KMT government was 60 years ago.

Thirdly, the CPC's one-party rule is clearly not a symbol of freedom and democracy, just as the KMT's one-party dictatorship of 60 years ago was not a symbol of freedom and democracy. The CPC government is so afraid of freedom and democracy that these two terms are blocked by China's Internet system. How ridiculous!

Fourthly, liberal intellectuals are now sympathetic toward "Buddha's Powerful Wheel of Law" (i.e. Falungong), which waves the banner of freedom and democracy, just as the Communists did 60 years ago.

Fifthly, because the Chinese economy is getting increasingly dependent on Western markets, the U.S. market in particular, the moderate leadership of the CPC government is eager to have a good relationship with the United States, just as the KMT government of Generalissimo Chiang Kai- shek was eager to have the support of the administration of President Harry Truman.

In the meantime, though officials in the Bush administration occasionally frown upon the undemocratic practices of the CPC government, just as Truman's advisers occasionally frowned upon the undemocratic practices of the KMT government 60 years ago, the CPC government's best American friends in the business community, having invested billions and billions of dollars in the China market, now want to see stability in China, just as the KMT government's best American friends wanted to help Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek's KMT government to maintain control in China 60 years ago.

Sixthly, believe it or not, it seems that Buddha is on the side of freedom and democracy, and the CPC government may be losing a moral debate to "Buddha's Powerful Wheel of Law" which keeps crying foul play -- just as the KMT government of 60 years ago was losing a moral debate to the Communists who were waving the banner of freedom and democracy.

While fortunately for the CPC government, there is no armed struggle and no military rebel base in China today, for it to lose a moral debate to even a meditation group like Falungong may have unpredictable consequences. As China's well-educated moderate leaders definitely know, in traditional Chinese culture and civilization, there is a strong Confucian belief that moral values prevail in the long run.

Besides, because it is unwilling to reform China's one-party political system, the CPC may find itself gradually driven into a dilemma, that is, when it looks into the mirror of history, it probably sees the KMT of 60 years ago staring back in the eye, "Hi, Buddy! How does it feel to have somebody on your back calling for freedom and democracy?"

As to "the Powerful Wheel of Buddha's Law" (or Falungong), for my money, I'd rather pay more attention to the Powerful Wheel of History, which may be turning around in a 60-year cycle as the ancestors of the Chinese suspected. Would today's KMT-style Communist Party of China do the same?

December 8, 2005.

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Reviewed by Sandie Angel 12/11/2005
Hi Robert:

Your article is well-written, informative, and analytical. I truly thank you for taking the time to write such an impressive and informative article in AD.

From time to time, we wonder if history is going to repeat itself. As you have stated, "While fortunately for the Chinese government, there is no armed struggle and no military rebel base in China today," -

I hope the Chinese in China will not use violence to solve their differences, for if that ever happens, China will take many steps backward instead of marching forward.

Wonderful informative article that is well-written and well-worth the reading. I'm saving this one to my library.

Thank you Robert!

Sandie May Angel a.k.a. Sandie Angel :o)

Books by
Robert M. Liu

A Guide to Chinese Affairs

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Shanghai Escapist

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