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Understanding Falun Gong’s Martyrdom Strategy as Spiritual Terrorism


The Cambridge Companion to Religion and TerrorismChapter summary

Terrorism: Premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.

The above definition, originally taken from a piece of US legislation, is often referred to in discussions of terrorism. However, this definition and related definitions are clearly deficient in that they exclude acts of state terrorism, which are arguably far more lethal than the violent acts perpetrated by groups like AUM Shinrikyo and the Black September organization. Nevertheless, academic scholarship,
has concentrated almost exclusively on sub-state terrorism, specifically al-Qaida but extending to the Taliban, Hezbollah, Hamas and other Islamic paramilitaries. Virtually no attention has been paid to state terrorism, either before or since 9/11, in spite of the fact that state terrorism has been massively more costly in terms of lives and human well-being.

This imbalance has often been criticized, but is not likely to change in the near future. With the exception of the Islamic State, which the international community refuses to recognize as a proper nation, the bulk of mainstream terrorism research will almost certainly continue to focus on sub-state groups – though so-called rogue nations (which, not coincidently, are never Western nations) have been accused of sponsoring terrorism in other countries.

One also sometimes finds that oppressed groups from within certain nations will accuse their respective governments of conducting campaigns of terror against their members. Thus, for example, followers of Falun Gong (aka Falun Dafa) – the Qi Gong group banned in China in 1999 – have taken up the accusation of state terrorism against the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Although individuals other than participants in Falun Gong sometimes accuse the PRC of conducting a campaign of state terrorism against Falun Gong, most of the voices leveling this accusation are either individual practitioners, or groups obviously created by practitioners, such as the World Organization to Investigate the persecution of Falun Gong. Thus, for example, in a presentation given in October of 2001 at a Falun Gong-sponsored forum, ‘China’s State-Run Terrorism: The Persecution of Falun Gong’, Shiyu Zhou, a practitioner as well as a Professor of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, stated that,

Today, under the rhetoric of ‘social stability,’ China’s Communist regime terrorizes tens of millions of its own people – which include those who practice Falun Gong, their families and associates, among others. The government terrorizes them through violence, propaganda, brainwashing, and extortion of money and goods. These are the characteristics of ‘a regime that resorts to state terrorism’ – as was said in a statement by the International Education Development organization at the United Nations in August of 2001.

Given the proximity of these remarks to the 9/11 attacks – which had taken place only the month before – it is clear that Zhou’s rhetoric about terrorism was intended to associate the PRC with al-Qaeda in the minds of his listeners.

On the surface, this accusation seems fair enough if one takes seriously Falun Gong’s version of its conflict with the Chinese government – a version of events echoed in many stories published outside of China. However, while most non-specialists think of Falun Gong as a peaceful spiritual exercise group, unjustly persecuted by Chinese authorities, it has a little-known history of forcibly silencing anyone outside of China who challenges its perspective. Additionally, unknown to all but a handful of specialists, the group’s ongoing conflict with the PRC is driven by an esoteric theory of karma which prompts practitioners of Falun Gong to actively seek persecution and martyrdom. However, before turning to an analysis of this hidden side of the movement, it will be useful to provide a backdrop by laying out a thumbnail sketch of Falun Gong and its conflict with the PRC.

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