REVIEW & OUTLOOK (Editorial)


The Wall Street Journal

Page A27

More than 100 followers of the Falun Dafa school of meditation gathered yesterday in Beijing's Tiananmen Square to peacefully protest the brutal suppression of their faith. As they sat cross-legged or unfurled banners, they were beaten by police and dragged away to waiting vans. They may receive long sentences of hard labor for the "crime" of asking for the freedom to follow their religious beliefs, a freedom that is guaranteed in the Chinese constitution but has never been honored.

Yesterday's gathering came exactly one year after 10,000 followers surprised China's leaders by gathering in the capital. Frightened by the group's power to mobilize support, the Communist Party branded the movement an "evil cult" and banned it. The anniversary may have special resonance for the practitioners and China's leaders, but the protests were not an extraordinary event. Police arrest Falun Dafa adherents on a daily basis -- in Tiananmen Square, and also in towns throughout China where fewer tourists and journalists can observe.

The persecution is not limited to Falun Dafa, either. Followers of religious groups are routinely silenced, jailed, beaten and sometimes never heard from again. The pastors of small underground "house churches" are often taken into custody in order to intimidate them into disbanding their small flocks. The Karmapa Lama, the 14-year-old boy who holds the third most important post in Tibetan Buddhism, fled Lhasa to join an exile community in northern India because the Chinese authorities are stifling worship in Tibet's monasteries.

But it is the powerful belief and persistence of the Falun Dafa followers which is now capturing the world's attention. Journal reporter Ian Johnson recently detailed the consistent accounts of the family and fellow prisoners of Chen Zixiu, a 58-year-old Falun Dafa believer who died in police custody two months ago. When she refused to renounce her faith, jailers beat and shocked Chen with cattle prods until they killed her. Her daughter Zhang Xueling -- who does not practice Falun Dafa -- was arrested last week for telling her mother's story to the Journal. In their efforts to suppress Falun Dafa "no measures are too excessive," officials have told the religion's followers.

So why is the Communist Party so intent on stamping out spirituality? Perhaps because the Party is reluctant to acknowledge that it is unable to serve all the needs of the people and fears further erosion of its ability to control all aspects of Chinese life. If even one group manages to assert its right to organize a cohesive community not under the Party's yoke, it will be impossible to stop others from demanding the same. The fact that the Falun Dafa was able to grow so big before last year without attracting the attention of the Party suggested that pluralism had advanced quietly despite the Party's best efforts to keep track of social and political trends.

Falun Dafa practitioners, house church Christians and Buddhists and all manner of other believers in China are today forced to suffer to remain true to their faiths. But even the best efforts of the Beijing regime cannot stamp out spirituality. Chinese society is changing quickly, and odds are that more and more people will follow the example of the Falun Dafa practitioners and demand their rights.

That deeply disturbs a party that was never able to build a strong ideological basis for its claims to legitimacy. But the best way for the Party leaders to deal with their fears is to liberalize and accept ideological pluralism and the reality that totalitarianism and modernization are antithetical. The direction the Party is taking now will only compound the difficulty it already is experiencing in maintaining sufficient popular support to carry out crucial reforms, such as those of the Chinese economy. The suppression we are describing here must of its nature occur on a vast scale in a vast country. It simply won't work.

(Copyright Wall Street Journal 2000)