There’s a good book on the Falun gong (“Falun Dafa: something something something”) at Asia World bookstore, it’s by a reporter. The media isn’t really interested in learning about their beliefs in depth. (For that matter the media is rarely interested in anything in depth.) This book corrects that. (For you, not for the media–reporters don’t read books.)
Yeah, it’s a weird little religion. The founder is worshipped, basically. The have a holy text, and rituals, and distinctive spiritual beliefs. They say they’re not a religion (why wouldn’t they want to be one? hmmm) but a health practice or something. But then Christian Science says they’re a science, so we can’t necessarily take their word for it.
Offhand I can think of a more dangerous ideological cult active in China. Sure, nobody really believes in Communism anymore over there, but they somehow seem to have neglected to yield power after discovering that they didn’t have all the answers after all.
Religion, needless to say, is not freely practiced in China. Roman Catholicism is banned, at least in the form of that religion that follows the pope. Tibetan Buddhists are constrained in which lamas they’re allowed to venerate. House churches and unauthorized mosques are banned. A lot of traditional Chinese practices are banned for being superstitions, which certainly raises questions about how you tell a superstition from a religious belief (especially in the case of a religion that consists of almost nothing else).
Or to look at it another way, the PRC has five approved religions. If yours isn’t one of the five, or you would prefer a different leadership / interpretation, then you don’t have religious freedom in China. And even if you’re happy with one of the official choices, you might be too young (under 18) or afraid of losing your job, or of your relatives losing their jobs. There’s some talk of expanding the list, but not about getting rid of it altogether.
Now there are a lot of chigong and t’ai chi movements around, which the PRC supports as patriotic–like Chinese medicine. So how do you tell the difference between a medical exercise, and a religion? Well the PRC noticed that the Falun gong included teachings about the soul and afterlife in their health exercise, and had this thing about wanting to save the world. A lot of Buddhist symbols, money going to the founder…
They made a big deal about not following any other medical exercise, because only theirs was pure. The PRC has accused them of also rejecting normal medicine, which may be true, though I can’t imagine the medical consequences would have been worse than the mass torture that the Chinese government has subjected them to.
And of course, the fact that they could assemble tens of thousands of demonstrators on extremely short notice to protest their banning, only confirmed in the government’s eyes that they were dangerous–even though most of them were retirees. The next religion to do this might not be so elderly and pacifistic.