On any given evening in the Vietnamese capital, about 100 men and women can be found in Hanoi’s Lenin Park carrying out their daily meditative exercises. Relaxing ambient music plays from a loudspeaker as they go through the series of stretches and breathing exercises prescribed by the teachings of their spiritual leader, Li Hongzhi.
The scene appears peaceful, innocuous – but these are Falun Gong members, a group officially banned as a “counter-revolutionary” cult in communist Vietnam. But its members say Falun Gong provides apolitical spiritual salvation. And, despite a lack of scientific evidence, Falun Gong members are convinced that its practices, steeped heavily in traditional Chinese medicine, are a panacea for illness.
“Thanks to the Falun Gong, many people are able to cure themselves from diseases such as cancer or heart diseases,” said Trong Ngoc, a 57-year-old architect who, like many Vietnamese practitioners, discovered Falun Gong online. “Through Falun Gong books, I learnt a lot, including life philosophy and human life philosophy, and the most important is that I can find the real meaning of my life.”
From acceptance to banishment
Founded in China in the early 1990s by Li Hongzhi, Falun Gong draws heavily on the concept of qigong, a pervasive concept in traditional Chinese medicine that states humans contain a life force known as chi. Maintaining a healthy balance of chi is essential in many Chinese spiritual and medicinal practices, including acupuncture.
Falun Gong embraces those practices in an all-encompassing philosophy, which also draws from Buddhism and Taoism, recorded in the Zhuan Falun, a book by Li that serves as the group’s core spiritual commands.
While initially embraced by the atheistic Chinese government, the movement, having attracted tens of millions of members, quickly grew intolerable to the ruling Communist party.
Beijing, which has frequently found itself in antagonistic relationships with religions, particularly loathes non-hierarchal spiritual practices. It prefers religions with clearly defined leaderships, such as the Beijing-controlled Chinese Catholic church, through which the government can issue edicts.
Li stubbornly refused to go along with the government’s attempts to organise Falun Gong in line with its wishes and, in 1998, the movement was deemed “heretical” in China. Falun Gong members, who numbered about 70 million at the time, found themselves on the wrong side of the law and mobilised a rare mass protest movement.
The demonstrations were the last straw for China, which cracked down on Falun Gong in the late 1990s. To this day, public discussion of Falun Gong is taboo and practitioners are regularly imprisoned and, according to unverified allegations from some rights groups and foreign governments, executed for organ harvesting.
Li himself lives in self-imposed exile in the United States.
Falun Gong in Vietnam
The Communist party of Vietnam toed the line of its neighbour to the north and also banned Falun Gong. But followers say enforcement is fairly lax.
“The government is not very welcoming to practising Falun Gong in Vietnam, but me personally, I have not had much trouble,” said Tran Tri, a 48-year-old stock broker.
Hoang Huong, a 35-year-old engineer, said police have tried in the past to prevent Falun Gong from gathering in the parks. “The police interfered and brought pressure to bear upon park managers, then the park managers did things such as build a fence and pretend that it was the area for children to play football,” she said, adding that Falun Gong members responded by dividing into multiple, smaller groups in parks across the city.
But Nguyen Ha, a 39-year-old economist, works in a government office while openly practising Falun Gong. Ha said no one cared that she was a member of what is technically deemed a banned cult. “I’m a government official, and in my organisation I share about the beauty of Falun Gong,” she said.
As Falun Gong has no formal organisational structure, practitioners are unsure of how many Vietnamese count themselves as members. Unverifiable estimates among members range from 30,000 to 50,000, with many said to be practising at home alone.
Most Falun Gong members interviewed were part of the burgeoning Vietnamese middle class, with practitioners saying that Falun Gong was well suited to white-collar life.
The main Falun Gong ritual is a daily, two-hour meditative exercise routine similar to tai chi. It is usually performed either in the early morning or after work, and can be practised alone or in groups.
Stretches, controlled breathing and meditation predominate the daily exercises, which can put practitioners in a trancelike state in the midst of the routine.
The exercises, which Falun Gong members believe balances chi, are meant to incubate spiritual cultivation throughout the rest of the day.
“In Falun Gong they teach us how to cultivate during our normal life,” explained Tri, adding that spiritual cultivation, the essence of Falun Gong teachings, can be found in day-to-day situations. “If I go to the office, that is not cultivation, but if someone says something bad about me [at work], how I deal with that is cultivation.”
Ha said that while her family does not follow Falun Gong, the practice has nonetheless improved her home life. Prior to joining in 2013, she said that living with her husband’s parents, as is common in Vietnam, was threatening her marriage due to constant conflicts.
“I thought of divorce a million times a day, because I was very unhappy with my family,” she said.
Upon adopting Falun Gong, however, Ha said she was able to reconcile her differences with the in-laws, much to her husband’s delight, as she learned to better manage her anger through qigong. While her husband is not a member himself, Ha said he supports her spiritual life.
Is it a cult?
While Falun Gong dismisses accusations that it is cult-like as Chinese propaganda, some Western critics have also described it as a cult. The US-based Cult Education Institute considers Falun Gong a cult with Li as its leader, arguing that he employs “mind control” techniques on followers. Critics have also accused Li of racism and homophobia.
But André Laliberté, a political scientist at the University of Ottawa who specialises in Chinese religions’ impact on politics, said the cult label does not carry weight among scholars.
“For the Chinese government, Falun Gong is a cult; many people who practise say it is a spiritual practice; scholars would say it is a religion,” he said, adding that the key components typically associated with cults have not been observed within Falun Gong.
“I don’t believe in the therapeutic virtue of Falun Gong exercise, but I think the [Chinese] government overreacted against those people, often retiree women, who found that meeting to practise these exercises was a nice way to socialise and stay fit,” said Laliberté.
He added that he was unaware of any evidence suggesting that followers are pressured to stay in the practice, while Li himself is no cult leader: “Li Hongzhi lives in exile somewhere in the US, and he has retreated: he is not a charismatic figure.”
In Vietnam, there are few signs of Falun Gong operating as a cult by standard definitions. Members are disorganised with no clear hierarchy, while Li remains a distant, abstract figure.
Vietnam’s Falun Gong do, however, tend to forsake modern medicine in favour of qigong practices – with inconclusive scientific efficacy. All practitioners interviewed by Southeast Asia Globe confirmed they now rely solely on Falun Gong for their health.
“I think Falun Gong and other qigong practices share the same concept: while you practise you can exchange energy inside and energy outside,” said the stock broker Tri, adding that he has not used medicine since the 1990s and has never been seriously ill since.
He also pointed out that it is not just Falun Gong practitioners in Vietnam who forego medicine in favour of traditional practices, adding that he had already abandoned it during his days as a devout Mahayana Buddhist.
Traditional medicine, said Laliberté, is a fact of life throughout East Asia.
“You can’t help getting upset when you juxtapose the horror stories of people denied medical treatment because they could not afford it, cases of medical malpractice etc, and then hear public denunciation of people who prefer to rely on faith healers and alternative practices such as qigong,” he said, adding that Chinese Falun Gong had never seen themselves as enemies of the state.
“People who practised Falun Gong in the 1990s thought they were helping the government by encouraging people to do exercise that would keep them in good health, physically and mentally. Imagine their dismay when they were denounced as a cult,” added Laliberté.
Ultimately, said Tri, Vietnam’s Falun Gong want to be left alone and not treated as a threat. Their spiritual practices, he said, are of no interest to the state.
“We try to tell the truth… why we do this, and why we should not be treated like this.”