One can think of ethical systems in either positive or negative terms, what they stand for or what they reject. Ethical systems are both religious and secular. For both, there is a connection between the standards and the environments in which they emerge.
The connection is most obvious for secular ethical systems. The most clear cut are the international war crimes tribunals - the International Military Tribunal, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The standards set out in the instruments governing these tribunals existed before the crimes were committed; otherwise it would violate the principle against retroactive punishment to prosecute for the crimes. Regardless, the fact of the articulation of the standards at the times and places they were set out are directly linked to immediate past events. The tribunals are a reaction to the war crimes which preceded them.
One can say that more generally about the present international human rights structure. Though the concept of human rights and its standards existed well before the Holocaust, its centrality to international discourse today and its detailed evolution are a statement in positive form of revulsion to the Holocaust.
One say something similar of historical human rights standards such as the British Magna Carta, the American Bill of Rights in the US constitution, or the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. None of these sets of standards just descended out of the blue. They state rights in reaction to wrongs. Though the phrase "never again" has been associated in particular with the Holocaust, it is a philosophical underpinning to all human rights standards. Human rights standards have differed over time in detail and emphasis because what they were reacting to, because what they wanted through the standards to prevent from happening, differed.
While the link between secular wrongs and secular standards is more straightforward, one can draw the same link between secular wrongs and spiritually based ethical standards. When a spiritual system emerges, there is more going on than just a rejection of surrounding wrongs. The rejection is not the whole genesis; but it is part of the genesis.
There is a connection between Jewish slavery in Egypt and the ethical standards of the Jewish religion. A refrain embedded in Jewish liturgy is: "Remember that we were slaves in the land of Egypt." One can think of Jewish ethical standards, at least in part, as a rejection of the treatment the Jews received in Egypt and a commitment never themselves to behave that way.
Similarly, one can think of Christianity as a reaction to the brutality of the Roman Empire. The cross, the symbol of the Christian religion, is a reminder and transfiguration of Roman cruelty.
The rapid growth of the Falun Gong in China in the early 90's can be explained in these terms as well, though it is not the whole explanation. Falun Gong emerged in 1992 at the time of the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the ending of any rational belief world wide in Communism. Chinese communism shifted from a socialist to a capitalist model, surviving in power but gutting itself of meaning.
Falun Gong is a blend of ancient Chinese spiritual and exercise traditions. As exercise, it is a form of qi gong, a set of Chinese exercise practices. The form most familiar to Westerners is Tai Chi. But there are many such Chinese exercise practices. As a spiritual system, Falun Gong is drawn from Taoist and Buddhist disciplines, ancient Chinese beliefs.
It would be natural, once China was suffering from an ideological void brought about by the world wide collapse of Communism and its gutting of ideological content within China, for a spiritual system to fill the void which was grounded in ancient Chinese beliefs. But, with the growth of the Falun Gong, there was more going on than that. There was also a reaction to Communist Chinese wrongs.
When one reads today the ten commandments, they may seem trite. Who argues today for, say, the right to kill? One way to appreciate their significance is to consider the murderous environment from which they emerged.
Falun Gong is based on three simple ethical principles - compassion, truthfulness and tolerance. These principles too, in isolation, may seem trite. One way of appreciating their significance is considering the wrongs of Chinese Communism. If one had to describe the Communist regime of China in three words, then cruel, dishonest, and intolerant would pretty much sum it up. The Falun Gong is a reaction to this cruelty, dishonesty, and intolerance, a statement that these wrongs would be inflicted, if they had their way, never again. The Falun Gong are an assertion of differentiation, a statement that we, the Falun Gong, do not want to be like them, the Chinese Communists.
Well, what does all this have to do with the future of China? Friedrich Hegel explained the evolution of history as the evolution of thought. Hegel explained that thought developed as a conceptual hierarchy. Each level of the hierarchy is more sophisticated than the one before. Each level grows out of the one before. The motor or engine for development of this hierarchy is the dialectic. The dialectic is a process of thesis, antithesis, synthesis.
Karl Marx adopted this dialectical analysis but shifted it to the economic sphere. World history, to Marx, could be explained as the working of a sequence of economic theses, antitheses and syntheses.
One would have thought that people who saw the workings of history as the evolution from one level to a more sophisticated level would have applied the lessons to their own work. Yet, this form of analysis has been infected by egoism. Whether it is the inability of people to see outside of themselves or the refusal to admit that anything or anyone can be more sophisticated than them, writers using the Hegelian dialectic have tended to think that the dialectic ended with their understanding.
That was true of Hegel, who saw the culmination of the dialectic of thought as the conception of a universe understood by a spirit whose essence is rational necessity. In other words, the development of thought ended with Hegel's own understanding, the dialectic itself. Marx saw the culmination of the economic dialectic as the socialism he prescribed. To Marx, socialism was the inevitable and necessary conclusion of economic history. Frances Fukuyama in modern times has fallen into a similar trap, writing that with Western democracy, we have reached the conceptual end of political history.
If we strip this analysis of its egoism, it does provide insight. Neither intellectual nor economic nor political history has ended. The dialectic marches on.
We can think of Communism in China as a thesis, or a sequence of theses - spiritual, political and economic. Economically, the thesis of socialism has already been replaced by its antithesis, unbridled capitalism. But Communist China is still stuck in the thesis stage of its history for political and spiritual thought.
What is the spiritual antithesis of Chinese communism? It is surely Falun Gong. By asserting the values of compassion, truthfulness and tolerance, the Falun Gong have presented to China the complete opposite of what Chinese communism has meant in practice for the people of China. Chinese communists do not assert the values of cruelty, dishonesty and intolerance. But they have practised them. In the everyday reality of China, that is what Communism has meant; that is what Communism has brought.
Communist rule in China was founded on an economic concept, socialism, which it has abandoned. The current regime believes in nothing, has little popular support and stays in power through corruption, propaganda, incitement to hatred and brute force. A regime which has no ideological justification is fragile. But what would replace it? China is at the edge of a chasm. It may well fall into the abyss. But if it gets to the other side, what is to be found there?
The Falun Gong, despite the fears they aroused in then President Jiang Zemin who bore primary responsibility for their repression, are not the candidate one might think of first as replacing Communism in China. Falun Gong has no political ideology nor political platform. If a revolution in China were to happen tomorrow and someone wished to hand over power to the Falun Gong, it would be first of all hard to figure out who should be given the power, since there is no leadership amongst the group. Moreover, if one were arbitrarily to pick a few Falun Gong practitioners and make them the Government of China, it would be hard to guess what they might do, aside from ending human rights violations, since there is no Falun Gong political agenda.
Nonetheless, one can not ignore the significance of belief systems as organizing principles. A parallel is the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire. Even though Christianity began, at least from one perspective, at least in part, as a reaction to the brutality of the Roman Empire, even though the Roman Empire persecuted Christians most cruelly, eventually the Roman Empire became Christian. Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312 A.D. Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the empire in 391 A.D. The belief in Christianity had grown so strong and the belief in the traditional Roman values had grown so weak that Christianity became a better organizing idiom for the empire than the old Roman values.
Religious conversion is not only or even primarily practical. Yet when the leaders of an empire convert from one belief system to another, there is a measure of practicality in what they are doing.
One can see the same happening in China. Communism today is incapable of holding China together. At some time the leadership will realize that they need a better set of principles than they have got if they are going to maintain China as a going concern. The successors of Mao, each in their own way, have been attempting to identify those principles, but without any success. The person who got it right was Li Hongzhi, the person whose writings inspired the Falun Gong movement. Though his writings had no political content or intent, he managed to articulate a set of beliefs which reverberates with the Chinese people, the Chinese soul. At some point, the leadership of China will realize this.
China will become democratic. But it will be a democracy with Chinese characteristics. And the Falun Gong is authentically Chinese.
Repressive regimes sometimes are dislodged. But when they are not, they rot from within. With repressive regimes, insiders victimize outsiders. But the insiders of tomorrow are the outsiders of today. Nepotism forestalls this phenomenon since the leadership does not victimize its own children. But a country as large as China can not be ruled by nepotism alone.
When the victims get to power, they abandon the ideology which victimized them and cast about for a new one. It is just a matter of time before they alight on the Falun Gong, the most compelling belief system to come out of China since the collapse of the Iron Curtain.
The Chinese leadership today treat the Falun Gong as their worst enemy, imprisoning and torturing them more than any other group, killing only them and prisoners sentenced to death for their organs. At some point, they will realize that the Falun Gong are their best friends, an authentic Chinese belief system that is capable of keeping China united, that is capable of keeping China, to use the catchword of the muddled ideology of current Chinese President Hu Jintao, harmonious.
China one day will be predominantly Falun Gong not because the current set of Falun Gong practitioners will one day take over the leadership of China but because the leadership of China will one day become Falun Gong practitioners. In the wings of the stage of Chinese history stands a Constantine.
David Matas is an international human rights lawyer practising in Winnipeg, Manitoba Canada. He is the author with David Kilgour of the work "Bloody Harvest: A Report into Allegations of Organ Harvesting of Falun Gong Practitioners in China".