The rise and fall of Falun Gong, and its subsequent transformation in exile into a well-financed and ubiquitous nemesis of the Communist Party, is probably the most mysterious chapter in the history of China over the last 30 years, its age of reform. Diplomats, journalists and China specialists have had difficulty explaining the mass appeal of Li, who even before the 1999 protest was more invisible than charismatic. Like the Communist Party, Falun Gong shrouds its inner workings in secrecy and communicates through propaganda.
Equally perplexing, the ruling party’s reaction to Falun Gong seemed wildly disproportionate to any threat that the group, made up largely of retired men and women who practiced exercises in public parks, could pose to the Chinese state. In “Falun Gong and the Future of China,” David Ownby, a historian of China at the University of Montreal, argues that however extraordinary the demonstrations seemed at the time, both the popularity of Falun Gong and the party’s determination to wipe it out were predictable to students of Chinese history.