[national fears]

Because I know a little something about Korea, people often ask me about the Chinese government. I suppose Canadians probably get asked to explain America, so I kind of get it.

In any case, a question that often comes up is why the Chinese government is so terrified of Falun Gong. I don’t know from any detailed insider knowledge or anything, but my guess is that it has to do with a vast and little-known war called the Taiping Rebellion.

At roughly the same time that some 600,000 Americans lost their lives in our Civil War, China was going through an epic struggle that cost some 20 million lives — some 30 times as many casualties. (I found one reference to China’s population in 1834 as 400 million, while the US had some 31 million in 1860, so the percentage losses are closer: something like 5% in China, and 2% in the US.)

Wars on this scale leave national scars. America certainly hasn’t resolved all the racial issues that lay behind the Civil War, and fear of race-based insurrection has continued to haunt the national psyche.

In China, the haunting fear is of a different kind. It’s a fear of disruptive religious movements, because that’s what Taiping was. Hong Xiuquan, the movement’s leader, claimed to be Jesus’s brother, and he led what was called the Heavenly Kingdom in a great battle to rid China of Manchu rule and spread a peculiar brand of heterodox Christianity.

So I don’t know this for a fact, but I suspect that when Chinese officials see a movement like Falun Gong — a religious movement with the power to mobilize great numbers of people — some national memory of the Taiping disaster kicks in. On a gut level, mass religious zeal produces panic.

None of this is meant to justify the abuse, repression, or torture of any group of people for their religious beliefs, of course. The question isn’t whether such repression is OK — it’s not — but why it happens, why this group in particular gets the Chinese government’s panties in a bunch. And I think that maybe it’s that legacy of Taiping.