Endgame for the Falun Gong?
BEIJING, China -- Beijing has delivered a one-two punch to crush the faltering Falun Gong -- a move which could help isolate the sect's ring-leaders from its rank and file.
According to reports in the Chinese media last Sunday, courts sentenced five members of the outlawed spiritual movement to long prison terms for organizing gatherings of the banned spiritual group
Zhang Xiongwei was sentenced to 13 years for renting rooms used for secret meetings, the Beijing Daily said.
Zhang and the other defendants also were accused of making 2,800 Falun Gong banners and printing 98,000 pamphlets.
They were among 45 people tried by Beijing courts on Falun Gong-related charges in nine separate cases.
The sentencing came two days after four people were meted up to life imprisonment on charges of organizing a January 23 attempt by Falun Gong members to burn themselves to death in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
The stiff punishment is meant to amplify the message that Beijing is determined to uproot the sect, which combines slow-motion exercises and mystical teachings of its founder Li Hongzhi, a former government clerk now in exile in the U.S.
"The leadership is obsessed with the Falun Gong and have put its eradication as a top priority this year," says a mid-level government official. "They think it directly affects social stability."
Says a history professor in Beijing: "Government ministers and local bureaucrats are under pressure to prove their worth in dealing with the Falun Gong by way of the 'responsibility system'."
Local officials, he explains, are held responsible for flare-ups of protest in their turfs.
Since Beijing outlawed the Falun Gong in July 1999, the state media have largely succeeded, at least in the mainland, in portraying it as an "evil cult".
They blamed the group for the deaths of 1,660 people by suicide or refusing medical treatment. They used grisly footage of the self-immolation incident in Tiananmen Square to help stigmatize them and justify the fierce crackdown.
The Falun Gong says its teachings forbid all forms of killing, including suicide and have disputed claims that five people who set themselves on fire were practitioners.
Such court convictions and an incessant propaganda blitz have taken a toll on the group's following.
Once estimated to have up to 100 million followers in China -- more than the Communist Party's 64.5 million -- the group seems to be losing steam lately.
Because the sect has no formal membership, it is hard to gauge the number of practitioners.
But if their level of activities is a good gauge, their roster of active members may be dwindling. Until earlier this year, Falun Gong members held almost daily protests in Tiananmen Square. Those have petered out.
So does this spell the death of Falun Gong in China?
Not quite just yet. Public activities may have dwindled, but some members still meet in secret, liaise by Internet and disseminate press releases and spiritual tracts.
"I fear the crackdown may be merely forcing the group underground," says the history professor. All these years, the sect drew millions of devotees in large part because they offer a sense of security and purpose to those who feel lost in the heady reform of the past two decades.
They include multitudes of laid off workers, marginalized farmers, and forgotten pensioners, who fret about jobs and health care that the socialist state could no longer ensure.
Some of these practitioners have turned to the group for a cheap way of self-cure or health regimen. Still others did so in their search for a purpose in life, a spiritual anchor on which to moor their insecure lives.
Now that Communism has hollowed out, these lost souls are turning to religion and to groups like Falun Gong.
As long as Beijing remains bankrupt of ideas and a more attractive ideology that can fill such spiritual void, the appeal of groups like Falun Gong will likely endure.
Indeed the fierce crackdown on Falun Gong could backfire.
While the vilification campaign may isolate its leaders at home and abroad from its rank-and-file followers in the mainland, it has made Falun Gong a hot-button issue outside China.
The high-handed campaign has given the group the worldwide media attention that it would not have deserved.
Washington and other capitals have put Falun Gong on its talking-point agenda with Beijing as a religious-freedom issue. By trying to demonize its founder Li Hongzhi, Beijing has merely turned him into a political icon.
In this context, Falun Gong is far from finished.
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