A worried Beijing steps up its crackdown on Falun Gong, pre-empting a potential threat but risking a backlash among the restive populace
By TERRY McCARTHY Shanghai
Nervous people jump at shadows. The communist leadership says the 48-year-old Li wants to overthrow the government. Li, who left China for the U.S. in 1994, talks about a wheel of energy that rotates in the lower abdomen. The cognitive dissonance is as wide as the gap that separates the ageing communist leadership from the realities of everyday China. While the Politburo constantly sees threats to its monopoly on power, ordinary people see rising unemployment, corruption and, as of last week, police arbitrarily stopping them in the street to check whether they have any Falun Gong texts in their bags.
If Falun Gong originally offered an escape for a couple of hours from the rigor mortis of Marxism, official paranoia may now inflate it into something more dangerous. "The government is turning it into an anti-Communist cause," says an academic in Beijing who did not want his name published. "It's a stupid policy. It is creating enemies where there were no enemies." After a three-month investigation of the group during which security agents infiltrated its activities and secretly videotaped exercise sessions, Beijing decided two weeks ago to ban all Falun Gong activities. Thousands of members materialized outside government offices around the country in silent protest, as they had done on April 25 outside Beijing's Zhongnanhai leadership compound over alleged disparaging remarks in the official press. This time, though, there were detentions. Members were held for days in stadiums on the outskirts of big cities, where they were questioned and forced to sign statements disavowing Falun Gong before they were released.
The official paranoia apparently reaches as high as President Jiang Zemin himself. The 73-year-old leader, not known for late-night Web surfing, has become obsessed with the sect and its ability to organize its activities in cyberspace. Diplomatic sources say Jiang frequently brings up Falun Gong in conversation, and he has reportedly been driven around Beijing in a car with tinted windows to observe for himself the group's silent protests.
But if the leadership looks through its colored glass and sees a potentially threatening mass organization, the view from ground level is far different. Practitioners make Falun Gong sound like a sort of Buddhism Lite, with breathing exercises that improve physical health and a clean-scrubbed ethic that disapproves of smoking, drinking and the crass materialism of today's China. Beijing-born Sophie Xiao, who has been practicing Falun Gong for two years, says it has given her "answers to things I had been looking for all my life. I smile all the time, have no trouble in my life anymore."
Xiao, 32, had a tough upbringing in China during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. Her father was driven "mentally crazy" after he was denounced as disloyal to Mao at work, and at home he expressed his anger by beating Xiao and her mother. He is dead now, but Xiao says that for years she was "grumpy, self-centered, stubborn, doing things that were bad for me." Now living and working in Hong Kong--where Falun Gong remains legal--Xiao came into contact with the movement through her mother, who still resides in Beijing. "She was always so sick, but when she started going to Falun Gong sessions, she seemed to get better. She seemed much happier, taking things much more lightly. So I thought I would look into it myself."
Xiao found a Falun Gong group close to where she lives and most mornings spends half an hour meditating, one hour doing the series of five basic qigong exercises and a further half-hour reading Li Hongzhi's book, Zhuan Falun (Turning of the Wheel of Law). It has nine lectures on such topics as the Third Eye, the "Cosmic Language" and Enlightenment. "It changes you into a totally different person," says Xiao. "You let go of a lot of human desires and become very peaceful, and then you don't fear anything. That's probably what the Chinese government is afraid of--that Falun Gong people are not afraid."
Xiao's mother, a Communist Party member, was detained for 44 hours in Beijing after the ban on Falun Gong was announced--"she is stubborn, she wouldn't sign the letter of confession," Xiao says. She was interrogated repeatedly about the group's organizational structure and was released only after finally agreeing to distance herself from Falun Gong. She is still closely monitored by her local party cell.
That many party members were attracted to Falun Gong's simple moral teachings and meditative techniques for overcoming anger and frustration came as a shock to the leadership. Not on the grounds of ideological purity--few in the rank-and-file even pretend to subscribe to Marxist slogans any more--but because an organization like this could exist in parallel to the party and infiltrate it without being noticed. Older cadres remember that this was exactly how many communist movements came to power, under the guise of a united front. Falun Gong insists it has no organized structure, but such denials only heighten the suspicions of authorities determined to find a political conspiracy.
In the absence of any evidence of a conspiracy, however, the official media has accused Li Hongzhi of being a cult leader who promotes superstition and witchcraft. "If the scientific spirit cannot take root in peoples' hearts, pseudoscientific activities will continue to deceive people," says Zou Chenglu, a researcher at the Institute of Biophysics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
"We are not a cult," counters a middle-aged Falun Gong member in Beijing. "We are simply trying to learn how to be better individuals and how to prepare for our deaths. We're not attached to this world." Precisely what Falun Gong is attached to is still something of a mystery. In an interview with Time in April, Li Hongzhi spoke about the joys of levitating and claimed he knew many people who could achieve the feat--including David Copperfield, the well-known illusionist. Li also claimed that aliens have been invading humanity since the beginning of this century, with the ultimate purpose of replacing human beings by cloning.
Such bizarre theories are not contained in his books, which stick to more familiar Buddhist concepts of karma, compassion and the search for enlightenment. Li fends off questions about how his followers are organized and denies that he had anything to do with the "spontaneous" April 25 protest in Beijing. Last week the government produced immigration documents to show that he had visited Beijing from April 22 to 24, but Li claims he was simply changing planes in transit to Australia.
The battle between the cult and the commissars has now reverted to the Internet. The government has blocked Falun Gong sites from all mainland Internet servers and last week set up its own website--"Unveil Falun Gong for the Health and Life of the People." This Chinese-language site (ppflg.china.com.cn) contains criticism of the movement and testimonies from people who claim relatives or friends died because of Falun Gong teachings.
Meanwhile the Falun Gong Research Society, which is headquartered in New York, has been putting out regular bulletins on its own site (www.falundafa.org) about the ongoing crackdown in cities across China. Some of this material is getting back into the mainland through e-mail.
For the time being, the government has prevailed. Falun Gong adherents no longer dare to practice in parks, and other Chinese have been scared by the government's harsh crackdown--few have offered any support for the beleaguered movement. But in the long run, with the economy set to worsen, the leadership may regret having made millions of enemies in the past two weeks. The dragons might yet re-emerge from the sea.
With reporting by Mia Turner/Beijing
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