Who Ya Gonna Call? In China, Debunkers Hire a Cultbuster

Sima Nan Is Much in Demand To Smoke Out Members Of the Banned Falun Dafa

The Wall Street Journal, August 30, 1999
By Ian Johnson

WUHAN, China -- Sima Nan smashes a tumbler with a brick, picks up a shard of glass, crunches it between his teeth and washes it down with water.

"With training, anybody can do this," he tells his incredulous audience of 1,500 Communist Party cadres from a steel mill here.

During his four-hour show, a mixture of Marx and magic, Mr. Sima quotes the communist classics one minute, and the next breaks a metal spoon with his breath and cracks a chopstick with paper money -- all tricks regularly performed by cult leaders to demonstrate their powers.

A longtime debunker of charlatans, Mr. Sima worked in obscurity for years. But in the six weeks since the Communist Party banned Falun Dafa, a spiritual discipline promising supernatural powers, Mr. Sima has become a hot commodity, jetting around the country at the behest of party bosses who hope the self-styled cultbuster can root out believers. The beefy martial artist with spiky crewcut and gruff demeanor has even won a national "hero of atheism" award.

He shares the party's opposition to Falun Dafa, but his crusade is a personal one. From 1982 to 1990, the 43-year-old former journalist says, he practiced every form imaginable of qigong, traditional breathing exercises that in recent years have been spread by masters such as Falun Dafa founder Li Hongzhi, who claim the practice gives them the ability to fly or walk through walls. "I knew most of the masters were cheats, but I thought if I could just find one who was real, I'd be happy," Mr. Sima says.

The experience taught him to value real qigong, which he says calms and improves blood circulation, much as yoga does. But he decided the superhuman skills -- from reading books with one's ears to faith-healing -- were fraudulent. Now, with the fervor of one born again, Mr. Sima stalks deceitful qigong masters, exposing their methods in videos, books and long lectures.

It's a risky business. Mr. Sima claims he has been attacked and his driver stabbed by offended followers of the cult leaders he targets. Earlier this year, newspapers carried photos of Mr. Sima bloodied by a faith healer's supporters. In another case this month, a journalist who was helping Mr. Sima to expose the same faith healer was kidnapped and held for three days before being rescued by police.

Mr. Sima says he is motivated purely by the satisfaction of unmasking cheats who he says prey on uneducated Chinese. He refuses speaking fees, accepting only travel costs, and otherwise supports himself through a television production company he owns.

The day before visiting the steel mill, Mr. Sima arrives in this grimy industrial city of six million, exhausted from a whirlwind tour that has taken him from Beijing to the tropical island of Hainan, where he lectured provincial officials on the evils of superstition, and to cosmopolitan Shanghai, where he worked on a TV documentary on Falun Dafa.

On his way to the Wuhan Iron & Steel Corp.'s guesthouse, he slumps in the front seat of a Volkswagen sedan, listening to an official from the steel company describe his itinerary. "And we'd really like you to do three tricks for us: bend the spoon, pick up the bike with your mouth and use your ear to read a book," the official says from the back seat.

Suddenly, Mr. Sima twists his powerful frame to face the startled man. "Nobody tells me what to do in my lecture," Mr. Sima snaps. "This isn't 'the magician comes to town, and you choose his tricks.' "

The official starts a suitably obsequious reply, but Mr. Sima isn't finished. "How many Falun Gong members do you have?" he barks, referring to practitioners of the exercise routine promoted by Falun Dafa. Four hundred is the reply. "I want them all there tomorrow for the speech. I want the ones who think I'm wrong. I want the ones who will never change their minds. I want them in the front row. OK?"

The next day, the practitioners and 1,100 other party cadres pack a dingy auditorium. A minute before showtime, Mr. Sima strides into the hall and seats himself onstage behind a desk. A lamp shines in his face while he talks into a microphone, radio disk-jockey style.

"You call yourself Communist Party cadres?" he bellows. "When you joined the grand party of Marx, Lenin and Mao, you swore to atheism, but some of you are cadres by day and proselytizers by night."

Then Mr. Sima launches into a surprisingly frank critique of how the Communist Party has failed to fill China's spiritual vacuum. Ever since China's traditional religious world collapsed along with the imperial system in 1911, he says, Chinese have searched for a new spirituality. When the communists took over in 1949, founding father Mao Tse-tung usurped the role of God. But since Mao's death in 1976, Chinese have been spiritually adrift -- hence the recent explosion of religions both old and new.

Especially pathetic, he says, are old party members trying to regain their youth. "They used to get the best girls," Mr. Sima says, as the auditorium roars and the local party secretary squirms. "Now they're just old guys in apartments looking to be strong again."

He grabs the microphone and strides across the stage, his powerful arms bulging in his blue banker's suit. Stripping off his jacket, he piles eight bricks on the head of a volunteer from the audience, climbs onto a chair and swings a sledgehammer down on the bricks. Five shatter, but the young man remains standing, somewhat surprised that his head is in one piece. "Physics," Mr. Sima shouts. "I only smashed five bricks. The bottom three cushioned his head."

Next, he picks up a glass tumbler and another brick. Mimicking a qigong master, he breathes on the glass to turn it into "iron glass." He smashes the glass against the brick, careful to make sure the thick base of the glass hits. The brick breaks. The audience whispers in amazement until Mr. Sima explains how thick glass is actually stronger than brick. Then he smashes the rim of the glass against the brick, grinds the thin shards in his teeth, and washes it all down with swigs of water.

The chopstick trick takes a bit more practice because when Mr. Sima hits the wood with the bank note, his little finger actually precedes the bill by a fraction of an inch, breaking the thin wooden stick in half.

Likewise the spoon trick, in which Mr. Sima wiggles the bowl of a spoon to show that it is firmly attached to the handle. Then he blows on the bowl and flicks it with his finger, snapping it at the handle. The trick: Mr. Sima's powerful fingers have actually weakened the metal until the bowl is ready to fall off.

Finally, with the audience still spellbound after four hours, Mr. Sima's assistant drags him away to catch a flight. On the plane back to Beijing, Mr. Sima concedes that after nine years of fighting hundreds of sects, he is exasperated by his countrymen's gullibility. "People nowadays want to becheated," he says. "There's not much one man can do, but I'm trying."

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