Crusader Disputes Falun Gong Claims

The Associated Press, October 25, 1999
By Elaine Kurtenbach

BEIJING (AP) - Sima Nan swings a bicycle around by his teeth, bashes bricks with his head and lectures his audiences on the art of deception - all part of a crusade to debunk the supernatural powers claimed by leaders of the outlawed Falun Gong movement and other meditation sects.

Sima's decade-long mission to expose the masters of qigong - a popular form of exercise that draws from martial arts and traditions of mysticism - has the blessing of the Chinese government, which banned Falun Gong for fear it could precipitate unrest.

"At first, I saw some extraordinary masters and I really believed in them. They seemed to do miraculous things," Sima said in an interview at his Beijing office. "But after a while I realized that they were cheating unsuspecting people and taking their money."

"From that time on, I became their public and private enemy," he says.

Various sects and mystical schools of qigong (pronounced chee-gong) have grown popular among Chinese seeking ways to improve their health and to fill a void left by the bankruptcy of traditional and Communist beliefs.

Authorities tolerated Falun Gong - a melange of Buddhism, Taoism and qigong that by some estimates had as many as 70 million followers - until 10,000 followers held a silent vigil around the Communist leadership compound in Beijing on April 25.

Worried that such protests could catalyze unrest among a public disgruntled by widespread unemployment and corruption, the government banned the sect on July 22.

For Sima, the move was a vindication: Falun Gong is one of many groups he has campaigned against.

China's state-run mass media have conducted a propaganda war against Falun Gong, branding it a public menace and blaming it for the deaths of more than 700 people. The group's founder, Li Hongzhi, who now lives in the United States, denies those charges.

On Monday, China accused Falun Gong of stealing state secrets and sought to tighten laws to quash it and other quasi-religious organizations. An inquiry by the Ministry of Public Security, China's national police force, found that Falun Gong members had leaked or disseminated 59 classified official documents, the official Chinese news agency reported.

Authorities have found Sima a useful tool in their no-holds-barred offensive against Falun Gong.

Sima, the 43-year-old son and grandson of Chinese medicine doctors, had a keen interest in qigong as a youth. Like Li, he comes from China's cold northeast. He, too, worked on an army farm and later as a bureaucrat.

"We come from very similar backgrounds. I understand him," Sima says.

For years, Sima watched qigong masters perform. Then, in 1990, before an audience of 200 top officials and journalists at Beijing's Friendship Hotel, he gave a performance of his own.

"I wanted to expose them," he says. "To show that it's all fakery."

A video from that time shows the muscular Sima going through his routine. Using a cloth to protect his teeth, he picks up a heavy Chinese bicycle and swings it around. He pulls a compact car by his teeth and balances a sword against his collarbone to push the same car.

An assistant bashes bricks over his head, uses a sledgehammer to crack concrete slabs balanced on his head, rides a motorcycle over his head - protected with a pillow and a board. Sima "eats" fire, runs his bare hand over a red-hot steel rod, uses a glass tumbler to break bricks.

"I also sometimes break the glass, pick up the pieces and eat them," he says. "If you crush them small enough with your teeth, it's no problem."

The stunts aren't foolproof. "Sometimes I've singed my lips. That really hurts," he says.

Sima travels the country, visiting universities and factories - his recent jobs as a journalist and economist have taken a back seat to this metier - sometimes staging similar performances, other times merely lecturing on the arts of deception.

"The whole point is that everyone is subject to the same scientific laws," he says. "There is no one immune to the law of gravity, regardless of what those so-called masters say."

Despite his devout belief in the superiority of science, Sima says he believes Chinese do need to find some form of common values to fill the role taken by religion in other societies.

"Today, China is suffering a vacuum of faith," he says. "We are plagued by confusion. We need to resolve this problem and develop some form of common beliefs, or we will be just 1.2 billion potatoes.


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