BEIJING -- The animosity between Sima Nan and the Falun Gong spiritual movement goes back a few years, ever since Sima, China's one-man cult-bashing machine, denounced the group as a fraud in 1995, and the group's leader predicted that Sima would go blind and be crippled, Sima says.
"As you can see my eyes and legs are fine," Sima said recently, with the swagger of a man who routinely captivates audiences by eating glass shards and cracking chopsticks with paper bills, all to prove that supernatural powers do not really exist.
Indeed, in the course of his decade-long campaign against Chinese groups that he says encourage superstition and mystical beliefs, Sima seems to have made enemies across the political spectrum.
He has been beaten by members of sects he has denounced and shunned by the government as a flamboyant upstart willing to "out" officials who believe in the supernatural, like the vice minister who for good luck invites a master of qi gong -- slow-motion exercises said to harness unseen forces -- to important events.
But these days, Sima's longstanding feud with Falun Gong has transformed him into an establishment darling, featured in newspapers and sent to state companies all over the country to lecture. In July, Chinese leaders banned Falun Gong and they have since labeled it an "evil sect."
The new role is unlikely and somewhat awkward for the 43-year-old former liberal journalist who turned to cult bashing -- and took the name Sima Nan -- when he found himself out of a job after the 1989 government crackdown on protests in Tiananmen Square.
"In 1995, I said Falun Gong was a cult and everyone said I was crazy," he said. "Now that President Jiang Zemin says it, people agree with me."
Still, Sima is careful to maintain some distance from the government, refusing its payments for his lectures. "There are not many people like me who are willing to take on these masters," he said. "I do this because I feel a responsibility to tell the truth."
Falun Gong has denied that it is a cult.
The group says it blends traditional Chinese exercise, mysticism, Buddhism and Taoism to promote physical and spiritual health.
Sima says he supports the government's ban on Falun Gong, which he thinks is duping China's masses. But he remains ambivalent about the government's campaign against the group, with vitriolic propaganda and hundreds of arrests.
"I don't think they should let these people sit in Tiananmen Square, but I also think it's really bad that the government is treating this like a political movement," he said. "To have people criticizing each other for practicing and old ladies in tears confessing on TV -- you don't have to humiliate people like that."
Sima says the government's omnipresent anti-Falun Gong messages have actually elevated the profile of what was, in his eyes, an undistinguished group, catering to people looking for meaning at a time of vast social transformation.
"People are tired of all the criticism, and they think if the government is paying so much attention to something, maybe it's important and interesting," he said.
In fact, he said, the state media's daily broadcasts and articles on the group "have been free advertising for Li Hongzhi," the founder and leader of the Falun Gong, who lives in New York.
Sima, the son of a traditional Chinese medical doctor, said he began his adult life as a believer in qi gong, which is said to improve health and, some say, gives practitioners magical powers.
Falun Gong considers itself a type of qi gong, and there are hundreds of other schools in China that have flourished in recent years, most with their own belief system and master.
Sima said that in his youth he certainly made the rounds.
"I used to believe in supernatural powers, and I was very impressed with those masters who could do amazing things," he said. But over time, he said, he grew skeptical of some of the stupendous claims, like being able to levitate or cure cancer. He says he still believes that qi gong exercises are good for body and soul.
In 1990, he embarked on a personal quest against many large qi gong and other quasi-religious groups that he says promote superstition and unscientific thought.
Until this summer Falun Gong was just one of his many targets. Sima said it is by no means the most popular of China's qi gong sects. He listed several others -- Zhong Gong, Yuan Ji Gong and Wang Gong -- which he said are bigger.
He is critical of China's leaders for suddenly singling out Falun Gong, noting that other groups that he considers equally unscientific have been granted legal status because they enjoy the patronage of government officials.
"Instead of just saying Falun Gong is an evil sect, they should be using science to be proving generally that there are no supernatural powers," he said.
The government's troubles with Falun Gong started after 10,000 members surrounded the leadership compound in Beijing in April, demanding recognition.
Not one to shy away from confrontation, Sima has been know to travel long distances to gate-crash qi gong meetings, confronting faith healers and qi gong masters. Last February, followers of one man, Hu Wailin, beat Sima and trapped him temporarily in a house in Shandong Province.
Some critics say that with his broad smile and theatrical bent, Sima's greatest skill is not exposing superstition, but engaging in self-promotion.
But after 10 years of crossing China in old trains and hundreds of nights in spare government guest houses, he denies that fame or money are his motivators. He lives on the income of a small television production
Still, he's a natural on stage -- breaking spoons with a touch of the hand and passing handkerchiefs though fire without igniting them. He clearly loves the limelight. This week he took a brief respite from his government assignments to perform with an American magician, James Randi, offering a huge reward to anyone who could prove to be in possession of supernatural powers.
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