SHANGHAI, Aug. 2 -- Falun Gong followers in Hong Kong and the United States are squabbling over assertions by a woman in the southern Chinese territory that she is the "true master" of the spiritual movement, having taken over from its founder, Li Hongzhi, who has dropped from view.
The power struggle is a potentially important one for Falun Gong, which drew millions of adherents in the late 1990's, because most of its followers are on the Chinese mainland, across the border from Hong Kong. Hong Kong, the former British colony, reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, and whoever controls the group there has a chance of influencing Falun Gong's development in the rest of China.
The assertion that the woman, Belinda Pang, 37, is the "Lord of Buddhas" has led to more of a cat fight than catharsis for the movement, which went underground on the mainland after Beijing banned the group a year ago. Mr. Li, who is now based in New York, and Ms. Pang have traded accusations on competing Web sites.
The dispute began on May 11 -- celebrated as Buddha's birthday and, Mr. Li says, his birthday, too, though birth records in his hometown in China show otherwise. Ms. Pang, a tireless organizer in the Hong Kong chapter, organized a march through the city. Although only 24 people turned up, along the way most of them said they had experienced a vision of Ms. Pang seated in outer space while angels flew around her plucking flowers and dropping them to Earth. The flowers turned into raindrops when they hit the skin, said Mary Qian, one of those who said they saw the image.
"That's when we realized Ms. Pang was the Lord of Buddhas," Ms. Qian said by telephone today. They reported the finding on their Web site, www.falundafa.com.hk (now a dead link). Mr. Li was quick to denounce Ms. Pang on the official Falun Gong site, www.minghui.ca. Ms. Pang, who has drawn 30 hard-core believers, said all recent messages from Mr. Li were fakes, because he has left to "quietly watch practitioners and people in the world" from a cliff somewhere in the United States, where he is pictured in his last photo posted on the Falun Gong Web site, in January.