Last October, I visited Tiananmen Square, mingling among mainland tourists and day-trippers. As I reminisced about this historic spot, where rebellious students erected their headquarters in 1989, a police van pulled over and I saw a more subdued form of protest and crackdown take place.
I watched silently as a tanned, middle-aged woman sitting a few metres away was questioned brusquely by two police officers. As I reached for my camera, a man in plain clothes wearing an earphone took my photograph. I sat motionless, watching his accomplices order her into the van. She did as she was told, offering no resistance. The van took off, gliding carefully past the marble pedestal that was partly damaged by tanks and gunfire in 1989.
The political portent of the event and my powerlessness in the face of it troubled me. Was this the arrest of an innocent? Was the mainland taking a step towards fascism? Who was she? Who were they? What right did they have to arrest her? How did they know if she was Falun Gong?
It is a year later and I still don't know if I witnessed something evil, akin to the arrest of the gypsies in pre-war Germany or something more benign, as the central Government struggles awkwardly to persuade its citizens not to join a potentially dangerous cult.
Over the past year, Falun Gong protests have been an almost daily occurrence, sometimes involving the passive disobedience of middle-aged people, sometimes daring orchestrated movements of hundreds. National Day celebrations this year were marked by more Falun Gong demonstrations at Tiananmen with more arrests.
The People's Daily has sought to reassure the public that everything is under control, and that the mainland's proud harvest of 28 Olympic gold medals on this 51st National Day could not be upstaged, by comparing the Falun Gong protesters to mosquitoes at a picnic. The problem with the mosquito analogy is that almost everyone agrees it is OK to swat and destroy little buzzing things.
I have tried on several occasions to read Li Hongzhi in his own words to better understand his undeniably powerful, populist movement. But his writings are long-winded, illogical and often opaque. He is cryptic at best, other times outright evasive. He talks of passing through walls and playing tricks on other gurus. He says he can fly and control people from a distance and that scientists would agree with him if scientists weren't too politicised to see the real truth.
Having lived in Japan during the time of the now notorious Aum Shinrikyo cult, just hearing boastful talk of levitation and special powers by a guru with messianic intentions makes me want to cringe. It predisposes me so much against meditation groups with charismatic leaders making unscientific claims that I am ready to give the mainland Government the benefit of the doubt on this one. Falun Gong is not an exercise group, it is a cult.
I can even understand, though don't necessarily agree with, Beijing's analysis of the Falun Gong threat. It's lonely at the top of the mainland's governmental pyramid and the world is a hostile place, full of potential threats. Knowing full well they are in power by fiat, not popular choice, the Communist Party is a jealous god, intent on knocking down all potential rivals for the hearts and minds of the mainland's vast populace.
Home-grown protests and peasant revolts are troubling enough, but Falun Gong smacks of foreign complicity. After all, its founder, Mr Li, is based in the United States, and the US refuses to deport him. It doesn't take too bold a leap of imagination to see Mr Li as a lackey of Western anti-China forces, since he has enjoyed tacit, sometimes vocal support of pro-democracy groups, and Tibet and Taiwan separatists.
As far as Beijing is concerned, Falun Gong is anti-Communist Party, which is to say anti-China, which makes it part of an international united front plotting to overthrow the Government. It is seen as part of the same nefarious American plot that employs dissidents Wei Jingsheng and Harry Wu Hongda, who "made clear their common stance" with the cultists.
Beijing hates the phrase "human rights" because it loses face every time some trading partner complains about the mainland's callousness towards its own citizens. In their jaded eyes, human-rights supporters don't really care about individual rights, they just want to humiliate the mainland.
These groups have therefore been characterised as anti-China fronts for the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that use the human-rights stick to bash the motherland. Not all of this rhetoric is unreasonable. For example, Beijing argues that Falun Gong must be smashed to protect human rights. It sounds like communist doublespeak, but incredibly enough, they have a valid point despite a weak record in protecting the rights of ordinary citizens.
If Falun Gong truly is a cult, it needs to be controlled. Cults are notoriously suicidal when it comes to making a point, and notably thin-skinned when it comes to media criticism. Japan's Aum and the mainland's Falun Gong are similar in respect to information control. During Aum's short, inglorious reign as an officially sanctioned new religion, the crypto-Hindu-Buddhist meditation cult targeted and harassed publications and TV stations that dared to raise questions about abuses.
Cults always want to be "left alone" to pursue their ambitious apolitical agendas. When the media heat was turned up and the Japanese government investigators reluctantly decided to look into claims of disappearances and lost children, the cultists gassed the Tokyo subway, killing a dozen and injuring hundreds. Only after the cult was dismantled did the shocking story of their ruthless chilling political ambitions come to light. It turned out that they had produced enough gas to kill tens of thousands, had attempted to obtain nuclear weapons and were producing their own guns for a self-styled apocalyptic battle for supremacy in Japan.
Falun Gong, when the full truth is finally known, may turn out to be far more gentle and peace-loving than Aum, but the similarities in the tip of the iceberg that we can see are unsettling. Both groups oppose objective media scrutiny, employing slick public-relations techniques of their own to deflect criticism, and avoid close attention. The earliest Falun Gong rallies in Tianjin and Beijing were designed to intimidate unfriendly media coverage, long before the group was deemed an evil cult and banned.
What of the allegation that Falun Gong is part of a CIA plot to destabilise the mainland? It is theoretically possible. After all, the CIA worked with Vietnamese cults to combat Communism during Vietnam's wars with the French and Americans, as depicted in Graham Greene's The Quiet American.
Unfortunately the CIA has become the icon of secret intelligence work, which means it is assumed to be more efficient and clever than it really is. (The CIA's bungled targeting of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the Nato strikes shows that the agency is not what it's commonly cracked up to be.) Nonetheless, from Beijing's point of view, the mere fact that "Master Li", its No 1 trouble-maker of the moment, resides in the US raises uncomfortable questions. Who expedited the 1996 immigration formalities of the then unknown guru at a time when Chinese were lining up in record numbers at US embassies and consulates to try to get permission to enter the US?
In the newly published Falun Gong's Challenge to China, New York media critic Danny Schechter offers an insightful account of how anti-Falun Gong rhetoric, for all its flowery anger, was not initiated by Beijing - which tolerated the sect for a very long time - but by ex-members who had a falling out with the master.
How Falun Gong Harassed Me and My Family, by He Zuoxiu, is one of the earliest texts to criticise Mr Li and his followers, in language that was later co-opted by the Government. More importantly, Schechter also hints that the Communist Party was divided on how to proceed, with Premier Zhu Rongji reportedly sympathetic to the sect (he had met key members) and President Jiang Zemin incensed about it, one of many fascinating loose ends in his report.
This raises questions about the possibility that discord in Zhongnanhai, where the party leadership is based, is one reason for the discord on mainland streets. How else can we understand Beijing's 180-degree turn, going from a pointed lack of interest in a qi gong exercise group, to an unhealthy obsession with obliterating it? If such an impasse existed due to sharply divergent views in the corridors of power, it is eerily reminiscent of the conflict between former party chief Zhao Ziyang and the then premier Li Peng 10 years earlier when the party could not agree on how to handle student unrest. Needless to say, the results, played out for the world to see on Tiananmen Square, were disastrous.
So what is the real story? Is Mr Jiang and the party he commands really scared of Falun Gong or are they just irritated by it, using it as a convenient "enemy" to whip the nation into line? Regardless of Mr Jiang's motives, there is no justification for kicking, beating and roughing up suspects. Furthermore, accounts of prison abuse, torture and criminal negligence leading to death are mounting and incriminating. In this respect Beijing has a lot to answer for. On the other hand, the US record in handling apocalyptic groups in the thrall of egotistical, messianic gurus is far from sterling, and shocking abuses, including murder and negligent homicide, have occurred. Yet few, besides defenders of the extremist militias behind the bombing of the federal offices in Oklahoma in 1995, would argue that the US Government is fascist and needs to be overthrown.
Allowing for the possibility that many, even most, individual members have been very simple-minded about their reasons for joining, and "pure" in their motives to do whatever their guru is having them do, they are part of a political movement, whether they like it or not. Tiananmen is the most overtly political place on the mainland, and anyone who sends his or her followers to risk arrest and imprisonment by demonstrating there knows that.
In September, Li Hongzhi recklessly, from the safety of exile, urged his flock to step up confrontation with police to achieve "consummation" even though it could mean death on this planetary sphere.
On its characterisation of Falun Gong as a cult that aims to destabilise the regime, I think Beijing is largely in the right. Falun Gong looks, acts and smells like a cult with grandiose earthly political ambition, not to mention the interplanetary stuff.
The idea that it is merely an old ladies' exercise group is disarming and disingenuous, despite the bona fide presence of followers who seek health-restoring exercise regimes. Cults thrive on pulling in political innocents who are then used as pawns in a larger political struggle.