Shanghai - Civil disobedience by the Chinese spiritual movement Falun Gong shows no sign of slowing in the New Year and may be ratcheting up to a new level.
In a New Year's Day message to followers, posted on the group's official Web site (www.clearwisdom. net), the movement's exiled founder, Li Hongzhi, warned that Falun Gong followers facing persecution could rightfully "go beyond the limits of forbearance." Forbearance is one of the principal virtues promoted by his discipline.
"If the evil has already reached the point where it is unsavable and unkeepable, various measures at different levels can be used to stop it and eradicate it," he said, writing from the United States, where he now lives. That suggests that 2001 will be a year of increased activity among the core of true believers in China who are not in detention or under strict police supervision.
The number of those followers is impossible to estimate. Chinese authorities say it is under two million - far fewer than the 20 million estimated by one government agency to be practicing the discipline at the height of its popularity in the late 1990's. Mr. Li, meanwhile, continues to claim 100 million adherents worldwide, most of them in China.
China's efforts to crush the movement have reduced its numbers, but have also hardened the resolve of those who remain loyal to Mr. Li. Hundreds of Falun Gong followers staged scattered protests in Tiananmen Square this week, their brief attempts to unfurl banners quickly overwhelmed by the huge plainclothes police force that China fields on the square during holidays and significant anniversaries of the 18- month campaign to suppress the group.
Witnesses reported that one man was beaten on Monday until his head and the surrounding ground were splattered with blood. And a Hong Kong-based human rights group reported that in December four adherents had died in confrontations with the police or while in custody.
Mr. Li, a former government grain clerk from northeastern China, founded Falun Gong in the early 1990's as one of many exercise regimes that developed at the time based on the traditional Chinese practice of qigong, exercises intended to channel the body's vital energy, or qi, to various ends. Mr. Li went further than other self-styled qigong masters by marrying his exercises to an encompassing cosmology loosely based on Buddhist and Taoist tenets.
His promise of salvation from a morally degenerating world struck a chord with many Chinese, particularly those who felt spiritually bereft as China effectively abandoned Marxism and Maoism as moral guides amid the growing materialism of the 1990's. But Mr. Li's growing popularity, as well as the mystical mix of his belief system - he teaches that Falun Gong is the original law of the universe and that faithful followers attain supernatural powers - drew increasing criticism from the Communist Party. He left China for the United States in 1998 under pressure from the government.
Whether Mr. Li's New Year message advocates more militant action than the group's remarkably passive behavior to date is not clear. While his calls to "defend the Fa," or Great Law of Falun Gong, have kept adherents streaming into Tiananmen Square, his doctrine of forbearance has prevented most from resisting the beatings and detention that they invariably receive there. But his followers' activism has risen over the past six months as Mr. Li's appeals have grown increasingly urgent, even politicized.
In September, Falun Gong's official Web site began attacking President Jiang Zemin as the man personally responsible for Falun Gong's persecution, calling him "the highest representative of the evil force in the human world." In the past few weeks, students at Beijing University, traditionally the wellhead of political activism in China, have found Falun Gong fliers left on their dormitory doors or bicycles. And Falun Gong followers outside China have grown increasingly sophisticated in getting Mr. Li's messages to followers inside, frequently changing the address of its official Web site to circumvent China's Internet censors.
Despite efforts to block Falun Gong Web sites in China, the English-language version of the group's official site - carrying Mr. Li's New Year's message - can currently be seen by Internet subscribers in China. And the Hong Kong government has granted permission to group members there to hold a regional convention on Jan. 14 - something that is certain to provoke Beijing.
The group has even sponsored a letter-writing campaign to nominate Mr. Li for the Nobel Peace Prize. John F. Kutolowski, an associate professor of history at the State University College at Brockport, N.Y., and the father of a Falun Gong follower in the United States, has written to academics at many American universities asking them to join him in nominating Mr. Li for the prize.
Mr. Kutolowski declined to comment on the letter-writing campaign, saying only that it was a private initiative and that he was not among those people asked by the Nobel Committee to nominate candidates for the prize. Mr. Li, meanwhile, has begun speaking in increasingly apocalyptic terms. He has said the current struggles in China are leading to an apparently transcendent event that he calls the Consummation, in which his disciples will "leave" and "all bad people will be destroyed by gods."
Those who are left will pay for their past sins with "horrible suffering," he has said. China has responded to Mr. Li's shift in tone by declaring late last year that Falun Gong had become a reactionary political force bent on subverting China's socialist system. Known dissidents in Shanghai have been warned to steer clear of any contact with Falun Gong followers or face immediate detention.
And last week the standing committee of China's Parliament approved new rules defining illegal uses of the Internet that singled out its use "to organize evil religious cults" or "for communications between cult members" as among the most egregious offenses. The Chinese government has officially defined Falun Gong as an evil cult.
The implication is that Beijing is worried that as Falun Gong metamorphoses into a more political movement it could knit together an alliance of dissident networks around the country. The government has tried to discredit Mr. Li by using his words against him.
A New China News Agency report last week said that a dozen followers in China had committed mass suicide to attain Consummation and that dozens more had been prevented from doing so by the police. The report could not immediately be verified, but Mr. Li has in the past spoken out against suicide as a means of reaching salvation.
Mr. Li, though, does express growing impatience with the suppression of his movement in China and has suggested that followers confronting China's police are among the closest to reaching the group's ultimate spiritual goal.
"The present performance of the evil shows that they are already utterly inhuman and completely without righteous thoughts," Mr. Li said in his message posted on the Internet on Monday. "So such evil's persecution of the Fa can no longer be tolerated."