Chinese Professor's Attack on a Sect Led to a Face-Off

New York Times/February 5, 2001
By Erik Eckholm

Beijing -- In the spring of 1999, Professor He Zuoxiu, an elderly theoretical physicist whose avocation is debunking pseudoscience, hoped to provoke some debate with a short article warning about the "deceitful lies" of certain "qigong" meditation sects. One called Falun Gong, he charged, led a student into mental illness.

At the time, his provocative views were not welcome in the mainstream press, and the article appeared in the April issue of "Science and Technology for Youth," an obscure magazine published by a teacher-training university in Tianjin, 100 miles southeast of Beijing.

Neither the professor nor anyone else could have imagined that the article would touch off some of China's most tumultuous events in years: nothing less than the broadest popular resistance to Communist authority since the 1989 democracy movement and the harsh government crackdown that followed. It was anger over the professor's article that led 10,000 or more Falun Gong believers to hold a vigil on April 25, 1999, outside the leadership compound in Beijing, demanding an official apology and legal recognition. And it was that unauthorized demonstration that led the frightened authorities to outlaw the spiritual group, which had attracted millions of Chinese with its promises of physical and spiritual salvation through meditative exercises.

Mr. He, now 74, is a Chinese original. As a physicist he aided China's development of nuclear weapons in the early 1960's. Today, he said in an interview at his small apartment in a compound of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, he is still collaborating with scientists at M.I.T. in the search for "dark matter" in the universe.

Yet this advocate of scientific methods is also a devout Marxist who has published essays questioning whether today's pell-mell market reforms are steering China off the true path of Marx and socialism. "As a scientist I make my judgments based on universal laws," he said in the interview. "And Marxism is a science just like all the others."

If his orthodox Marxism is not always welcomed by the leadership, his diatribes against "evil cults" garner more official respect these days, and he has no regrets about his cameo role in the bizarre national drama of Falun Gong. He said that the latest news, of seven apparent followers trying to immolate themselves in Tiananmen Square, only meant that Li Hongzhi, the Falun Gong founder, was even more despicable than he had asserted before. "This proves that Falun Gong is more evil than other cults," Mr. He said.

"With the Branch Davidians in the United States, at least the head of the cult burned himself together with the others. Here the head wanted to sacrifice his followers to achieve his own ulterior motives." The immolation attempts, on Jan. 23, left one woman dead and four people severely burned. Two others were stopped from lighting themselves, the authorities said. Falun Gong representatives in the United States insist that the incident could not have involved followers and that "Master Li" opposes suicide. The government has launched a renewed campaign to discredit the spiritual movement.

Mr. He was born 1927 to an affluent family in Shanghai, with Christians and Buddhists in his family background, he said. His father, who died when the boy was only 2, had an engineering doctorate from Cornell University. Like many idealistic students during the war against Japanese invaders and the civil war that followed, he became interested in Marxism. In 1947, when he moved to Qinghua University in Beijing to study physics, he became an underground Communist Party member.

In the 1950's, in the new People's Republic of China, he mainly worked not in laboratories but in the Department of Propaganda, where he helped oversee the development of science and technology and wrote major articles on the Marxist theory of science.

During Mao's Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976, Mr. He and his wife also a physicist, fell into disfavor. Though they did not land in prison, with their upper-class backgrounds and insufficient enthusiasm for Maoist turmoil, they did wind up in a strange confinement: each day they had to go to separate places where they were kept locked up, then were released each night to sleep at home.

"Mao had an excessive belief in class struggle, and that became an obstacle to the development of productive forces," Mr. He said. "To my point of view, such thinking was not consistent with Marxism."

So was Mao, in the end, a kind of cult leader himself? Mr. He smiled disdainfully. "You can't compare Mao to Li Hongzhi," he said. "Mao hoped to raise the living standards of the people," he said. "He personally lost six family members to the revolution, and during that period he made great contributions to our people. "Mao made mistakes during his later years, but these were the mistakes of a great man." For the last 20 years or so, Mr. He has pursued a part-time, unofficial crusade against what he considers superstition and bogus science. Qigong masters, who sprang up by the dozens in the 1980's, were common targets.

Mr. He is among the minority of Chinese who deny the existence of qi, the supposed cosmic forces in the body and universe that are the basis of qigong exercises as well as much of traditional Chinese medical theory. But while he says the crackdown on Falun Gong should if anything be intensified - associated rights abuses, he says, have been greatly exaggerated abroad - he does not call for a blanket ban on qigong.

"I've never been against endeavors by old people to practice qigong in pursuit of health and longevity," he said. "But if you claim that it can work all wonders, that's cheating people." "My field is the quantum theory of fields," he said. "When people say qigong is a field, I cannot agree."

Since the Falun Gong troubles, the government has tied itself in knots trying to distinguish between "good" and "bad" forms of qigong. Mr. He would only say that China "has not fully solved" the question of how to handle different schools. Mr. He is unfazed by reports that some Falun Gong members have tried to direct supernatural punishments at him. "I welcome that," he said, "because I know it's impossible" Then, laughing, he added, "But if someone tries to use physical force against me they'll succeed, because I'm old and frail and I believe in Newton's laws of physics."

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