Hong Kong - Over the past decade, China's leadership has stood up to a daunting array of challenges as the nation continued its rise as a world power. Remarkably, one of the largest has been an army of meditation and exercise addicts whose leader claims to have supernatural powers.
Ten years ago this week the Falungong, an organization devoted to a variety of the ancient practice of qigong or deep-breathing exercises, shook the Chinese government to its core. In the largest demonstration since the occupation of Tiananmen Square by student-led pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989, more than 10,000 Falungong practitioners gathered outside Zhongnanhai, the red-walled Communist Party headquarters in Beijing. There they demanded the release of 50 sect members who had been detained in the northern city of Tianjin and government recognition of the group as a legal entity.
Many of the demonstrators who amassed in the streets around the Zhongnanhai compound on April 25, 1999, were armed with the writings of their spiritual leader, Li Hongzhi, now 57, who lives in exile in the United States. Their protest was peaceful and painstakingly organized. That same night they returned to the buses that had carried them to the party's nerve center and went back - in some cases to distant provinces - from whence they came.
Chinese leaders, including then-president Jiang Zemin, were shocked by this demonstration of mass mobilization and defiance, especially as it came so close to the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Any group that could muster thousands of people in protest against the central government was destined to be banned, and within two months of its Zhongnanhai triumph, Falungong was denounced as an "evil cult" and prohibited from operating on the mainland, though the group still practices freely in Hong Kong.
Beijing also continued arresting - and, Falungong devotees abroad insist, torturing - members of the movement while at the same time launching a relentless propaganda campaign against its leader that continues today.
That campaign, by all indications, has been very effective. Falungong has become increasingly active overseas, but appears to be a spent force in China. Its voice has been notably silent during this important anniversary week.
If there is a moral to the Falungong story, it is at best mixed. The product of a controversial and charismatic leader who preaches the merits of physical suffering and claims he personally can heal the sick and lead the way to salvation for his legion of followers, it does bear many of the hallmarks of a cult.
But some scholars see Falungong as a significant spiritual movement within the tradition of qigong, a complex variety of meditation practices and physical exercises that has, over the ages, acquired many different forms and masters. Ultimately, the goal of qigong is to tap into a cleansing "inner energy" that can be both therapeutic and spiritually uplifting.
Early in his career as a guru, Li, who introduced Falungong in 1992 at a middle school in his hometown of Changchun, capital of northeastern Jilin province, was feted in China as a qigong master. He won several awards from state-run qigong organizations and has also been recognized abroad. In the US, the cities of Atlanta and Houston have declared him an honorary citizen, and members of the European parliament nominated him for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom. In addition, he has reportedly been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
In 1998, Beijing estimated that Li's followers on the mainland numbered 70 million, and Falungong claims 100 million additional members in more than 80 other countries. While that count, impossible to verify, is no doubt an exaggeration, it is nevertheless fair to say that Li and his movement have made a global impact.
As Li's popularity grew in China and abroad, Chinese leaders saw political aims in his teachings that threatened the authority of the Communist Party. And, indeed, the march on Zhongnanhai was an overtly political act meant to evoke highly emotive memories of the student protests a decade earlier.
The self-immolation of five alleged Falungong members in Tiananmen Square in 2001 - including a 12-year-old girl and her mother - seemed undeniable confirmation of Beijing's charge that Li presided over a dangerous cult. While other putative Falungong members on the mainland laid claim to organizing the fiery protest, the group's headquarters in New York City repudiated it as a violation of Li's prohibition against taking a life, even going so far as to claim that Chinese authorities had staged the event to discredit Li and his followers.
This far-fetched allegation only provided additional ammunition to the government's campaign against Falungong, further undermining the group's credibility.
Remarks made by Li have also at times appeared to validate Beijing's depiction of Falungong as a subversive threat to the motherland. Li has called the Communist Party "evil" and encouraged followers to sacrifice themselves for the movement, which Chinese authorities interpret as an incitement to violence.
Meanwhile, Falungong has developed its own media arm overseas - including a free newspaper, the Epoch Times, that is distributed in 30 countries and published online, as well as a radio and television station. The television station, New Tang Dynasty TV, broadcasts in English and Chinese; the radio station, Sound of Hope, adds French, Spanish, Vietnamese and Korean to the mix and the Epoch Times is printed in English, Chinese and 17 other languages.
These media outlets cover a broad spectrum of international stories, but one theme is consistent: criticism of the Communist Party. Indeed, the movement has become a sort of overseas opposition party whose persistent aim is to undermine the Chinese leadership.
Falungong has been particularly adept in its use of the Internet - which is what scared Beijing about the group in the first place. Its 1999 march on Zhongnanhai was largely organized via the Internet, alerting Chinese leaders to the threats to their authority lurking in cyber-space. Since then, Beijing has launched a massive censorship campaign aimed at blocking websites deemed anti-China and quickly expunging blogs and comments posted in chat rooms that are critical of the Chinese government.
Falungong sites, of course, are targeted by censors, but so routinely are Western news outlets such as the BBC, CNN and the New York Times. The gargantuan project to purge cyber-space is inevitably porous, however, and bad news filters through. Hardly a week passes without some revelation on the Internet that is an embarrassment to Chinese authorities.
In March, for example, Chinese netizens played a key role in bringing to light the suspicious deaths of several inmates in the country's notorious prison system. The deaths had been dismissed by officials as accidents, but were more likely caused by police indifference or brutality. As a result of netizen outrage, public security officials have vowed to clean up their act. (See Chinese prisons: Horror and reform, Asia Times Online, March 23.)
Falungong also managed a spectacular demonstration of the limits of government censorship when in March 2002 it hijacked state television in Changchun to show a film of protest against the ban it faces in China. The film, which continued for 50 minutes before local authorities were able to resume normal programming, featured Li describing the Tiananmen self-immolations as a government-staged ruse.
This audacious commandeering of a state broadcaster infuriated Chinese officials, who then redoubled their efforts to silence Falungong in China. As of today, they have largely succeeded, although Hong Kong residents have become accustomed to seeing sect members pound the streets of their city demonstrating against the central government.
Now mostly invisible at home, Falungong has continued to thrive overseas, benefiting from the growing interest in qigong and other forms of Eastern meditation and exercise in the West. It is also clear that Falungong has succeeded in making its human-rights case to the Western world, with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations Committee Against Torture taking up the group's cause.
To its credit, Beijing has recognized that Li and his followers tapped into the spiritual void in China created by the Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong. The Falungong fiasco spurred the leadership to promote a revival of Confucianism and Buddhism and to adopt a more tolerant attitude toward Christianity.
The life of the spirit is now open for exploration in China - as long as it does not threaten the life of the state.