Buddhist cult stages silent rally in China

Members of Buddhist Law believe they can cure illness and curb evil in the world

New York Times/April 26, 1999
By Seth Faison

BEIJING -- More than 10,000 followers of a religious cult surrounded China's leadership compound Sunday, demanding recognition from authorities who are wary of any group not easily controlled. It was the biggest protest here since the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The gathering, eerily silent and devoid of banners or slogans, displayed remarkably good organization and discipline, with demonstrators remaining motionless and calm and seated on the sidewalk while organizers communicated by mobile telephones. Many protesters apparently tried to use meditation to persuade leaders to see them in a more favorable light.

The cult, known as Buddhist Law, asserts that it has more than 100 million members in this country of 1.2 billion, the largest among hundreds of cults that have flourished in China in recent years as socialism evaporates as an ideology. Preaching good behavior to win salvation from an increasingly evil world that is headed for catastrophe, followers believe that they can cure illness and eviscerate wickedness from the world.

The cult's charismatic leader, Li Hongzhi, 48, moved to New York City two years ago under pressure from the authorities to restrict his activity.

Dressed in simple clothing, followers converged from many provinces of China, sitting all day on worn squares of cotton padding in long rows that stretched for nearly two miles along two sides of Zhongnanhai, the compound in central Beijing where China's leaders live and work.

The police, apparently eager to avoid a confrontation, did not force the protesters to move, and the gathering dispersed peacefully by 10 p.m.

The protest came at a politically sensitive time, with China's leadership deeply concerned about the potential for social unrest in a year marked by the 10th anniversary of the crackdown in Tiananmen Square and the 50th anniversary of the founding of Communist China.

As China becomes a more chaotic society -- with people confused over conflicting laws and regulations and with tens of millions of people losing their jobs as state-run industries close -- religious cults with mass followings like this one appear to pose a greater threat to social order than democracy advocates do.

Mindful of the strong role that secret societies played in the downfall of the last imperial dynasty, in 1911, China's leaders are juggling their need for social order with popular demands for greater religious freedom.

To many Chinese bewildered by a fast-changing society, perhaps the greatest appeal of a cult like Buddhist Law lies in its simplicity.

"What we stand for is good for the nation and good for society, so how can we threaten anyone?" said a 47-year-old woman in a worn green jacket who sat near the corner of Zhongnanhai. "They don't understand us. We want understanding."

Several other followers nodded in agreement as the woman spoke.

"We will stay as long as it takes," said a 52-year-old man in a tattered gray sweater. "A day, a week, a year. We are not in a hurry."

The protesters, wary of giving their names or talking in detail about their organization, said they were demanding a meeting with Prime Minister Zhu Rongji. In the late evening, as the protest dispersed, organizers announced to small groups that they had been promised a meeting with members of the State Council, China's Cabinet. The government made no announcement, and state-run news media were conspicuously silent about the protest.

Buddhist Law is a sect of qigong, a traditional Chinese teaching that incorporates a broad range of healing techniques, martial arts and meditation. The overwhelming majority of Chinese believe in some form of qigong, while some join cults built on the teachings of a particular master, such as Li.

The Communist Party denounces cults as superstitious remnants of an earlier age and asserts that many charismatic qigong masters fool followers with get-rich-quick schemes and fake medicine.

Many of the cult followers carried a book by Li. Buddhist Law, founded by Li in 1992, preaches that evil lurks in the modern appearance of rock 'n' roll music, television, drugs and homosexuality. Although the group is vehemently opposed to modern science and technology, many members use the Internet to spread the group's message.


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