Chinese sect's protest leads to an apology

Secretive movement that disturbs Beijing dislikes `cult' label

San Jose Mercury News, July 11, 1999
By Seth Faison

BEIJING -- Nearly 1,000 members of a spiritual movement known as Falun Gong held a two-day demonstration inside government headquarters in a southern Chinese city last week, a human rights organization reported Saturday.

Undeterred by a recent crackdown on Falun Gong in Beijing, where China's leaders appear alarmed by the size, organization and secretive nature of the movement, the demonstrators entered the inner courtyard of Communist Party headquarters in Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi province, Tuesday and Wednesday.

The demonstrators demanded the retraction of an article in an official publication that likened Falun Gong, or Buddhist Law, to a superstitious cult.

Ignoring the danger implied in official warnings, they refused to leave until a government official finally disavowed the article, the human rights organization said.

Although police were deployed, the demonstration was peaceful and no one was arrested, reported Hong Kong's Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China.

Impressive numbers

Falun Gong burst onto the national scene in April, when more than 10,000 members surrounded the Chinese government's leadership compound in central Beijing to demand official recognition from leaders who had never heard of the group. The organization's secretive nature and loose structure prevent an accurate estimate of its size. Falun Gong claims 100 million members, and government estimates are set at 20 million to 60 million.

What most alarmed Beijing's leaders was the discovery that some senior members of the government and the army believe in the healing powers of Falun Gong, a branch of qigong (pronounced chee gung), a traditional teaching that human energy may be channeled to achieve supernatural powers.

Followers of Falun Gong claim that their founder, Li Hongzhi, is capable of flying and other extraordinary feats. Li fled to the United States last year after the authorities began trying to circumscribe his activities.

In Nanchang, the demonstration was sparked by an article denouncing Falun Gong in a publication called Jiuan Zhilu, published by the Provincial Communist Party Committee.

Charge retracted

The demonstrators assembled Tuesday to demand a retraction, the Hong Kong human rights group said, but it took until noon the next day for an official of the newsletter to meet with nine members of the group and agree that the article represented only the author's view and not the view of any magazine or other official organization.

Always alert to threats to its authority, the Communist Party has recently launched an internal campaign to try to identify and purge any senior party members whose allegiance might be compromised by sympathy for Falun Gong.

The campaign may be difficult. The vast majority of people in China believe in some form of qigong. Many simply practice it as a form of physical exercise, while perhaps hundreds of millions actively follow various qigong sects that preach supernatural powers.

Concern among the authorities was palpable in a series of harshly worded editorials in the People's Daily over the past two weeks. Exercise is deemed acceptable, but Falun Gong practitioners are accused of being tricksters and political subversives.

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