China Steps Up Its Drive to Halt Dissident Sect

New York Times, July 23, 1999
By Mark Landler

BEIJING -- China stepped up its offensive against the Buddhist Law movement Thursday, announcing a ban on the organization and unleashing a barrage of charges against its founder that revealed how seriously the Government takes the sect as a challenge to its control.

The Government's ban on the group, known in Chinese as Falun Gong, had been rumored since the police rounded up more than 100 leaders of the sect in several Chinese cities this week.

But the ferocity of Beijing's campaign -- aimed at a group of mainly middle-aged people who practice a form of Chinese breathing exercises and meditation -- suggests that it regards Falun Gong as more than a movement of physical and moral uplift. At a time when China's economy is slowing and social unrest is rising, officials here view this amorphous but fast-growing sect as a dangerous political force.

After Beijing handed down its edict Thursday afternoon, it began an extraordinary public-relations assault on the group and its founder, Li Hongzhi, through state-run television and newspapers. The Ministry of Civil Affairs accused Falun Gong of "inciting and creating disturbances, and jeopardizing social stability." In an editorial scheduled for publication on Friday, the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily said Li was pursuing a hidden political agenda that posed a "massive threat" to Chinese society.

State media also accused Li of misleading followers about his birth date, so that he could claim to be a reincarnation of Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, and of accepting payments for supposedly miraculous cures. Falun Gong followers, displaying the reach that has so alarmed the Chinese authorities, immediately posted rebuttals of the charges over the Internet. Li, 48, a former grain bureau clerk who is now based in New York, fashioned his sect from an eclectic blend of qigong -- traditional breathing exercises -- as well as elements of Buddhism and Taoism. His followers say they disavow politics and embrace Li's teachings for their physical and spiritual health.

But Falun Gong deeply unsettled China's rulers when 10,000 of its adherents materialized on April 25, a warm spring Sunday, in front of the compound that houses President Jiang Zemin and other leaders. The rally, held to demand official recognition of the group, demonstrated that this obscure spiritual sect was in fact a highly organized movement with an international network capable of mobilizing thousands of people and putting them under the noses of China's top leaders without a whisper of warning.

As word of the detentions spread this week, thousands of Falun Gong followers massed in front of government offices in Dalian, Guangzhou and 28 other cities to protest the Government's crackdown, according to members of the group and a Hong Kong human rights organization.

The wall-to-wall coverage in the state-run media of the ban -- which prohibits the public practice of the exercises and meditation as well as the distribution of the group's literature -- underscores that the Government is determined to stamp out Falun Gong.

But the group could prove an elusive quarry for Beijing. It has a large and rapidly growing membership -- estimates run from the Chinese Government's figure of 2 million to the group's number of 100 million in more than 30 countries -- as well as a fluid structure and an appreciation of the power of the Internet to pass information and organize activities.

"I think this is going to make us stronger," said Sophie Xiao, a spokeswoman for Falun Gong in Hong Kong, where the ban does not apply. "People are not simple-minded. Educated people will hear about this group, and check it out."

A former Chinese official said the police in Beijing had released several hundred people who had been detained as they massed near Zhongnanhai on Tuesday and Wednesday.

[On Friday morning, about 200 people gathered in Tiananmen Square and began a sitting protest, the Reuters news service reported. They were arrested and the square was cordoned off.]

Chinese officials were clearly concerned about how the ban would be received abroad. Shortly before the announcement, a high-ranking official briefed foreign correspondents here on why the Government felt it necessary to take such draconian action.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Beijing had moved against Falun Gong because of "the danger it posed to our country and our people" and that "any responsible government would do the same." He said members of the group had harassed government offices and pro-Beijing news organizations. He said the Government had evidence that Li had been in Beijing for the three days before the April rally at Zhongnanhai had helped plan it.

In Washington, the State Department spokesman, James P. Rubin, said the United States was disturbed by China's decision to ban Falun Gong, and was urging China to abide by international human rights conventions.

Here as well, the strident tone and sheer volume of the denunciations of Falun Gong baffled some experts in Chinese politics. Why, they asked, would the Government pour so much energy into fighting a group that it says has only 2 million members.

"After all, a few months ago hardly anyone had heard of it, and no one was saying it was a threat to the state," said one political scholar in Beijing, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "I think the party leaders felt personally insulted by the Falun Gong protest. It made them look like fools."

A former government official said today that the unexpected demonstration in April particularly unnerved President Jiang. In briefings with Government officials earlier this week, this person said, a senior leader quoted Jiang as harshly criticizing Li and the movement.

Experts said there were plenty of reasons for Beijing to worry about this kind of group. With its mixture of martial arts and mysticism, Falun Gong appeals to people who have felt adrift in the last two decades of economic restructuring and relaxed social controls.

Quasi-religious groups played a profoundly disruptive role in the final decades of the last imperial dynasty. The Taiping Rebellion (1851-63), led by Hong Xiuquan, who claimed to be the younger son of Jesus Christ and strove to replace what he called corrupt Manchu rulers with a "heavenly kingdom," cost millions of lives and devastated much of southern China. At the turn of the century, the Fists of Righteous Harmony, or "Boxers," mixed martial arts and mysticism in their campaign to expel foreigners, which ended with a Western and Japanese expeditionary force occupying Beijing. And Communist officials are well aware that the Communist Party, in its early years, was an underground organization with ties to other secret societies and that it owed much of its own rise to power to disaffected elements of society.

But now as the Communist Government approaches the 50th anniversary of its rule, on Oct. 1, China's economic engine is sputtering. With Beijing embarking on an ambitious campaign to overhaul its state sector -- one that has already resulted in huge layoffs -- the Government is bracing itself for widespread unrest.

Signs that the Government may feel vulnerable abounded in the flood of official denunciations Thursday. In a 70-minute documentary that has been rerun almost nonstop Thursday on state television, Falun Gong was portrayed as a pernicious cult that leads members to mental instability, madness and even murder.

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