Apocalypse When


In China's battle against mysticism, Falun Gong is just the tip of the iceberg. What else worries Beijing? Witches, weepers and weather.

Newsweek International, August 9, 1999
By Melinda Liu

Grandma Tang, a 71-year-old resident of the Hunan city of Shaoshan, doesn't believe in Falun Gong. But that doesn't mean she's not covering her spiritual bases. The red wall shrine in her home features a forest of incense sticks and a wooden ancestor tablet. There's a statue of the Taoist Goddess of Mercy. Nearby sits a pair of smooth wooden crescents, found in many Buddhist temples, which are thrown on the floor to reveal answers to a petitioner's questions. In the center of it all is a porcelain bust of China's late Great Helmsman Mao Zedong, who was born virtually next door to Tang's house. "I throw these once in a while to help me make decisions," she says, pointing to the crescents. "But I believe only in Chairman Mao."

The Chinese want to believe. Problem is, Beijing's post-Mao leadership is increasingly hard pressed to come up with something they can all believe in. Once upon a time Marxist dogma was the answer. But today officially recognized religions-Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism-are enjoying a renaissance in China. So are plenty of other forms of worship, ranging from the benign to the bizarre. There are the hordes of believers claimed by Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi. There are also face readers, funeral shamans and Christian cultists known as shouters and weepers who disrupt church services. There are rural "witches" who beseech fox spirits to bestow fertility. And pseudoscientists who find prophecies inside crumpled papers. According to one estimate, quasi religions may have as many as 100 million followers, the same amount as the state-sanctioned faiths. As Si Manan, a famous anti-superstition crusader, puts it, "Li Hongzhi is just the tip of the iceberg."

All of China's mystic masters worry Beijing, and with good reason. Historically, they've played a role in toppling weakened governments. The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, led by a man who believed he was Jesus' younger brother, rebelled against the Ching dynasty, whose death throes featured a xenophobic rampage by the quasi-religious Boxers. The political strains in China today echo some conditions back then. Sinologist Chas Freeman, a former U.S. diplomat in China, says that both the Taiping and the Boxer rebellions were about "overcoming [governmental] impotence with magic." As Beijing struggles to cope with falling incomes, skyrocketing medical costs, labor protests and humiliations like the NATO bombing of China's Belgrade embassy, the government seems to many Chinese weaker-and more impotent-than ever before. Last year the Ministry of Public Security arrested 15,600 people for "cheating and disturbing public order through superstition." Since 1996, authorities have suppressed nearly 10,000 cults in Hunan province alone. One cult leader accused of raping young female recruits was recently sentenced to death. But for every false prophet that is stomped out, a new one emerges.

In China's born-again blur of mainstream religion, occult belief and folk customs, it's all too easy for the false to be extolled by the faithful. On the misty mountain of Jiuhuashan in Anhui province, one of China's holiest Buddhist sites, devotees bow, pray and donate money before a flower-bedecked altar, where the mummified corpse of a Buddhist nun is worshiped as a god. At another temple at Jiuhuashan, a Buddhist monk in saffron robes tells fortunes for $6 or more a pop. A bustling alley near Xian's Taoist Temple of the Eight Immortals is packed with fortune tellers, geomancers and peddlers of funeral accouterments. One fortune teller uses arcane passages from the Taoist Book of Changes to analyze a customer's prospects. He also claims to be a geomantic consultant to a well-known high-tech software company in Beijing. The cost? $1,200 per visit, plus all expenses paid.

That's real money in a country where some 350 million still live below the international poverty line of $360 a year. Which is another reason the regime is jittery. Not only have charismatic grass-roots prophets reached critical mass in terms of numbers; they're now an economic force to be reckoned with as well. Today's seers are well capitalized-before a crackdown at a religious retreat in Liaoning province, soothsayers gave local authorities $12,000 in annual payoffs. They are also technologically savvy. Some soothsayers carry mobile phones and use computer programs to help clients plan investments and select lucky names for business ventures. They even promote "information and financial forecasting" services on Web pages.

Of course, there are still opportunities for lower-tech charlatans. Consider the bizarre story of Zhou Shouyou, a migrant worker in Beijing who recently paid $4 for an unidentified, football-shaped "monster" that a colleague had dug out of a ditch (experts say it's probably a giant truffle). Local media picked up on his claims that the "monster" could cure rheumatism and other ailments. Immediately, purchase offers as high as $60,000 began flooding in from around the country. Zhou, a former textile peddler, is still seeking higher bids.

Those who can't sell "health," like Zhou, are perfectly willing to sell death. In one gruesome report reflecting the resurgence of feudal practices that were common long before the communists came along, a "corpse-dealer" was recently arrested in Gansu province for selling the bodies of young women. His customers? Families who wanted to marry their deceased sons to suitable partners so that they wouldn't be lonely in the afterlife. Throughout China, less morbid burial rituals are also enjoying a revival. In Mao's day, elaborate funerals were banned. Now, many upscale funerals feature mourners paid to weep, monks paid to pray, full bands, piles of fake money and paper replicas of consumer goods like microwaves, TVs and sneakers, which are burned to keep the dead happy in the next life. Financing such funerals can put catastrophic pressure on the living. In Zhejiang province, a farmer who couldn't afford the $2,400 price tag for burying his mother hanged himself near her dead body.

Stories like this would probably have Mao turning in his grave-if he had one. After his 1976 death, he was placed in a crystal sarcophagus in Tiananmen Square. Today he still appeals to China's latter-day need to believe in a way that troubles his successors. Mao is the object of cult worship-some villagers along the Yangtze River pray to him for flood relief. In the Shaanxi province hamlet of Gushui, worshipers used to kneel before his statue and burn incense to Mao in a turquoise-roofed temple not far from crumbling remnants of the Great Wall. "The chairman was China's greatest emperor," the local party secretary, who spearheaded the construction of the temple, boasted in 1996. The following year, authorities banned such practices and insisted devotees call the Mao temple a memorial hall. "That's because Mao was a man, not a god," a wizened caretaker explains to NEWSWEEK, in words that sound carefully coached. In a nearby hamlet, another shrine devoted to Mao and his two most revered aides attracts tends of thousands of devotees. It is known as "the temple of the three elders."

Even more worrisome to the Communist Party than divine Emperor Mao is the notion that party members subscribe to all sorts of superstition. "Party members are worshiping Buddhas and practicing astrology, divination, geomancy and physiognomy," admits the People's Daily. The local media recently exposed officials who built a $240,000 office building in Sichuan province, then moved into $843-a-month rented accommodations because the office's feng shui, or metaphysical alignment with nature, was bad. According to the Worker's Daily newspaper, one former party secretary in Shandong consulted a soothsayer who said he'd become a vice prime minister if he built a bridge around Taian. The commissar did exactly that, at government expense. He ended up in prison. "Officials attend ribbon-cutting ceremonies for new temples, or turn to fortune tellers for advice on government decisions," complains the newspaper. "Some people have no spiritual goals after they make money, so they just indulge in superstition."

The indulgence isn't likely to stop any time soon. The Chinese are big on numerology, and 1999 is an important year. It's the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen bloodshed, the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic and, of course, the millennium. In preparation for the latter, many Chinese have read a popular Japanese book titled "1999: Doomsday for Humankind," which warns that an unusual confluence of celestial bodies on Aug. 18 will trigger disaster. Thanks to the prophecies of the 16th-century astrologer Nostradamus and the so-called August catastrophe theory, many Chinese believe the end of the world is nigh. In an Internet discussion about the August theory, one participant prophesied: "one quarter of the world population will be killed in August. It'll probably mean nuclear war."

In recent months, frightened readers have written to the People's Daily asking when the apocalypse might occur. In response, the party mouthpiece ran an interview with Hu Jingyao of the Chinese Academy of Science, who refuted both the Aug. 18 catastrophe theory and the Nostradamus prophecies. "The world has disasters all over, here and there," Hu was quoted as saying. "People should believe in science, not in the end of the world." Whether people believe or not, doom sells. Bookstand browsers are snapping up occult tomes, as well as paperbacks with "photographs" of UFOs near the White House. Still, believers seem remarkably calm. Says one young man, "When [the apocalypse] comes, everyone will die. No use worrying."

Jittery Chinese leaders do worry. Some are particularly anxious about a subject known as the mandate of heaven. During imperial times, dynastic rulers were expected to rule benignly. In return, the happy populace was expected to refrain from lynching the emperor. That Confucianist bargain inevitably broke down once a dynasty stopped delivering the goods. When people began starving, the mandate of heaven would melt away-and in time a new dynasty would take over. Historically, that transition was preceded by grass-roots uprisings like the Taiping Rebellion. "Beijing's leaders must be worried," says a foreign diplomat in Beijing. "They're so conscious of parallels, and the history of mass uprisings is linked to the loss of the mandate of heaven."

The worry is compounded by yet another inauspicious omen-a heat wave. To many, natural disasters or unusual weather signals bad news. In 1976, Chinese were buzzing over the stiflingly hot summer temperatures and the Tangshan killer earthquake that preceded Mao's death. Now, as Beijing temperatures soar to 104 degrees Fahrenheit, rumor has it that Falun Gong leader Li Hongzhi is seeking revenge by using qigong (an ancient breathing regime) to make Beijing sweat.

Not that mystical forces or religious prophets would be needed for that. The regime's own post-Mao "bargain" with its people is already dangerously frayed. That tacit deal, struck by the late Deng Xiaoping, essentially traded continuing economic good times in return for political fealty to the Communist Party's autocratic rule. Now, joblessness is rife and costs are rising, even as the traditional social safety net disappears. And China's economic czars are trapped in the middle of a painful transition from Marxism to the market. "If China's economic reforms don't succeed, there could be a lot more phenomena reminiscent of the Taipings," warns William Overholt, executive director of Nomura in Hong Kong. "If that happens Falun Gong will be the least of Beijing's headaches." More than a few party leaders must be praying to their gods-Taoist, Maoist or otherwise-for an end to all the heat.


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