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AUGUST 2, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 4


Greg Baker/AP
A woman cries after being detained by police.

No Sects, Please, We're Chinese
Concern over Falun Gong prompts a crackdown on a movement that claims millions of adherents
By ANTHONY SPAETH

As of last week, it became illegal to breathe in China--or at least to breathe in a certain "subversive" manner. Beijing cracked down on a group called Falun Gong, which translates as the "Law of the Wheel Breathing Exercise," whose practitioners meet daily to meditate and perform their breathing rituals. In a sweep across the country, police arrested some 70 group leaders after blocking Internet access to the main Falun Gong websites. A high-ranking official in Beijing declared that Falun Gong's practices were "evil" and that they drove believers "into states of stupor and hysteria." He added: "Others even turned into cold-blooded killers."

Visions of China
CNN, TIME, Asiaweek and Fortune examine China at 50

It may seem like a stiff response to a group of people, mainly middle-aged and elderly, doing their morning and evening constitutionals. But in Falun Gong's startlingly swift rise in popularity--it's only seven years old--the group has evolved into something a lot less innocent than a breathing club. It has anywhere from 2 million adherents, as Beijing claims, to 100 million, as the group implausibly avows. Its founder and "Master," 47-year-old Li Hongzhi, promises good health to the faithful and a lot more: he says one can become "divine" through his tutelage. (Li, who lives in exile in New York City, also has a theory that extraterrestrials plan to take over the earth, and Falun Gong is the only defense.)

    ALSO IN TIME
Interview
Master Li defends his sect

Practitioners can be found throughout China, in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, in Chinese communities in the West and even among non-Chinese in such unlikely locales as Liverpool and Raleigh, North Carolina. Their claims to being unorganized, peaceful and apolitical are getting harder to swallow. On April 25, 10,000 adherents held a day-long sit-in around the Beijing compound that houses China's top leaders, to protest alleged mistreatment by the government and media. It was the largest demonstration in China since the 1989 Tiananmen protests. Last month, 13,000 followers in Hebei province signed a petition complaining about official harassment. Believers besiege the offices of magazines that run negative articles about disillusioned ex-members. Some 200 followers were reportedly detained when they attempted to gather in a gesture of protest at Tiananmen Square late last week.

Disgruntled former followers, large-scale organized protests--in China, yet!--plus a "Master" who hints that he may not be merely human: in other societies, those would be the markings of a cult, and that's China's insistent line. Falun Gong members take umbrage at the description, however. The issue was discussed at a forum on atheism held in Beijing two weeks ago and well-publicized in the official press. "Cults are different from normal religious beliefs, which are protected by law," said Chinese physicist He Zuoxiu. "Cults usually believe in doomsday prophecies and assert that a 'living god,' the leader of the cult, will lead people to another world when this world is destroyed."

Last week, China's state-controlled print and broadcast media carried scads of stories alleging Falun Gong-inspired misdeeds. A believer in Chongqing municipality reportedly became convinced he was immortal and jumped off a building with his young son in his arms; a teenager killed his parents under the influence of the group; a man in Jiangsu province murdered his wife after she tried to curtail his Falun Gong enthusiasm. Xinhua, the state news agency, published a biography of Li that differed significantly from the Master's own self-portrait. According to Xinhua, Li faked his particulars to pick a birthdate that is holy on the Buddhist calendar. He reportedly worked on an army stud-farm for eight years, played trumpet in a forest police unit, was an attendant in a hotel and then toiled in the security department of the Changchun Cereals Co. in northeastern Jilin province. After quitting that job, Li began practicing his own form of qigong, breathing exercises mixed with a dose of mysticism--a discipline that has been popular in China for centuries. (By official estimates, 60 million people in China practice some form of qigong.) Li spread his message through a series of books and audiotapes he started selling in the mid-1990s. Xinhua reports that he earned $145,000 in 1993 and 1994 alone--on which he allegedly failed to pay taxes--and has purchased expensive cars, as well as luxury residences in Beijing and Changchun.

Beijing hopes its exposé of Li will persuade misguided followers to abandon Falun Gong for one of the legal qigong groups. But truth is not the only weapon it can employ in trying to thwart the potential menace of millions of citizens organized beyond its control. Even if Falun Gong is only 2 million strong, it's one of the largest organizations in China. Last week, the order went out to members of the Communist Party, all 61 million, to quit the group. Falun Gong was declared an illegal organization and its followers prohibited from holding meetings or even hanging up votive scrolls or pictures. Distribution of Falun Gong books and other materials was proscribed. A government spokesman refused to say whether China would attempt to have Li extradited from the U.S. but emphasized that the Master would have to take responsibility for "this whole situation." Xinhua also insisted that Li had masterminded the massive demonstration in Beijing in April, giving details of his arrival and departure from Beijing shortly before the incident. Li himself says Beijing was but an accidental stop on a cheap air ticket from New York to Australia. "I don't know what is in the government's mind," Li tells Time. "I only know that I am working for the country and the people."

Despite their claims of being unorganized and apolitical, Falun Gong followers reacted swiftly to the crackdown. Disciplined protests started in Hong Kong--where the group is still legal--with hundreds of devotees staging a round-the-clock sit-in outside the local Xinhua office. In Beijing, authorities erected additional checkpoints, increased security at Tiananmen Square and reportedly rounded up groups of Falun Gong devotees and detained them in a sports stadium. Police were sent to train stations to stanch any inflow of outraged members from the provinces. Propaganda spewed from fax machines and via e-mail. In a letter to Time, supporters in Hong Kong said it was wrong for China to persecute a sect that promotes good deeds. As an example, it reported that Falun Gong devotees in a village in Sichuan province advise fruit thieves not to steal from their fields at midnight, since that was too hazardous; they generously suggest the thieves take their plunder in broad daylight instead.

Among the most devoted of the Falun Gong crowd, there has been a notable toughening of attitude and rhetoric. In Beijing, followers say the Chinese government lulled them into thinking they would be allowed to practice freely to keep them quiet before June 4, the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre. "They said we wouldn't be harmed," says one follower. "Now they want to wipe us out before Oct. 1," the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the People's Republic. "We don't want to be political, but the government is forcing us to be so. They don't realize that Falun Gong members are not afraid to die."

That raises a disturbing question: Will China's crackdown transform Falun Gong, a group that is large, established in 23,000 locations throughout China and organized via the Internet and by word-of-mouth? Can a breathing-exercise group possibly become the dissident movement that Beijing has long dreaded? The government sees the potential: it charges Falun Gong with hoodwinking the ignorant, promoting superstition and, significantly, "inciting and creating disturbances and jeopardizing social stability." With the Falun Gong movement far from tamed, it's China's authorities who are no doubt taking deep--and apprehensive--breaths each morning.

Reported by Mia Turner/Beijing and Isabella Ng/Hong Kong

This edition's table of contents

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