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Thursday, 22 July, 1999, 17:25 GMT 18:25 UK
The complex Web of Falun Gong
Falun Gong members consult their handbooks
Falun Gong members consult their handbooks
By the BBC's Kieran Cooke

Falun Gong, the group variously described as a cult, sect or religion, claims millions of followers around the world.

Yet despite its global following, very little was known until recently about the organisation.

Chinese Falun Gong members gather on a bridge in silent protest
Chinese Falun Gong members gather on a bridge in silent protest
Falun Gong followers say they are a peaceful law-abiding group, following a philosophy and regime of exercises which lead to spiritual enlightenment and improve health.

The authorities in China see Falun Gong in a far more sinister light.

China banned the sect after thousands of members demonstrated in about 30 Chinese cities against the arrest of group leaders.

According to state-run China TV, it is guilty of spreading fallacies, hoodwinking people, inciting disturbances and generally jeopardising social stability.

In April, 10,000 Falun Gong followers gathered outside the headquarters of the Communist Party in Beijing to protest about the arrest of several of their leaders.

Law of the Wheel

But what is Falun Gong and why is it causing such profound unease to China's rulers?

According to the group's literature, Falun Gong - or Law of the Wheel - originated in prehistoric times but only came to public notice in 1992 when Li Hongzhi, a man in his late forties referred to as "the master", set up a study centre in Beijing.

Falun Gong includes a mixture of Buddhist and Taoist beliefs; followers have a religious devotion to Master Li.

Breathing exercises at Beijing's Ritan Park
Breathing exercises at Beijing's Ritan Park
The most public manifestation of Falun Gong is the practice of a range of exercises related to the ancient Chinese art of qigong - a kind of breathing meditation.

In China, hundreds of people gather together in squares and parks throughout the country.

To the accompaniment of special Falun Gong music, they perform routines with names such as "Buddha showing the thousand hands", "The way of strengthening supernatural powers" and "The Falun Gong way to heavenly circulation".

Falun bible translated

While Falun Gong's claim to have 100m followers worldwide might be exaggerated, there seems little doubt the movement has expanded rapidly.

The Zhuan Falun, the Falun Gong bible, has been translated into several languages.

Li Hongzhi, who now lives in the United States, has travelled the world holding conferences and teaching seminars.

The Falun Gong's extensive network of Websites lists movement branches in more than a dozen countries, with teaching centres in almost every major city in the US.

Falun Gong followers in Australia have been out on the streets demonstrating against the Beijing ban.

In East Asia, Falun Gong centres in Singapore and Taiwan have said they are sending protest notes to Beijing.

Internet panic

It is this mass nature of Falun Gong, plus its sophisticated use of the Internet, which perhaps most alarms the Chinese authorities.

Beijing has gone on the offensive, launching a campaign against the group in the official media.

A 70-minute TV programme accused Li Hongzhi of falsifying his birth date in order to claim he was a reincarnation of Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism.

Li's old school classmates were interviewed. They said he was a very ordinary student, and one said his only talent was as a trumpet player.

The official news agency also reported the case of one Chinese worker who allegedly became convinced he had the Falun Gong "wheel of law" in his stomach.

He cut his abdomen open with a pair of scissors, said the agency, and subsequently died.

The amorphous yet widespread nature of Falun Gong makes it difficult to control and it is by no means certain that the official denunciations will have any effect on the 80m followers the group says it has in China.

Meanwhile, Falun Gong seems to be finding more and more adherents around the world.

Much as Beijing might wish it, it is unlikely Falun Gong will fade away.

See also:

26 Apr 99 | Asia-Pacific
Chinese fight for right to meditate
28 Apr 99 | Asia-Pacific
Beijing slams meditation rally
28 Apr 99 | Asia-Pacific
Falun Gong: A new cult emerges
21 Jul 99 | Asia-Pacific
China battles against religion
22 Jul 99 | Asia-Pacific
China bans sect
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