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Friday, July 23, 1999 Published at 16:28 GMT 17:28 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Li Hongzhi: Cult leader or benign teacher?

Online near you: One of the many Falun Gong websites

He has reportedly suggested that aliens walk the earth, is ambiguous about his mortality and has been welcomed by the city of Chicago - but precious little else is known about the head of Falun Gong, Li Hongzhi.

Li Hongzhi speaks exclusively to BBC's Newsnight programme:"I have about 100 million followers in China"
While Beijing continues to crack down on its members, satellite organisations around the world pay tribute to "Master Li" on websites.

Cult investigators and new religion researchers appear uncertain as to whether he is the benign leader of a quasi-religious martial art or the figurehead of a far more sinister organisation.


Master Li is thought to be 47 or 48 years old and devoted himself full-time to Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, in 1991 after a career in a People's Liberation Army troupe and as a security guard.

[ image: Advice from the master: Classes can be downloaded]
Advice from the master: Classes can be downloaded
Further biographical details are few and far between.

In interviews, Li has described how he studied "qi" bodily energy rituals from the age of four - though he has named neither his teachers nor the schools.

The same teachers instructed him to establish Falun Gong, despite his reluctance, because what he would show the world would be "different".

As supposedly predicted, his first book turned into a bestseller.

By 1997 Beijing considered Falun Gong a significant enough danger to remove it from the official martial arts list and Li was permitted to leave for the United States.

According to cult watchers, the organisation has grown remarkably since then, largely thanks to a comprehensive network of websites disseminating lectures, videos and handbooks.

The question remains, what has Li Hongzhi set out to achieve?

Personality cult?

While Beijing has accused him of developing a sect, his closest followers say that he is a benign teacher.

[ image: Widely read: Falun Gong books sell worldwide]
Widely read: Falun Gong books sell worldwide
Michelle Shirley of the UK-based Cult Information Centre, says that little is really known of Li Hongzhi.

"We have been contacted by a number of families that have been concerned about the speed at which they have seen relatives make this organisation a part of their daily lives," she said.

"But these concerns have been few in number and nothing along the lines that the Chinese authorities have been claiming."

"But what we do know is that followers do see Li Hongzhi as some form of spiritual teacher.

"Quite what sort of personal devotion is encouraged towards him is difficult to say. But it isn't being discouraged."

[ image: Honoured: Houston and Chicago have welcomed Li]
Honoured: Houston and Chicago have welcomed Li
Cults display several levels of devotional development around a leader, factors which may not be initially apparent to newcomers.

"Many groups start by saying that it is just a practice and there is no commitment," said Michelle Shirley.

"But as it starts to develop, some people can become extremely committed and make their decisions based purely on what the leader says."

There is currently no certainty that Li Hongzhi is at the top of a similar pyramid.

[ image:  ]
Followers contacting BBC News by e-mail have denied that they are members of a cult devoted to Li Hongzhi.

Indeed, American authorities appear so relaxed that not only have they called for restraint in China but earlier this year they warmly welcomed Li to a civic reception in Chicago.

However, speculation persists that the organisation is funnelling millions of dollars back to Li with one academic suggesting that Falun Gong is a "very savvy group".


Earlier this year, a Time magazine interview with Li raise more questions than it answered.

Asked about his origins, he told the magazine: "I don't wish to talk about myself at a higher level. People wouldn't understand it."

He went on to suggest that Falun Gong can help followers achieve a "divine status" on earth before he turned the conversation to his belief that aliens are walking the earth.

Elsewhere, his comments appear more prosaic.

One of the Falun Gong websites speaks of Li banning practitioners from promoting the movement for personal aggrandisement.

Beijing Realpolitik?

If Falun Gong practitioners are to be believed, their leader is the innocent victim of Beijing paranoia.

[ image: Brainwashed cult? China's claims appear exaggerated]
Brainwashed cult? China's claims appear exaggerated
Falun Gong is a variant of the "qi" rituals which remain popular in rural or poor areas of China. Many of Li's followers also come from a professional or student background.

Edmond Tang of the University of Birmingham, said that Beijing regards Li Hongzhi as a challenge to the government's moral authority since his organisation can meet, organise and protest outside of the control of the security apparatus - turning it into a socio-political threat.

"We are looking towards a period [in China] of fairly systematic control and monitoring of all religious groups," said Mr Tang.

"We had reports just last week that one of the leader of one of the Christian sects had been sentenced to death.

"I think the implication is that there is going to be a very tight regime over these groups."

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