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Friday, 5 October, 2001, 15:43 GMT 16:43 UK
Falun Gong: The enemy within
The Chinese Government believes it is engaged in a fight to the end with the most serious threat to its power since the foundation of the Communist State in 1949. It is a spiritual movement based on Taoism and Buddhism called the Falun Gong. Phil Rees reports.
Suddenly, security guards in suits with earpieces closed the exit doors. The auditorium fell silent. The collective buzz of a thousand voices then rose to a crescendo. The audience, devotees of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, knew that their saviour had arrived.
I was attending a rally in Ottawa organised by Canadian followers of Falun Gong.
The founder of the movement, Li Hongzhi, was about to make an unannounced visit. It was his only public appearance in more than six months.
Known as Master Li to his followers, he wore a crisp dark suit and white shirt. He resembled more a well-fed business executive than the leader of quasi-Buddhist, spiritual movement.
Li lives in hiding in the New York area. His followers mutter that his life is at risk because the Chinese Government has ordered hit squads to track down and murder him. It is rumoured that US Government agents are assisting Li with his security.
Falun Gong - which literally means "The Power of the Law Wheel" - is derived from the ancient Chinese practice of Qi Gong. The Qi is an energy force that is said to be circulating within the body.
Li Hongzhi - a former trumpet player and government clerk, blended Qi Gong with theories drawn from Taoism and Buddhism, as well as more eccentric musings about the universe.
In the mid-1990s Li toured China, claiming supernatural powers and apparently healing the sick. Stories of his miraculous deeds swept through the country and tens of millions were attracted to the faith.
Falun Gong is banned in China
Two years ago, the government banned Falun Gong. It arrested tens of thousands of its followers. Hundreds and perhaps thousands who refused to denounce Falun Gong were tortured.
Professor Zhang Kunlun fled China earlier this year and now lives in Canada. He is slight of frame, quiet and courteous. In his 60s, he seems an unlikely enemy of the Chinese State.
Yet the Professor says that he was repeatedly tortured by policemen using electric cattle prods. He shuddered as he spoke of the electric charge running through his body: "It really hurts, it's unbearable, you feel numb, but you can't shout, they put the baton in front of your mouth and say 'If you shout, I will put it in your mouth'. "
The audience at the meeting in Canada was overwhelmingly Chinese, mostly women in middle age. It seemed absurd that an elderly group, which practised slow motion breathing exercises, should fixate China's vast security apparatus.
The perceived threat of Falun Gong
I was soon to realise that the confrontation with Falun Gong illuminates better than any other issue the weakness of Communist Party rule.
The primary concern of the government is to contain growing public unrest - and with it social stability - in the face of a rapidly changing economic landscape. There are tens of millions of unemployed, maybe many more. The state no longer provides the socialist "Iron Rice Bowl" - health care and social security - for the needy.
What would happen if thousands of disgruntled peasants or unemployed factory workers were to march on Beijing?
The Communist Party feels vulnerable for another reason. In the wake of cut-throat capitalist reform, the party has lost the moral and ideological leadership it could claim during former decades. Corruption and crime are growing. The gap between the rich and the poor is widening.
Authoritarian governments in China have always justified their monopoly of power by claiming a benevolent stewardship of society.
Now, Falun Gong offers an alternative creed that undermines the Communist Party's increasingly unconvincing claim to moral superiority.
Chinese history has periodically been ruptured by rebellions led by religiously motivated secret societies. They triggered popular uprisings whose aim was to remove corrupt officials and restore moral rectitude.
Challenging the regime
In the convention centre in Canada, Li Hongzhi was keen to find a place for today's Communist rulers in terms of China's turbulent past.
"All the methods employed by the evil gang of dictators in the Chinese Government are the most despicable known to history", he said.
"They have reached an extreme. They've really outdone themselves. Never before has a government done these terrible things."
I found Li Hongzhi's tone uninspiring. He is no Billy Graham. His message is often convoluted. But he has found, almost by accident, a place in the destiny of his nation. He is challenging the regime at a moment in China's history when the country seems to be evolving beyond the grip of its central government.
The enemy within: Sunday 30th September at 1845 (BST) on BBC Two.
Reporter: Phil Rees
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