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Sunday, 21 November, 1999, 17:34 GMT
China's perplexing crackdown
Meditation and protest combine with Falun Gong

By Duncan Hewitt in Beijing

It was, Chinese television announced sombrely, an illegal gathering with particularly grave consequences for social stability.

Police video footage was shown as evidence. It consisted of a group of middle-aged people sitting cross-legged on the grass in a park, meditating; in another shot they were standing up, waving their legs in the air in a tai-chi style exercise.

Plain clothes policemen moved in on the protesters in Tiananmen Square
The organisers of this event, the newsreader reassured viewers, had just been sent to prison for up to 12 years.

China's campaign against Falun Gong, a blend of Buddhist and Taoist ideas, traditional Chinese breathing exercises and homespun philosophy, has an unreal quality.

Plain clothes crackdown

A few weeks ago in Beijing's Tiananmen Square I watched Falun Gong followers stage a protest against the ban. Well, I tried to watch; the protest was almost invisible, apparent only from the plain clothes policemen seeking unsuccessfully to blend in with the crowds - and the police vans which occasionally criss-crossed the square, stopping just long enough to let groups of plainly dressed middle-aged women clamber inside and be driven away.

The women made no apparent complaint - indeed many happily admitted to being followers of Falun Gong. You should try it yourself, one was overheard telling a policeman, it's so good for your health.

Police vans were on hand to take the arrested away
Their act of protest was simply to be in the square and pledge allegiance to the banned movement, while Chinese legislators debated a law against cults in the Great Hall of the People nearby.

As I watched the tense looking policemen singling out old women and bemused old men with grizzled beards to check their identity papers, I couldn't help wondering how such people had come to be seen as potential enemies of the state.

Thousands mobilised

Yet officials have described Falun Gong as the gravest threat to society for half a century.

Part of the reason was the movement's audacity in April, when it mobilised at least 10,000 people to stand in silent protest outside China's almost sacred leadership compound. A petition was handed in, complaining about an article labelling Falun Gong a superstition, and by evening they were gone.

Faun Gong supporters in Tokyo demand the release of detained members in China
But it was a humiliation for the authorities - particularly as security was supposed to be extra tight in the run-up to the sensitive 10th anniversary of the crushing of the 1989 democracy movement. Falun Gong's ability to organise in secret - using pagers, mobile phones and internet - alarmed the government, as did the cross section of society represented in the protests - from farmers to urban workers and academics.

Perhaps most shocking, officials meeting the protesters were startled to recognise one of them as a department chief from the ministry of security.

Dangerous trickery

The denunciations that followed have been of a vitriol unseen for years. Falun Gong's leader Li Hongzhi, in exile in New York, has been accused of plotting to overthrow the government, and of deceiving his followers.

Falun Gong practitioners are shown on TV renouncing their beliefs. Though the government has pledged not to punish the millions of ordinary citizens it says were tricked by the movement, hundreds of key members are thought to have been detained - some reportedly sent without trial for up to three years' labour reform.

The government's most damaging claim is that Li Hongzhi caused over 1,000 deaths by telling his followers not to take medicine but rely on his meditation and breathing exercises; it provides video evidence from his speech.

Founder Li Hongzhi is in exile
He didn't really mean it like that, an earnest group of European Falun Gong followers, in town to show sympathy to their Chinese friends told me - we can take medicine if we really need it said one -- before calmly explaining how Falun Gong had cured her of a fatal cancer. And there was nothing strange, they said, in Li Hongzhi's claims to be higher than Buddha and Jesus - nor indeed did his suggestions that homosexuals were somehow less than normal seem to upset them.

One Chinese intellectual said Master Li's appeal could be explained by the fact that the Chinese people had long been accustomed to believing in an all-powerful leader. Look at Chairman Mao she said.

'Like a fly to a mounatain'

Some cynics have even suggested that the definitions of a cult - from absolute belief in a leader to a love of quasi-scientific theories - could equally apply to the Communist Party. Not a suggestion which appealed to China's minister of religious affairs. That, he spluttered, is like comparing a piece of rubbish, or a fly, to one of our holy mountains.

Analysts say the government's real fear of Falun Gong may stem from its rapid growth in popularity among those materially or spiritually dispossessed by two decades of drastic economic change. Among people one pundit described to me as China's new proletariat, left behind by the capitalist revolution; there is no doubt that the rapid privatisation of medical care made Falun Gong's promise of good health all the more appealing to many.

Officials say the movement will soon be eliminated. Yet the lengths the authorities have gone to - including threatening foreign journalists with expulsion for contacts with Falun Gong - suggest they are alarmed.

And some of Falun Gong's very ordinary followers continue to display an extraordinary defiance, perhaps unprecedented in modern China.

At a dinner table of loyalists in a suburban restaurant, one woman explained why they would not give up. Falun Gong is teaching us to be better people, she said with a quiet fervour - isn't that what the government wants - so we will return their punishment with kindness and one day they will be awakened.

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See also:
22 Jul 99 |  Asia-Pacific
The complex Web of Falun Gong
16 Oct 99 |  Asia-Pacific
China warning over Falun Gong
29 Jul 99 |  Monitoring
Wanted: Li Hongzhi
19 Sep 99 |  Asia-Pacific
China 'detains' sect members
26 Aug 99 |  Asia-Pacific
China raps US in sect row
22 Jul 99 |  Monitoring
Text of notice banning sect

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