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The Breaking Point
Falun Gong began as a spiritual movement, but China's leaders saw it as a political threat
TIME Asia, July 2, 2001
(...) Meeting by meeting, person by person, through a vast chain reaction of threats, slaps, intimidation and violence, China's Communist Party has broken Falun Gong, the organization that amazed the country by claiming tens of millions of followers—and stunned the government by bringing, on a few days' notice, 10,000 practitioners to the pavement in April 1999 outside the compound that houses China's top leaders. As recently as last winter, dozens arrived in Tiananmen Square nearly every day to protest the crackdown touched off by that show of grit and numbers. By contrast, on the recent second anniversary of the massive April protest, only 30 people reached the square. Most practitioners, like Liu, seem to have surrendered their faith, or at least say they have. Other die-hard elements "have cast off the fetters of the evil cult," crows the People's Daily, the party's mouthpiece.
Though decades of economic reforms have empowered many in Chinese society—entrepreneurs, artists and religious groups regularly push the limits of what's allowed—the party retains a firm grasp on the tools of repression. But it deploys them only when it feels directly threatened. In 1992, when a former trumpet player and grain clerk named Li Hongzhi first mingled the tenets of Buddhism, Taoism and traditional Qigong exercises to create Falun Gong, the party took no notice, even when he published books, sold videotapes and lectured to mass gatherings. By some estimates his organization grew to 60 million followers—as many as in the party—and still China's Elite leaders had barely heard of Falun Gong. Until that morning two years ago when they found all those practitioners meditating on their doorstep in silent protest against a magazine article they considered slanderous.
What the communist leadership saw looked eerily like the party itself in its heyday. The organization was hierarchically structured, with neighborhood groups, like cells, acting autonomously but in contact with higher levels. Li taught his practice through tapes and essays, which followers studied, and no one was permitted to interpret or question his words. He taught that physical suffering—including, possibly, the type meted out in prison camps—helps practitioners improve their karma and should be courted. Since the crackdown began, Li has vehemently attacked the party and its "evil" leader Jiang Zemin. He once praised demonstrators who "lose everything" and implied that those who stay home quietly have "reached understanding with the evil beings."
If the protest stunned the leadership, Falun Gong's membership rolls terrified it: included on it were retired communist elders and military officers. So the crackdown, when it began three months after the huge demonstration, stretched from the party's own ranks to the remotest rice paddies. A nationwide "responsibility system" put the onus on local police and government workers, factory bosses and family members to find practitioners and get them to renounce their beliefs. Police sentenced more than 10,000 followers to labor camps, and reliable reports say more than 220 people have died in custody. "It's now a war of attrition, and Falun Gong will lose," predicts Robert Weller, an anthropologist at Boston University who studies the movement.
Falun Gong is an amalgam of religions and exercises that Chinese have known for centuries. Practitioners meditate during a series of ritualized motions that Li Hongzhi invented. The central tenet is that Li himself, either personally or through his books and videotapes, inserts the Falun icon, a swastika-like Buddhist emblem surrounded by yin-yang symbols, into the bellies of believers. The emblem spins: clockwise to absorb energy, counterclockwise to emit it. The Faluns on people's bellies can heal diseases, or Li can heal diseases through the Faluns. An advanced practitioner will open a "celestial eye" in the middle of his forehead and see many spinning Falun emblems, supposedly a splendid sight. When practitioners die, they return to their "true, original self," writes Li.
Today, Falun Gong exists in China almost entirely by virtue of the Internet. A savvy coterie of Chinese activists, many of whom live on the lam in safe houses, maintain ties through encrypted e-mails with Falun Gong's exiled leadership in New York, where Li Hongzhi now lives. It is these underground members who try to keep the movement public by protests or secretly pasting flyers reading "Falun Gong Is Good!" on the walls of apartment blocks. But the network is fraying. "It's a more autonomous movement now," says New York-based Falun Gong spokeswoman Gail Rachlin. "It's harder to stay in touch, and everybody seems to be watched."
It is rare and dangerous for practitioners to meet together. But Falun Gong's leaders overseas can still get their message out through followers such as a woman in her thirties who met recently with TIME. An accountant for a foreign company in the capital, she goes early to work to secretly use her firm's overseas data line to access Falun Gong's website, minghui.org.
The immolations on Jan. 23 became a propaganda bonanza for the government and marked a turning point in its anti-Falun Gong campaign. China's newspapers and TV screens were covered with grisly images of smoldering human forms. Before that day, many Chinese had felt the crackdown had gone too far—that Falun Gong posed no real threat. With the immolations, the government's six-month propaganda campaign portraying Falun Gong as an "evil cult" that unhinged its followers seemed more credible.
Falun Gong's leaders badly flubbed their damage control after the immolations. Instead of acknowledging that the five protesters might have been misguided practitioners, they denied any connection with them. Implausibly, the Falun Gong website insists the episode was set up by government provocateurs. Few were convinced by that line. At the same time, Falun Gong's leaders abroad are demanding ever-higher levels of loyalty from followers. An editorial on the website calls for action "especially at Tiananmen Square," even though government repression has reduced the number of demonstrations there to basically nil. Li Hongzhi recently urged followers to use supernatural powers to immobilize the police and other "evil scoundrels" by pointing at them and thinking "freeze." Do that, he says, and they "will do whatever you want." Believers who renounce Falun Gong, even under duress in labor camps, are given little sympathy. They are expected to reaffirm their faith on the Falun Gong website and sign their names, despite facing certain rearrest. Although it's impossible to tell how many people still practice secretly, growing numbers seem to feel they can't meet the expectations of their exiled leaders. "Lots of people say they don't want me to give them information anymore," says the foreign-company accountant who distributes messages from the website.
The Communist Party's harshest and most ingenious weapon has been its "responsibility system." For each believer who reaches Beijing to carry out a protest—and some have come vast distances from the countryside—"all levels of government leaders, police, neighborhood cadres, work units and family members must receive punishment," according to a Communist Party document seen by TIME. This lets the party evade a simple arithmetic problem: it never had enough jails or police to handle the tens of millions of people who are claimed to have once practiced Falun Gong. Instead, it enlists ordinary people to help find practitioners and discipline them. Bosses face fines or demotions when their workers protest. Police officers face heavier penalties for allowing people under their watch to demonstrate than for beating them to death. Explains a Beijing cop tasked with monitoring Falun Gong: "I'm part of a machine; it's hard to say what's legal and what's not."
Chinese companies are ground zero in the crackdown. At a state-run winch factory in Beijing, workers still follow the communist tradition of group exercises every morning at 10. Falun Gong practitioners once conducted their own meditation sessions to musical accompaniment in the factory yard. Then came the Beijing protest two years ago. Days later, managers drew up lists of practitioners. They fired those who attended any demonstrations, including three in a workshop run by a foreman surnamed Lai.
Foreign companies are generally not required to participate in the crackdown, but working for foreigners is not always a haven for Falun Gong members. Indiana-based Cummins Inc., for instance, complied with state orders to investigate workers at its engine factory in Beijing, putting its company stamp on a document for police stating that no employees practice Falun Gong. Had it found practitioners, however, "the government would have wanted us to report them, so we would have," says a company spokesperson.
The campaign at times resembles the excesses of the Cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong. The government has launched a drive to secure 1 million children's signatures opposing Falun Gong. In the lakefront city of Hangzhou in eastern China, grammar-school students recently attended a lecture by their principal on the evils of the group. Afterward, students took turns facing their classmates to swear: "I do not believe in Falun Gong. I believe in science." Eight-year-old Yu Xiaohong stunned his teachers by striding forward and declaring, "I do not believe in Falun Gong. I believe in Jesus." The teachers, uneasy with any open expression of religious faith, called his parents in for a conference. "I explained we're Christians," says the boy's father. The school was satisfied, but "it was all so unnecessary," he says.
Beijing's propagandists, who have worked overtime on the Falun Gong account, recently launched a variety show called The Voice of Truth and Justice in a Beijing theater. Act I features a woman in a rhinestone tiara with a provocative slit up her dress who wins ribald cheers from the audience when she sings about a construction worker who goes insane practicing Falun Gong. In Act II, an opera troupe sings about a practitioner who burns himself alive. For the closer, a man in a white tux, red bow tie, studded cowboy boots and an Elvis pompadour croons: "Li Hongzhi is a poisonous snake." No one in the audience has come freely. All have been bused in for "educational entertainment" from the Beiren Group, which makes printers.
Yet for all its success in breaking the movement, the government has not yet addressed the sense of spiritual emptiness that gave birth to Falun Gong. Incense smoke flows thick in Buddhist temples across China, and the number of Christians has increased tenfold to about 40 million since the communists first swept to power. Even Liu Shujuan, the apostate who now leads people away from the movement, still seems ambivalent about her conversion. "It's hard to say," she responds when asked if she would still practice if the government hadn't banned Falun Gong. A pause. A glance at her minders. "I think it's still better not to." That's the sound of freedom being squelched—and a government that has spared no means to crush it.
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