April 26, 1999

10,000 Protesters in Beijing Urge Cult's Recognition

Beijing vigil

BEIJING -- More than 10,000 followers of a religious cult surrounded China's leadership compound Sunday, demanding recognition from authorities who are wary of any group not easy controlled. It was the biggest protest here since the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Coming as a complete surprise to the authorities, the protest drew followers from all over China. Eerily silent and devoid of banners or slogans, the protesters seemed to materialize out of nowhere, suddenly appearing in large numbers at the seat of Chinese power in the middle of the morning and remaining immovable all day long. Displaying remarkably good organization and discipline, with demonstrators remaining motionless and calm and seated on the sidewalk while organizers communicated by mobile telephones. Many protesters apparently tried to use meditation to persuade leaders to see them in a more favorable light.

The cult, known as Buddhist Law, asserts that it has more than 100 million members in this country of 1.2 billion, the largest among hundreds of cults that have flourished in China in recent years as socialism evaporates as an ideology. Preaching good behavior to win salvation from an increasingly evil world that is headed for catastrophe, followers believe that they can cure illness and eviscerate wickedness from the world. The cult's popular leader, Li Hongzhi, 48, moved to New York City two years ago, under pressure from the authorities to restrict his activity.

Dressed in simple clothing, followers converged from many provinces of China, sitting all day on worn squares of cotton padding in long rows that stretched for nearly two miles along two sides of Zhongnanhai, the compound in central Beijing where China's leaders live and work. The police, apparently eager to avoid a confrontation, did not force the protesters to move, and the gathering dispersed peacefully by 10 p.m.

The protest came right in the middle of a most politically sensitive time, the 10th anniversary of the student movement that began in April, 1989, and just weeks before the anniversary of the crackdown in Tiananmen Square on June 4. China's leadership is already deeply concerned about the potential for social unrest as a wrenching transition to a market economy is throwing tens of millions out of work.

As China becomes a less regimented society -- with people confused over conflicting laws and regulations and with tens of millions of people losing their jobs as state-run industries close -- religious cults with mass followings like this one appear to pose a greater threat to social order than democracy advocates do.

"The authorities can surgically take out political activist groups, but this is a whole new thing, far harder to control," said Robin Munro, a China scholar who researched Chinese political opposition groups for years as head of Asiawatch in Hong Kong. "Sects are inherently peaceful, but only become politicized, and then potentially explosive, when repressed."

Mindful of the strong role that secret societies played in the downfall of the last imperial dynasty, in 1911, China's leaders are juggling their need for social order with popular demands for greater religious freedom.

To many Chinese bewildered by a fast-changing society, perhaps the greatest appeal of a cult like Buddhist Law lies in its simplicity. "What we stand for is good for the nation and good for society, so how can we threaten anyone?" said a 47-year-old woman in a worn green jacket who sat near the corner of Zhongnanhai. "They don't understand us. We want understanding."

Several other followers nodded in agreement as the woman spoke. "We will stay as long as it takes," said a 52-year-old man in a tattered grey sweater. "A day, a week, a year. We are not in a hurry."

The protesters, wary of giving their names or talking in detail about their organization, said they were demanding a meeting with Prime Minister Zhu Rongji. In the late evening, as the protest dispersed, organizers announced to small groups that they had been promised a meeting with members of the State Council, China's Cabinet. The government made no announcement, and state-run news media were conspicuously silent about the protest.

Buddhist Law is a sect of qigong, a traditional Chinese teaching that incorporates a broad range of healing techniques, martial arts and meditation. The overwhelming majority of Chinese believe in some form of qigong, while some join cults built on the teachings of a particular master, like Li.

The Communist Party denounces cults as superstitious remnants of an earlier age and asserts that many charismatic qigong masters fool followers with get-rich-quick schemes and fake medicine.

Many of the cult followers carried a book by Li. Buddhist Law, founded by Li in 1992, preaches that evil lurks in the modern appearance of rock 'n' roll music, television, drugs and homosexuality. Although the group is vehemently opposed to modern science and technology, many members use the internet to spread the group's message.

"Your diseases will be eliminated directly by me," wrote Li in one of his five books, regarded by followers as sacred texts. Li's teachings echo ancient Chinese civilization, asserting the power of healing by using qigong to tap into a person's "inner energy." The cult also uses the Buddhist notion of karma, which holds that people's good and bad deeds determine their fate in the next life.

The origin of Sunday's protest apparently lay in a recent article in an obscure academic journal published in the coastal city of Tianjin, that warned of the dangers posed by cults in China. Several protesters said they were deeply offended by the article and that a dozen followers were arrested in Tianjin last week after a small protest there.

Last year, after Beijing Television broadcast a program critical of Buddhist Law, organizers engineered a protest outside the television station. Two employees of the station were later said to have been dismissed because of inaccuracies in the broadcast.

Buddhist Law has apparently earned tens of millions of dollars by selling Li's books and videotapes of his preachings, as well as meditation cushions and pictures of Li. But the full size and scope of the operation remains hidden.

The organization, secretive about its operations, has a network of support in the United States, and the followers say that many Communist Party members, senior officials and police officers are among its members.

Li, who asserts that he has a higher spiritual authority than Jesus, Mohammed or Buddha, teaches that he was sent to earth by a "supreme being" to save mankind from moral corruption caused by consumerism, modern science and technology. Chinese society has disintegrated so seriously, Li contends, that many humans are reincarnated as demons, some of them disguised as monks. "Especially in Taiwan," he has written, "many famous monks or lay Buddhists are actually demons." Competing for followers with other cults, Li has denounced other qigong masters as "possessed with foxes or yellow weasels, and some with snakes."

At Sunday's protest, followers extolled the virtues of their cult, talking more about the beneficial effects of moral discipline than about the greatness of their leader. "I am a better father and husband and citizen," said a 48-year-old man from Hebei Province, who said he had been a member of Buddhist Law for six years. "We are making a better society. "I don't get sick anymore," the man continued. "If everyone is healthy, it will save medical costs and be good for society as a whole."

Sunday's protest, populated mostly by people from outside the capital, elicited much fascination but limited sympathy from Beijing residents, thousands of whom gathered to look on. "They're crazy," said Li Xiaoming, 27, who works for a transport company. "But there are a lot of them, so the government has to listen."

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company

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