April 27, 1999

Notoriety Now for Exiled Leader of Chinese Movement


NEW YORK -- On Sunday, followers of Buddhist Law staged the largest protest in Beijing since the Tiananmen Square movement 10 years ago, but the New York-based spiritual leader who developed the doctrine rarely shows his face. The leader, Li Hongzhi, a 47-year-old native of Changchun in northeastern China who now calls New York home, keeps a low public profile even as his books, audio and video tapes and Web sites spread his message to tens of million of people around the world.

Close associates say they do not know where he is now. They assert that he has no formal organization. Like a rebel leader on the run, he sometimes appears at conferences his followers sponsor in Asia, North America or Europe, but with little advance notice. "We have no organization," said Yi Rong, an associate of Li based in New York. "No one talks to him regularly except maybe his family. We had a research society in China once but this has been abolished."

Despite that elusiveness, or maybe because of it, Li has become a guru of a movement that even by Chinese government estimates has more members than the Communist Party. Beijing puts the tally of followers in his mystical movement at 70 million. Its practitioners say they do not dispute those numbers. But they say they have no way of knowing for sure, in part because they have no central membership lists. Amorphousness makes practical sense. The Communist Party suppresses unauthorized organizations of any kind, whether they explicitly oppose communist rule or not.

The demonstration on Sunday in Beijing involved more than 10,000 followers. But Ms. Yi insisted that Li did not know about the demonstration beforehand. "I'm quite sure that not only did he not organize this, but he did not even know about it. We all learned about it just yesterday," she said, but she acknowledged that her certainty was tempered by her inability to contact Li or to pinpoint his whereabouts.

Li has fashioned a mind and body spiritual exercise program intended to allow adherents to live a moral life, remain free of disease and achieve enlightenment. He is a master of what the Chinese call qigong, an ancient practice than spans a spectrum from martial arts to soothsaying. In the early 1990s, people who follow Li said, he built up a network of students around China, lecturing thousands at a time. Last year, under pressure from the government, he left China for the United States.

Exile appeared to do nothing to limit his popularity in China, even as he spread his gospel to Americans and Europeans. Li, who followers say is always on the road, was the guest of honor at a recent qigong conference in Sweden, where most of the practitioners were locals. "He is like qigong masters everywhere but claims to be one level above them," said Chen Maiping, who is Chinese and attended a seminar with Li in Sweden but does not follow Li's teaching. "He treats it like religion. He has a complete philosophy of life and death."

In some ways the movement resembles a religion. It has a central treatise, called the Zhuan Falun. Like some ancient Chinese philosophy, the text is a little obtuse. "The reason why cultivation can be called cultivation is that there is a way for cultivation, a road for you to walk on," begins a chapter entitled "Not Cultivating the Dao" (Dao means the way and is sometimes spelled Tao). "There was such a saying in the past: The man does not cultivate the Dao, yet he is already in the Dao. Such a man abides by the small way and pays attention to Nothingness or Emptiness."

Despite these quasireligious overtones, followers of Li insist that his movement is not religious. It has no churches, no ordained priests, no hierarchy of any kind, says Ms. Yi. "There are no conditions for membership, and people can come or go at any time," she said. "We have no structure or hierarchy. That's why we strongly state that we are not a religion."

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company

April 27, 1999

In Beijing: A Roar of Silent Protesters


BEIJING -- The most amazing thing about the well-organized protest that occurred here on Sunday was the ease with which more than 10,000 followers of a religious sect materialized at the door of China's leadership and then vanished. To the authorities, who are nervous about any unsanctioned gathering, it can only be deeply unsettling that so many people assembled without warning, essentially walking up to the secretive compound where China's leaders live and work, and sitting silently for an entire day.

Falun Gong demonstration

Thousands of members of Buddhist Law, a sect based also on Taoism, gathered peacefully on Sunday outside the quarters of China's leadership. Their very ordinariness seems to be the scariest thing about the protest.

Unlike student protesters who noisily thronged the streets of Beijing with colorful banners and pungent slogans 10 years ago, Sunday's demonstrators drew no attention to themselves and attracted no notice until there were suddenly many thousand of them sitting quietly in one of the most politically sensitive locations in the nation. They looked like ordinary people from different parts of China, which they were. Here lies a puzzle -- and for China's leaders, the scariest thing about the protest.

As followers of a sect of qigong (pronounced chee-goong), a traditional Chinese teaching that human energy can be cultivated by yoga-like disciplines and directed to improve one's own health, to heal others and, when mastered, to achieve powers like flying, the protesters represent an amorphous and hard-to-control body that is deeply confident and far-reaching. An overwhelming majority of Chinese believe in qigong to some extent, making it hard to know exactly who belongs to the sect called Buddhist Law, which carried out the protest. Buddhist Law, led by a qigong master named Li Hongzhi, claims to have more than 100 million followers. Even if that is an exaggeration, the government's estimate of 70 million adherents represents a large group in a nation of 1.2 billion.

Throughout Chinese history, mysticism has played a critical role in times of political turmoil, attracting adherents confused by sudden changes in society and becoming explosively violent when the authorities act to suppress them. Anyone who doubts the potential strength of such a sect need only have witnessed the protest Sunday, when the followers seemed to appear from nowhere, sitting immobile and silent on sidewalks in the heart of Beijing. Even if efforts by many of them to direct mystical energy at the leadership compound fell short, their impressive organization left a significant imprint on Beijing.

Conducting a demonstration in this city is no easy trick. Plainclothes police and informers are everywhere, keeping an eye out for any hint of organized protest. Even lone protesters who tried to unfurl banners on the street during a meeting of China's legislature last month were whisked away, usually within minutes.

Beijing returned to normal Monday, as the police tightened security outside the leadership compound, blocking pedestrians from the street where China's leaders come and go from their compound, Zhongnanhai. Premier Zhu Rongji met several representives of the sect on Sunday, and directed government officials Monday to form a clear strategy to handle the group's complaints, The Associated Press reported. The state-run media remained silent about the protest.

Chinese leaders are in a bind: Acting decisively against a qigong sect clearly risks a greater counterreaction; allowing large protests is an invitation to other kinds of demonstrations, including the overtly political. The government position has so far remained ambiguous. Hundreds of sects of qigong have flourished in recent years as China has become a less regimented society. While officials approve of harmless health exercises, they are alarmed at the appearance of popular qigong masters, some of whom fool followers with crass get-rich-quick schemes, while others like Li command fervent followers who believe their sect is morally superior to any other organization, including the Communist Party. "The government has never banned qigong and other bodybuilding activities," said a spokeman for China's State Council. "It is understandable that there are different views and opinions. They should be expressed through proper channels."

Buddhist Law, founded by Li in 1992, mixes traditional Chinese teaching with Buddhism and Taoism to urge its followers to be good citizens by leading a moral life, not to smoke or drink or have sexual relations outside marriage, and to resist the consumerism that has swept China.

Sunday's protest was apparently set off by an incident in Tianjin, where practitioners staged a protest last week after a local magazine ran an article maligning Buddhist Law and the police used force to drive away followers. The group decided that the time had come to demand that the central government clarify its stand on qigong sects so that the group can practice legally, protesters said. They also want the authorities to ease restrictions on publishing books of Buddhist Law teachings.

Those demands sound innocuous. Yet because Buddhist Law commands such a huge following, and has now shown that it can execute well-organized and disciplined demonstrations, it must cause deep concern to Chinese leaders.

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company

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