May 3, 1999

China's Rulers on Guard as Spiritual Sect Pushes the Envelope

BEIJING -- The police were out in force in several Chinese cities over the weekend, seeking to head off rumored plans for new demonstrations by a spiritual sect that staged a giant vigil in Beijing a week ago.

No incidents have been reported, and national leaders are pondering how to deal with the group, called Buddhist Law, which has gained millions of fervent followers. The government normally maintains control over mass movements and religions and does not allow social groups to be directed from abroad, as this group is.

Though it is not political and insists that it is not a religion, Buddhist Law has pushed the edge of what is allowed. With last week's demonstration by 10,000 members seeking legal approval, the group also showed a remarkable ability to muster its believers.

The Communist rulers have tried to avoid provoking the organization, whose members are seen as decent citizens. But the leadership cannot be happy to see the emergence of a social wild card.

Buddhist Law, or Falun Gong, was first preached in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, who was already a master of the ancient art of qigong (pronounced che-goong) in which breathing and meditation are used to channel vital forces.

Li, now 48, combined concepts from qigong, Buddhism and Taoism with his own mystical theories. Last year, saying he was under official pressure, Li moved to New York, but he remains the sect's absolute leader.

Li Hongzhi

Li Hongzhi addressed followers in Sydney, Australia, on Saturday.

The word Falun means "law wheel," a high-energy rotating body said to be in a practitioner's abdomen that harnesses cosmic forces and expels bad elements. Followers are told to harness this power, rather than using medicines, to cure disease.

Traditional martial arts like qigong were suppressed here as superstition in the 1960s and 1970s, but in the more open climate that followed they have revived. Leaders of traditional groups here who blatantly cross over into fraud have been imprisoned.

Although it obviously has great popular appeal, particularly among retirees and middle-aged women, Li's new sect has had critics. More traditional qigong sects are mainly devoted to health and fitness. The government's limited oversight is wielded through the martial arts department of the Sports Commission.

Last year, that department began evaluating qigong sects for legal approval. But a scholar who advised the department, Luo Shao, said that the evaluation methods were ill-defined and that many officials were followers of qigong, ensuring a lack of critical oversight.

So far the agency has studied only 11 sects out of hundreds, not including Buddhist Law, and approved them all, said Luo, an expert on Buddhist history at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and a strong critic of the group.

New offshoots like this one, with charismatic leaders and broad-ranging mystical beliefs, have been attacked as heretical cults by some scholars here as well as by mainstream qigong groups and Buddhist leaders. Members resent the characterization.

Buddhist Law was accepted into the semiofficial China Qigong Science Association in 1993, but expelled in 1996 for what were considered its extreme claims. In a letter sent to followers in December, Li said he had withdrawn because the purpose of "so-called fitness-maintenance qigong" is to "swindle money."

Last week's demonstration was triggered by a harsh article in a youth magazine in the city of Tianjin. Group members who tried to protest were reportedly manhandled and detained, sparking wide anger.

The author of that article, which said the group spread lies and could cause mental illness, was He Zuoxiu, an elderly physicist who helped develop China's nuclear weapons. He has been a longtime crusader against anti-scientific ideas.

His own definition of scientific is not universally shared, though. A die-hard Marxist, he rails against capitalistic tendencies and said in a recent article, "Not only do the natural sciences count as science, but Marxism is also science and Deng Xiaoping Theory is also science."

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company

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