July 23, 1999

China Imposes Ban on Falun Gong Sect


BEIJING -- China intensified its offensive against the Buddhist Law spiritual movement Thursday, announcing a ban on the organization and unleashing a barrage of charges against its founder that revealed how seriously the government takes the sect as a challenge to its rule. The government's ban on the group, known in Chinese as Falun Gong, had been rumored since the police rounded up more than 100 leaders of the sect in several Chinese cities earlier this week.

But the ferocity of Beijing's campaign, aimed at a group of mainly middle-aged people who practice a form of Chinese breathing exercises and meditation, suggests that it regards Falun Gong as more than a movement of physical and moral uplift. At a time when China's economy is slowing and social unrest is rising, officials here view this amorphous but fast-growing sect as a dangerous political force.

Chinese taking part in an exercise and meditation session of the Falun Gong spiritual movement in the city of Guangzhou Thursday morning, just hours before the Government in Beijing banned the movement.

After Beijing handed down its edict Thursday afternoon, it began an extraordinary public-relations assault on the group and its founder, Li Hongzhi, through state-run television and newspapers. The Ministry of Civil Affairs accused Falun Gong of "inciting and creating disturbances, and jeopardizing social stability." In an editorial scheduled for publication on Friday, the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily said Li was pursuing a hidden political agenda that posed a "massive threat" to Chinese society.

State media also accused Li of misleading followers about his birth date, so that he could claim to be a reincarnation of Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism and of accepting payments for supposedly miraculous cures. Li, 48, a former grain bureau clerk who left China for the United States last year, fashioned his sect from an eclectic blend of traditional breathing exercises, as well as elements of Buddhism and Taoism. His followers say they disavow politics and embrace Li's teachings for their physical and spiritual health.

But Falun Gong deeply unsettled China's rulers when 10,000 of its adherents materialized on April 25 in front of the compound that houses President Jiang Zemin and other leaders. The rally, held to demand official recognition for the group, demonstrated that this obscure spiritual sect was in fact a highly organized movement with an international network capable of mobilizing thousands of people and putting them under the noses of China's top leaders without a whisper of warning.

As word of the detentions spread this week, thousands of Falun Gong followers massed in front of government offices in Dalian, Guangzhou and 28 other cities to protest the government's crackdown, according to members of the group and a human rights organization in Hong Kong. The wall-to-wall coverage of the ban in the state-run media underscores that the government is determined to stamp out Falun Gong. But with a large and rapidly growing membership -- estimates range from the government's figure of 2 million to the group's claim of 100 million followers worldwide -- a fluid structure, and an appreciation of the power of the Internet to pass information, Falun Gong could prove an elusive quarry for Beijing.

"I think this is going to make us stronger," said Sophie Xiao, a spokeswoman for Falun Gong in Hong Kong. "People are not simple-minded. Educated people will hear about this group and check it out."

There were no reports of protests following Thursday's announcement. Late Thursday afternoon, hundreds of police and troops still circled Zhongnanhai, the leaders' compound, which has been a fortress since the crackdown began on Monday night. The police continued to stop traffic on the western edge of the complex, where Falun Gong members held their rally in April. A former Chinese official said police in Beijing had released several hundred people -- most of them women -- who had been detained as they massed near Zhongnanhai on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Chinese officials were clearly concerned about how the ban would be received abroad. Shortly before the announcement was made public, a high-ranking government official briefed foreign correspondents here on why the government felt it necessary to take such Draconian action. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Beijing had moved against Falun Gong because of "the danger it posed to our country and our people. Any responsible government would do the same." He said members of the group had harassed government offices and pro-Beijing news organizations. And he said the government had evidence that Li had been in Beijing for the three days prior to the April rally in front of Zhongnanhai. Li, he said, had been instrumental in planning it.

In Washington, the State Department spokesman, James Rubin, said the United States was disturbed by China's decision to ban Falun Gong and was urging China to abide by international human rights conventions.

The strident tone and sheer volume of the denunciations of Falun Gong baffled some experts in Chinese politics. Why, they asked, would the government pour so much energy into fighting a group which, by its estimates, has 2 million members -- far fewer than the 100 million the group claims? "After all, a few months ago hardly anyone had heard of it, and no one was saying it was a threat to the state," said one political scholar in Beijing, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "I think the party leaders felt personally insulted by the Falun Gong protest. It made them look like fools."

A former government official said Thursday that the unexpected demonstration last April particularly unnerved Jiang. In briefings with government officials earlier this week, this person said, a senior leader quoted Jiang as harshly criticizing Li and the movement. Experts said there were plenty of reasons for Beijing to worry about this kind of group. With its mixture of martial arts and mysticism, Falun Gong appeals to people who have felt adrift since Deng Xioaping began reforming the Chinese economy and relaxing social controls in 1979.

Popular groups like Falun Gong played a profoundly disruptive role in the final decades of the last imperial dynasty. And as the communist government approaches the 50th anniversary of its rule, on Oct. 1, China's economic engine is sputtering. With China embarking on an ambitious campaign to overhaul its state sector -- one that has already resulting in huge layoffs -- Beijing is bracing itself for widespread unrest.

Signs that the government may feel vulnerable abounded in the flood of official denunciations Thursday. "We must fully recognize the massive threat that the rampant spread of the Falun Gong organization is to the party, government, and people," said the editorial prepared for Friday's People's Daily.

In a 70-minute documentary that has been rerun almost nonstop Thursday on state television, Falun Gong was portrayed as a pernicious cult that leads members to mental instability, madness, even murder.

Copyright 1999 The New York Times

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