July 27, 1999

Chinese Officials Held in Campaign Against Vast Sect


SHANGHAI, China -- As part of an expanding political campaign that could affect China's economic reforms, Chinese authorities have detained about 1,200 government officials who are members of Falun Gong, the spiritual movement that was officially outlawed last week, a human rights group reported Monday. The officials were taken over the weekend to schools in a city in northern China, where they are being required to study Communist Party documents and to renounce any allegiance to the movement, said the Information Center for Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China, based in Hong Kong. Since last week, Chinese authorities have rounded up more than 5,000 members of Falun Gong, ransacking homes and confiscating printed material. State television reported Monday night that customs officials had been ordered to seize all religious and promotional material related to the group.

Police officers at the Tiananmen rostrum in Beijing Monday, part of increased security as a crackdown on a spiritual movement continues.

It was not immediately clear what rank the detained officials held, or how long they would be required to undergo political study. State-run media reports on the crackdown, detailing a broad array of official actions against Falun Gong, did not mention the large-scale detention.

By the government's own account, Falun Gong is the greatest political threat to Communist Party authority since the student movement of 1989. Certainly it mobilized the largest illegal demonstration in Beijing since 1989, when 10,000 Falun Gong adherents shocked Chinese leaders by materializing without warning last April outside their compound. Known to suspect any organization they cannot control, party leaders have declared an all-out offensive against a movement that until recently was seen by many outsiders as innocuous and even somewhat flaky.

If the crackdown appears to be heavy-handed, carried out on a spiritual movement with no discernable political goals, it is gradually taking on the recognizable characteristics of a broad Communist Party-style political campaign.

Government organizations and quasi-governmental groups have been instructed to come forward to denounce Falun Gong, and to hold political study sessions to recite Marxist theory that few officials, and fewer ordinary people, believe in any more. In a front-page commentary Monday, the Communist Party newspaper, People's Daily, urged all officials who have practiced Falun Gong to quit.

Yet gearing up China's extensive political apparatus to confront Falun Gong carries a potentially damaging cost to the nation's economic reform program.

Although the full ramifications of the campaign remain untold, any crusade that stresses Marxist study is likely to redirect political will that could otherwise be expended to win support for unpopular economic changes favored by Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, whose brief is the economy. Zhu has become vulnerable in recent weeks to accusations from ministry officials that the downsizing and dismantling of state enterprises are undermining their authority.

The timing of the crackdown, coming just before China's leaders fled the capital for their annual political retreat at the seaside resort of Beidaihe, has prompted wide speculation about the reasons behind Beijing's decision to pursue a full-fledged political campaign.

In a system that still relies on campaigns, as much as on legislative and administrative means, leaders often use a crackdown to advance unrelated and hard-to-discern goals, in part by throwing rivals off-balance and in part by wielding power through political activity.

President Jiang Zemin is said to be the primary force behind the current campaign, which is being coordinated by Wu Bangguo, a deputy prime minister and one of Jiang's closest allies. Wu's official portfolio covers the restructuring of state-owned industry but he is also known as Jiang's top trouble-shooter.

Another danger inherent in the crackdown is that followers of Falun Gong, ordinarily peaceful and apolitical, could react to the suppression with unruliness. That is especially possible at a time of growing dissatisfaction over rising unemployment and spreading corruption.

Though no one seems to know its size for sure, Falun Gong claims to have 100 million members, compared with the Communist Party's 60 million. The government puts the number at 2 million, and some Chinese scholars estimate that a truer count is between 20 million to 60 million. Yet because many followers simply practice the movement's breathing and meditative exercises, without necessarily embracing all of the movement's beliefs, it is hard to gauge the depth of their allegiance.

The crackdown also threatens to further alienate masses of ordinary people from the Communist Party, whose leaders often display a singular inability to understand the power of faith. To complicate matters, Falun Gong is just one school of qigong, the traditional practice of using exercises to cultivate and channel vital energies that the vast majority of Chinese believe in, in some form.

Chinese leaders are doubtless mindful of the critical role that religious cults have played in times of political turmoil throughout Chinese history, attracting adherents confused by social upheaval, and sometimes becoming explosively violent when the authorities act to suppress them.

In criticizing Falun Gong, officials have pointed out some of its fanatical aspects, such as its teaching that modern technology and medicine can be evil, leading some practitioners to refuse to see doctors when ill. A few followers, the government alleges, have gone insane and murdered family members under the spell of the movement.

Falun Gong's founder, Li Hongzhi, who now lives in New York City, asserts that learning to channel spiritual energy can lead to physical healing and even to supernatural powers. His teaching also involves Buddhist and Taoist elements, as well as conservative social principles about how to live and behave as a moral person, fulfilling what many social critics say is a spiritual void in China today. The group's name is derived from the falun, or law wheel, that Li says revolves in the body, emitting and absorbing energy.

After the crackdown began last week, Li said that his movement is apolitical and lacks a basic organizational structure, an assertion belied by the group's remarkably widespread and well-coordinated protests. Last week, as the crackdown began, tens of thousands of Falun Gong members protested at government offices in more than 30 cities.

The 1,200 officials, who are being held in Shijiazhuang, a city 200 miles south of Beijing, are being required to write guarantees that they will no longer participate in the movement, the human rights group reported.

Other state-controlled newspapers reported Monday that the crackdown on Falun Gong was a success, and that many people were voluntarily turning in religious materials.

In central Beijing, police and military personnel patrolled politically sensitive areas in Tiananmen Square and outside Zhongnanhai, China's leadership compound.

Amnesty International, the human rights group based in London, accused Chinese authorities of blatantly violating the legal rights of followers of Falun Gong.

"This crackdown flies in the face of the Chinese government's commitments to increase social freedom and marks the beginning of yet another circle of stifled dissent and repression," the group said in a statement.

Copyright 1999 The New York Times

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