July 31, 1999

Ex-General, Member of Banned Sect, Confesses `Mistakes,' China Says


BEIJING -- The Chinese authorities disclosed on Friday that a retired senior army officer, who is also a member of the spiritual movement that was banned last week, has confessed his "mistakes" and renounced his allegiance to the movement. The admission by the retired officer, Li Qihua, is a milestone in China's crackdown on Falun Gong, the nation's most sweeping political campaign in a decade, and is a sign that despite widespread resistance by many members, the authorities appear to be succeeding in dismantling the central part of the organization.

A suspected Falun Gong practitioner peered from a bus in which he was being kept under police guard in Beijing Friday. He had fought off police and escaped briefly earlier after being beaten with a wooden pole.

Li carried the rank of lieutenant general in the People's Liberation Army, in which he served most of his life. But his important posting was as head of the 301 Hospital in Beijing, an extremely sensitive post because the enormous military-run hospital is where China's top leaders are treated. Li, 81, retired 15 years ago after a lifetime in the communist cause that he said began at age 10. His seniority, impeccable credentials and continued access to the highest circle of China's leaders made him strategically important to Falun Gong, and equally threatening to China's leaders.

On Friday, the military newspaper, People's Liberation Daily, printed a question-and-answer interview with Li, who offered a classic Communist Party-style confession of his wrongdoing as he endorsed the party's crackdown. "I felt I was cheated," Li said, according to the account. "The party's decision is very wise, very correct, and very prompt." In the secretive and shadow-prone nature of Chinese politics, however, Li's former position and rank were not described in the article, which simply referred to him as an old cadre who had "wrongly written an article propagating Falun Gong."

To the casual reader, Li's long admission might look like just another item in the anti-Falun Gong propaganda that has swamped China's official media since the movement was formally banned last week. But as Chinese insiders know, Li has been identified by Chinese authorities as Falun Gong's top officer in Beijing, and the article in question was a critical item in the government's decision to mount such a wide-reaching political campaign against the movement. Falun Gong advocates an amalgam of traditional qigong breathing exercises and meditation, with elements of Buddhism and Taoism, to enhance spiritual and physical well-being. The Communist Party has mobilized its vast apparatus to demand that government offices and work places all over the nation purge Falun Gong members and swear allegiance to the party's Marxist ideology.

The article was brought to the attention of President Jiang Zemin on May 5, 10 days after a huge demonstration by Falun Gong supporters outside China's leadership compound in central Beijing, said a Chinese political analyst with access to internal documents.

In his article, which was circulated among senior military officers, Li wrote that China's leaders should look kindly on the spiritual movement. What is more, Li urged leaders to study Falun Gong personally to improve their own physical and mental health.

On May 5, Gen. Zhang Wannian, China's top military officer and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission under Jiang, sent a copy of the article to the president recommending that action be taken against Li. Jiang, who was deeply alarmed by the boldness of the challenge to his authority implicit in the April 25 demonstration, wrote a sharply-worded memorandum to fellow Politburo members identifying Falun Gong as a serious threat to the Communist Party's existence.

The memo was dated May 8, the day after NATO bombed the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia, which caused such outrage here that most Chinese saw it as an affront to their national dignity. The authorities permitted students to hold anti-American demonstrations, which included throwing rocks at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. If Falun Gong masters can foresee everything, Jiang wrote, how could they not predict the bombing of our embassy? At the same time, Jiang instructed Gen. Wang Ke, the director of the People's Liberation Army's General Logistics Department, to visit Li to help him see the party's position more clearly.

Li apparently buckled right away. Yet his confession was only made public on Friday. In the confession, Li made it clear that he will now oppose the teachings of Li Hongzhi, who founded Falun Gong in 1992 and now lives in New York City. The two Li's are not related.

"When Li Hongzhi says that Falun Gong can cure all disease, that is a ridiculous position and must be a way to trick people," Li was quoted as saying. "Seeking medical treatment when you are sick is common sense. If Falun Gong is really so powerful, why do we need doctors, why do we need hospitals?"

Li, a veteran of the communist military forces' Long March in the mid-1930s, the defining political event of the party's founding generation of leaders, has apparently been permitted to stay at home, while many other Falun Gong leaders have been taken into custody.

Although the structure and organization of Falun Gong have remained deeply mysterious, staffed by faithful adherents who have gone to extreme lengths to protect what they believe is a sacred mission to propagate the teachings of Li Hongzhi, the crackdown is gradually disclosing clues about its structure. Official media have reported that under the central leadership of the Falun Dafa Research Society, there were 39 provincial-level "general guidance stations" and 1,900 lower-level "guidance stations" spread all over China. For ordinary practitioners, the authorities said, there were more than 28,000 practice sites, mostly in urban parks and public places.

In recent days, the authorities have starting producing confessions from the heads and deputy heads of "general guidance stations" in Jilin Province and Shandong Province. In a nationwide political campaign, Communist Party leaders in each province are expected to produce the confession of the chief local culprit, in this case Falun Gong leaders, so the number who are actually brought forward may provide the best indication of how well Beijing's campaign is going. If the number made public remains small, it will be a sign that many others are refusing to confess. If the number grows steadily, it will indicate the campaign's success.

One difficulty that Chinese leaders face in their crackdown on Falun Gong is its amorphous, inchoate nature, which makes it difficult to grasp and control. Another difficulty is Falun Gong's home-grown nature, making it hard to cast as a foreign plot, a favorite tactic in identifying a political enemy and one that was used against the student-led movement of 1989 at Tiananmen Square that called for more democracy.

Yet Chinese officials have already pointed to a foreign role in Falun Gong anyway, apparently because Li Hongzhi is based in the United States and because much of the Internet-based communication among Falun Gong leaders has come from members outside China. "Hostile Western forces are using 'Westernization' and 'separatist' strategies to constantly carry out ideological and cultural infiltration," the New China News Agency reported this week. A Hong Kong newspaper, Ming Pao, also reported that Jiang's memo specifically pointed to "behind-the-scenes involvement of foreign forces" in Falun Gong.

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company

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