November 4, 1999

China Seizes Documents From 5 Western Reporters Over Sect News Conference


BEIJING -- The police called in at least five Western reporters on Wednesday for questioning about a clandestine Falun Gong news conference that they attended on Oct. 28 and seized the reporters' accreditation cards and residence permits. The Public Security Bureau notified some reporters this morning that their documents would be returned later Thursday. The residence permit is required of any foreigner living long-term in China. The accreditation card is required to work as a journalist.

In separate sessions on Wednesday that lasted from one to two hours, Public Security Bureau officers warned the reporters, who included Erik Eckholm of The New York Times, that because Falun Gong was banned in July, interviewing members of the spiritual movement is illegal. The officials also sought information about the Chinese participants in the news conference, who are quite likely to face serious criminal charges if they are arrested.

In New York, the executive editor of The Times, Joseph Lelyveld, said of Eckholm: "Our correspondent was just doing his job. He was reporting the news."

November 4, 1999

A Quiet Roar: China's Leadership Feels Threatened by a Sect Seeking Peace


BEIJING -- Has it come to this: that the Chinese Communist Party is terrified of retirees in tennis shoes who follow a spiritual master in Queens? So it almost seemed here during recent days of bizarre scenes of arrests and flying invective against the Falun Gong movement.

As security forces worked frantically to round up believers who converged on Beijing to plead Falun Gong's case, the government left no doubt that it intends to wipe out all organized traces of the movement -- even if that requires jailing thousands of people who never saw themselves as enemies of the state.

Behind closed doors in recent weeks many Chinese, from professors to cab drivers, have said the government has overreacted. Many say its blunt repression of a spiritual movement that attracted hordes of ordinary people seeking health and happiness will cause lasting social divisions and further erode faith in the party.

But many experts on Chinese politics say China's Communist leaders probably saw little choice. Their first principle is preserving the rule of the party, which they equate with protecting social stability. And they have consistently tried to stamp out any competing loyalties. "Logically, they had to do this," said Suesheng Zhao, a Chinese-born political scientist at Colby College in Maine who is a visiting fellow at Stanford. "For the Communist Party, the greatest threat is a nationally organized force."

Since its founding in 1992, Falun Gong, a mix of cosmic healing theories, Buddhism and Taoism that promises salvation in a corrupt world, had gained millions of followers -- retirees, middle-aged women and even many officials and students, who gathered regularly in public parks to practice their mystical exercises. "For the party this was a big problem," said Roderick MacFarquhar, a professor of Chinese politics and history at Harvard University. "The party cannot allow the existence of a rival mass organization with control over the hearts and souls of the ordinary people -- and exposing their own ideological vacuum."

Although the group was outlawed on July 22, unknown thousands of its believers have refused to fade away, creating an unexpected crisis and forcing the government to mobilize all its media and social organizations, even bosses in work places, to engage in ritual condemnations.

In the months since the ban, official vilification of the group and its elusive founder, Li Hongzhi, who moved to New York in 1998, has grown ever more shrill -- a sign that the eradication campaign has not gone smoothly. On Saturday senior Communist legislators described Falun Gong as "unprecedented in the 50-year history of the People's Republic in terms of its size of organization, influence, number of illegal publications as well as the damages it brought to society," the New China News Agency reported.

These were strong words for a group that had received little high-level attention before it held an unauthorized vigil in Beijing on April 25, when some 10,000 members from several provinces quietly gathered around the leadership compound to protest published critiques of their movement and to demand official recognition. By its very existence, this gathering was the most serious challenge to Communist Party authority since the student-led demonstrations of 1989.

When they outlawed Falun Gong, the authorities charged that Li and a small cabal of leaders had a secret political agenda to subvert the nation, though no evidence was offered. Li, who keeps in touch with an expanding global following through the Internet, insists he has no political aims. He has never advocated the overthrow of Communist rule, or even a more liberal policy on religion. And his believers insist they just want to be left alone to focus on their inner "cultivation." But the believers have also been quick to mobilize in defense of their movement, in hundreds of smaller protests before and since the giant demonstration in April in Beijing. In China such defiance of authority is inevitably considered deeply political.

Although it has retreated from many spheres of personal and social life, the Communist Party still demands the stated allegiance of every organization. But as is evident in their willingness to face arrest, the more fervent followers of Falun Gong give their supreme loyalty to Li and what they consider his life-transforming theories.

When it banned Falun Gong, the government brought a variety of criminal charges against Li and arrested a number of top organizers. Thousands more who persisted in proclaiming their faith have since been detained or harassed in cities all around the country. In Beijing over the last 10 days, more than 3,000 protesters were rounded up as soon as they were detected, officials said. Many were bused back to the authorities in their hometowns for "re-education," which may mean loss of jobs or time in labor camps.

But the police seem unable to mop up a core of believers, in Beijing and elsewhere, who say they are prepared to risk everything for their faith and have made smart use of e-mail, mobile phones and pagers to communicate with each other and with supporters abroad.

At the same time the effort to discredit and destroy Falun Gong, using the familiar scripts of Communist dictatorship, has shifted into high gear. Last Thursday, in an effort to bolster the moral and legal case, the party's newspaper, People's Daily, featured a front-page commentary arguing that Falun Gong is an "evil cult" that any government would have to suppress. The rank and file, it said, were mere dupes of Li's "sorcery." Small numbers of people continue to operate under Li's "remote control," it said, and are "unable to see the blood-soaked truth." Chinese authorities have blamed the group for at least 1,400 deaths of members who refused needed medical care. On Wednesday another People's Daily editorial said, "Like all cults, Falun Gong is an antisocial, antihuman, antiscience and antigovernment malignant tumor."

The group does have some cult-like features, including fervent devotion to one man's off-beat doctrines, obsessive secrecy and often extreme reactions to criticism. Master Li, as followers refer to him, has been caught dissembling about aspects of his background, about his presence in Beijing just before the April demonstration and about some of his wilder claims of supernatural powers, among other things.

But the government offered no convincing evidence for its comparisons of Falun Gong to the Jim Jones cult, which committed mass suicide, and the Branch Davidians, who died while under F.B.I. attack in Texas.

Chinese who sampled Falun Gong in recent years, usually to see if it would improve their health and spirits, say that beyond the purchase of books, they were never asked to hand over large sums of money to the group. While differing loyalties to Falun Gong sometimes caused bitter divisions within families, followers were not asked to cut all normal social bonds. Nor, in contrast to the more notorious cults, was it difficult to leave the group.

The reported deaths of believers who refused medical treatment pose a far more complex issue than the official victim counts would have it, especially in a country where many people believe that cosmic forces influence health and rely on traditional treatments not always supported by modern medicine.

On Saturday the national Parliament, laying one of the final planks for coming show trials, adopted a stringent anticult law that was tailored expressly for prosecution of Falun Gong leaders. The next day, in a step being strangely touted as progress toward the "rule of law," prosecutors charged four reputed ringleaders with major crimes under that new law -- for actions supposedly taken months before it was adopted. Other indictments of lesser leaders around the country have also been reported.

In China's long history of authoritarian government, the danger to rulers from emerging national organizations has been repeatedly demonstrated, said Zhao, the political scientist from Colby. The lesson was not lost on Mao Zedong, Zhao noted. During his Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, for example, Mao sent in army troops to disperse the Red Guards he had created as soon as local groups began to coalesce into broader entities. And in the 1950's, religious sects and secret societies were brutally crushed by Communist authorities undoubtedly mindful of how mystical movements like the Taiping rebels and the Boxers disrupted the country in imperial times.

On Wednesday, with rising unemployment, anger over official corruption and a slowdown in economic growth, the government feels insecure and vulnerable, many experts say. The authorities also worry about the long-term effect of new communications technologies -- skillfully wielded by Falun Gong and democracy advocates -- on the party's ability to monopolize power and public discourse.

Party leaders are only beginning to hint in public about the possible extent of their Falun Gong problem. Until this week, official statements about the crackdown stressed that while a small number of top leaders would be harshly punished, other adherents would simply need education about how they had been duped. But an article Monday in People's Daily described for the first time the likelihood of "long-term resistance." Beyond the top leaders, it said, "second and third tiers" of leaders have been created. "In a few areas, illegal meetings are still being held," the article said, the only clue for Chinese readers of the continuing subterranean struggle.

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company

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