November 6, 1999

China Says Its Future Depends on Routing Banned Spiritual Movement


BEIJING -- Just when it seemed that official invective against Falun Gong could grow no harsher, Friday's issue of the People's Daily has suggested that the very fate of China hangs on the struggle against the banned spiritual movement.

A front-page commentary in the newspaper, which speaks directly for the Communist Party, carries the headline "Totally Expunge Evil, Pursue It to the End." First declaring that the government has achieved a "decisive victory" against Falun Gong, which it banned last July, the editorial goes on to say that the struggle to defeat the movement will be a "long and arduous one."

"We must be fully prepared, with powerful countermeasures, for the bitterness and complexity of struggle against this evil force," the commentary said. "This is a major political issue that concerns the future of the country, the future of its people, and the future of the great endeavor of reform and opening up and of socialist modernization."

Friday's article was the latest in a series of increasingly fiery official diatribes about the group in the last two weeks. The stepped-up campaign has coincided with preparations for the trial of the movement's top leaders but also, more importantly, with embarrassing evidence that thousands of followers or more -- among the millions of Chinese who were drawn to Falun Gong in recent years -- have refused to buckle under.

In many cities, it has become clear, a vigorous struggle continues as believers defend the movement and continue to practice its trademark slow-motion exercises, only to face fines, detention, threats to their jobs and even banishment to labor camps. Thousands of followers converged on Beijing last week, many of them showing up in Tiananmen Square only to be shipped back to the police in their hometowns. In the eyes of the Communist government, which brooks no organized opposition, this defiance in itself is proof of the group's supposed cultish and subversive nature.

In private, many Chinese express bafflement at the ferocity of the government reaction, which is turning once solid citizens into criminals and Falun Gong into an international human rights cause. One party official suggested that the leadership may fear the prospect of laid-off workers forming an alliance with such a mass movement, creating a huge political threat. In any case, the official denunciations and prosecutions send an effective warning to most Chinese to keep their distance from Falun Gong.

The movement, founded in 1992 by a former grain clerk named Li Hongzhi, is an off-shoot of traditional Chinese qigong exercises, which claim to enhance the body's vital energies, mixed with elements of Buddhism and Taoism. As the movement expanded, attracting large numbers of retirees and laid-off workers as well as some government officials and Communist Party members, it came into occasional conflict with the authorities. Li had bitter disagreements with other qigong masters and the national qigong society expelled him, or he quit, in different versions of the story. In 1998, Li moved to New York, where, as Falun Gong's revered spiritual "master," he communicates with followers around the world on the Internet.

The banning of the group followed the surprise gathering of 10,000 members around the leadership compound in Beijing in April, to protest published criticisms and demand official recognition. National leaders were clearly unnerved by its ability to mobilize so many supporters so quickly under the noses of the police. Since then, as the campaign to wipe out Falun Gong has apparently faltered, the authorities have pulled out all the stops.

In at least two northeastern provinces, Liaoning and Jilin, special anti-Falun Gong task forces combining the police, prosecutors and courts have been formed, according to the Hong Kong-based Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China. The center also said Wang Zhiguo, a former policeman who described his faith in Falun Gong at a clandestine news conference in Beijing last Thursday, was arrested and charged with cult-related crimes in his home province of Liaoning.

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company

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