China reels as sect leaders rounded up

The Falun Gong are feared as the country's biggest dissident group since Tiananmen. By James Miles

EVEN TO many Chinese, it seems extraordinary that China now says its biggest political challenge since the Tiananmen Square protests 10 years ago is coming not from unemployed workers or pro-democracy dissidents, but from a quasi-religious sect whose leader lives in the United States and who is regarded by devotees as a supernatural being on a higher plane than Jesus or Buddha.

Indeed, it may seem positively bizarre that at a time when the hotline is ringing between Peking and Washington because of rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait and the country is bracing itself for possibly the worst floods in decades, officials across the country are holding emergency meetings to denounce the teachings of a movement that has inspired millions of Chinese to do nothing more harmful than regularly adopt the lotus position and move their hands and arms in synchronicity with the movements of the cosmos.

But the Communist Party is indeed, as it says itself, waging a "serious political struggle". In the past three months, the Falun Gong sect has staged a series of remarkably public challenges to the party's authority.

In doing so it has brought to light the extent to which the loyalties of some party members, officials and members of the security forces veer more towards a man they believe could make himself invisible and cure their diseases than to the party's general secretary, Jiang Zemin.

Until a few months ago, few people outside China had even heard of Falun Gong, even though it was probably the world's fastest growing religious movement. I became fully aware of its significance during a visit to China only late last year, when a young acquaintance revealed that he was a follower, and with uncharacteristic agility adopted the lotus position on a chair and showed me the hand movements.

He told me that his wife and parents were all practitioners. When I asked him to which hospital he would take his infant son if he fell ill, he said, "I wouldn't take him to hospital". Falun Gong devotees believe their daily exercise routines and frequent readings of the scripture, Zhuan Falun, will drive away sickness.

My acquaintance took me one morning to watch hundreds of Falun Gong practitioners simultaneously perform their slow motion exercises on the pavement about two kilometres west of Tiananmen Square on Peking's main east-west thoroughfare. Such sights are common in urban China, where many elderly people like to take part in mass callisthenics as a way of keeping fit. But there was much more to Falun Gong than simply this morning ritual.

After the exercises, we went to the home of one practitioner. Her tiny cluttered bedsit was adorned with a poster of the cult's founder, Li Hongzhi, a charismatic former low-ranking official from north-eastern China who founded the movement just seven years ago.

She spoke of him in tones of religious reverence. She had read his treatise on the cosmos over and over again. It had cured her, she believed, of debilitating migraine attacks.

My acquaintance also took me to one of the country's top universities, where we observed a meeting of Falun Gong followers, most of them graduate students and lecturers.

One of the leaders of this particular Falun Gong cell was a former army officer. "The theory of modern science is incorrect," he told me. "The composition of the universe is very, very complex. In each layer there are beings - not human beings - but beings from higher dimensions."

These were unusual views perhaps for a man reared by an atheist party, but hardly threatening ones - so why then the party's calls this week for a "resolute struggle" against the sect? Why should the party be saying that this struggle "has a bearing on the future of the party and the state"?

A remarkable event in April explains the party's decision in the past few days to mount its biggest security clampdown since 1989. The event was a mass protest by more than 10,000 Falun Gong followers outside the Communist Party headquarters in Peking, the country's most hallowed political ground. It was a silent, orderly sit-in aimed at pressing the government to recognise their sect and to stop harassing its members, but it horrified the leadership.

The security forces in the capital were on heightened alert at the time because of concerns about possible protests relating to the 10th anniversary of Tiananmen in June, yet Falun Gong devotees succeeded in organising Peking's biggest unauthorised demonstration in 10 years.

Given that some high-ranking officials and retired senior cadres are also known to be Falun Gong followers, the party realised then that it had a serious loyalty problem within its ranks. Officials who knew of the protest in advance had clearly failed to pass on this information to the police.

This week, the party has admitted for the first time that the April protest was the most serious political incident in the capital since Tiananmen. It has also now admitted that the Falun Gong has penetrated party and government organisations.

By calling on the military to take the lead in the struggle against the sect, it has effectively admitted that the armed forces too are riddled with Falun Gong members.

Although thousands of ordinary Falun Gong followers have been rounded up this week, this is first and foremost a struggle to reimpose discipline within the party itself. In the long term, it will be a struggle in vain.

The remarkable growth of the Falun Gong movement - from a membership of zero in 1992 to many millions now - is testimony to the failure of ideology and the crumbling of party authority. That, despite the arrests of their leaders, Falun Gong members have staged the most widespread protests in China since Tiananmen, is testimony to their resilience.

By driving the movement underground, the party risks creating a far bigger and better organised network of disaffected citizens than it has ever had to deal with during the past decade.

James Miles is a senior BBC News Chinese affairs analyst

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
Plenty to ponder: Amir Khan has had repeated problems with US immigration because of his Muslim faith and now American television may shun him
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments