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