Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company
January 26, 2001

Beijing in Battle With Sect: 'A Giant Fighting a Ghost'

By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL

BEIJING, Jan. 25 ó As he ambles down the street with a newspaper under his arm, the clean-shaven engineer, dressed in a neat down jacket and blue slacks, could be an advertisement for the new urban China. He has a Ph.D., speaks a bit of English, likes to surf the Net and has moved steadily up in his profession.

He could be, that is, except for one problem: He remains a committed ó though mostly closeted ó follower of Falun Gong, the banned spiritual movement. And that represents a challenge to the Chinese government, whose vicious 18-month campaign has failed to eliminate the group, or even reliably identify its millions of quietly devoted followers who make it so resilient.

Brazen expressions of dissent are mounting; just Tuesday, five Falun Gong members set themselves ablaze in the middle of Tiananmen Square, and one died, a terrifying denouement to months of almost daily smaller acts of civil disobedience. By now the police are adept at snatching banners and whisking meditators into vans, instantaneously erasing all traces of trouble.

The silent majority in Falun Gong do not demonstrate. Yet they form an enormous reservoir of believers who may someday be driven to act. They provide one another with emotional and sometimes financial support ó as they do those members who have been jailed or lost jobs.

"Those who go to the square are the tip of the iceberg or ó as we say in Chinese ó just one hair on nine oxen," said the engineer. "They are willing to confront whatever the government will do to them. Most of us are not."

All this makes Falun Gong a daunting enemy for China's ever- present security forces.

Falun Gong may prove to be "the most challenging organized opposition" the party has faced, said Lu Xiaobo, a political science professor at Barnard College in New York. "In this `political struggle,' I see an image of a giant fighting a ghost ó you know it is there and haunting you, but you don't exactly know where to attack, or when it will attack you."

Falun Gong is threatening to China's leadership precisely because it includes a remarkable cross section of people ó peasants and professors, rich and poor ó devoted to an organization that is not the Chinese Communist Party. No matter that the group, which China's top leaders have labeled an evil cult, has no political goals and is only loosely organized here.

But some say the government attacks may backfire, because so far they have often served to radicalize people whose only goal 18 months ago was to improve their health through Falun Gong's quirky blend of exercise, meditation and mystical Eastern-leaning philosophy.

"The Chinese Communist Party has a damned-if-you-do, damned-if- you-don't dilemma," said Professor Lu. "Had there not been a crackdown, Falun Gong could have become a huge organized force that someday might be at odds with the government.

"But as the government tries to suppress the group, it has become a real opposition and more `political' than ever."

The government's China Anti-Cult Association estimates that there are still 50,000 to 80,000 followers in China. But adherents put the number in the tens of millions, most of whom now practice only in the privacy of their homes.

In Tiananmen Square, the bulk of the demonstrators appear to be peasants and middle-aged factory workers ó people often attracted to Falun Gong by its purported health benefits. But many in Falun Gong are educated and well-connected professionals drawn to the groups' mystical cosmology. While unseen forces like "qi" are ridiculed in the West, many Chinese accept their existence.

"My belief is not blind faith but the result of careful and deep reflection," the engineer said. "Many people in lots of cultures believe that a higher being exists."

Falun Gong adamantly denies that it is "organized" in any official sense. But the piecemeal efforts of its millions of Chinese members have at the very least created a nationwide web of like-minded people that effectively undercuts the government ban.

The engineer, who is adept with computers, takes postings off the blocked Falun Gong Web site and passes them on to friends, even mailing them to people in his distant hometown. On Jan. 1 the Falun Gong leader, Li Hongzhi, who lives in exile in New York, announced on his Web site that followers needed no longer practice "forbearance" in the face of unreasonable attacks. That message by now has made its way to rural China, and is perhaps what provoked a recent spate of demonstrations.

Almost everyone seems to know a member of the group: a landlord, an office mate, the owner of a favorite dumpling stand. And while many regard Falun Gong as offbeat or strange, they do not approve of the persecution of friends.

"I'm not a follower, but I sympathize with them," said a magazine editor. "They're just people following their beliefs."

The government has called on people to denounce colleagues, published cult-bashing comic books and even trotted out reformed practitioners on television. Its heavy-handed campaign seems better suited to the isolated China of 1960 than to the relatively sophisticated country of today.

The Chinese now get news from the Internet, from Hong Kong television and from an increasingly diverse state press. They travel freely inside China and are in constant touch with friends in other parts of the country. Many are at least somewhat disillusioned with the Communists, most skeptical of propaganda.

The engineer said he became disillusioned with Communism after the June 4, 1989, army crackdown on pro- democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square, which left hundreds dead. He said the experience had led him to abandon the "materialist" world view promoted by the Communist Party and to seek a new ideal.

"Ten or 20 years ago, it's hard to imagine the movement could have persisted in China after 18 months of a government campaign," he said. "But people understand persecution. They can sympathize and identify with us, because of events like the Cultural Revolution and June 4th."

The government's calls for citizens' help in weeding out Falun Gong members have been answered with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The leaders of Qinghua University, China's equivalent of M.I.T., have been zealous in ferreting out on-campus followers, but at Beijing University, No. 1 in the country, officials have adopted more of a "don't ask, don't tell" policy, one student said.

One teacher was removed from his job after he protested in Tiananmen Square, but continues to get housing and pay from his school.

Also, more and more Chinese now work for themselves and live in private housing, making their personal lives hard to monitor.

But when they are found out, members and their families can lose their jobs, or be detained. Of the 20 adherents the engineer knew best before the government's 1999 ban, about half have been detained at least once, and two are in labor camps, he said.

He was jailed for a few weeks last year, he said, after the police broke into a home where he and others were doing exercises. In the detention center, food was inadequate,and he was forced to sit still on a wooden plank for hours each day.

Falun Gong members have described many incidents of torture in captivity, and claim that more than 100 members have died in jail. The engineer said he was hit only once ó the one time he tried to meditate.

Since his release, he said, the police have frequently visited and harassed him ó several times a day on important holidays, when Falun Gong demonstrations are more numerous. But even the police have shown an uncertain resolve.

"At first, they wanted me to promise that I wouldn't practice," he said. "But in the end I just promised that I'd practice at home, and they were O.K. with that. They said, `That way we won't see it and Jiang Zemin won't know.' " Still, since "truth" is one of the cardinal principles of Falun Gong, he is somewhat ashamed of that arrangement.

The largely poor demonstrators who show up at Tiananmen Square have obviously been unwilling to live with compromise.

Peasants from small towns may be unable to hide their practice from zealous authorities. And the followers who have already lost their jobs or homes may have little left to hide.