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Crackdown shows Communist Party cracks

IPS, Asia Times, 24 July 1999

HONG KONG - China's crackdown on a popular religious sect was intended as an assertion of state control, but regional analysts say it may well be projecting Communist Party weaknesses more than anything else.

In China's largest such round-up of public dissidents since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, authorities on Thursday stepped up arrests of thousands of followers of the Falun Gong cult that Beijing has just outlawed as a group that threatens social stability. Some indications are that the arrests had been planned for some time, considering they began in several cities as early as Monday night, according to the Hong-Kong based Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China.

Falun Gong, which combines traditional Chinese breathing exercises with Buddhism and Taoism and the teachings of its New York-based leader, unnerved Beijing after 10,000 members protested outside the party headquarters in April to demand recognition. After that incident, Chinese President Jiang Xemin issued orders to restrict the cult. Beijing also dismissed the New York-based founder of Falun Gong, Li Hongzhi, as a charlatan.

The sect has ulterior political motives, harassing government organizations and news media that expose its fallacies, a Communist Party official was quoted as saying of Falun Gong, which translates roughly as Wheel of Buddhist Law.

Hong Kong-based groups say 10,000 people were detained across China, including in the northern city of Tianjin, and held in stadiums. Protests against the arrests have been reported in 30 cities, some erupting in scuffles with police.

To many, the rise of the Falun Gong in modern China and the authorities' response highlights how Chinese society has changed in the last two decades of economic reforms and openness.

Like it or not, the Falun Gong is a byproduct of today's more materialistic China, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post said in an editorial Friday. The collapse of the ideological basis for communist rule in the rush towards a free-market economy has left a spiritual void, drawing to its ranks the disenchanted, the unemployed and other people.

Indeed, the rise of the Falun Gong since the early 1990s is part of the proliferation of all kinds of faiths and folk religions in the country, which are filling a spiritual vacuum after the virtual collapse of communist ideology.

Sect members incorporate healing techniques based on qi gong, the traditional Chinese teaching of cultivating human energy. They do early morning exercises that aid meditation to improve physical and spiritual health and say the sect can help lead China to become a more moral society.

Most followers of Falun Gong come from the bottom rungs of society - retired women, workers, officials and many peasants. The membership of peasants and ordinary people worries the government most, because they are supposed to be among the party's most loyal followers. Membership alone is not the only thorn in the Communist Party's side, however. Equally worrisome is the prospect of peasants becoming caught up in such movements, given rural unrest in China in recent years which has led to protests against abuses such as arbitrary taxes and corruption. A large-scale peasant-based movement against the government is one of the fears behind the crackdown.

The South China Morning Post said Beijing should count itself lucky that the group has so far been a religious one, though many Falun Gong members and Internet-based messages now are calling for more respect for religious and individual freedoms.

The emergence of the cult strikes deep into the traditional worries by Chinese authorities, who do not relish the prospect of large movements and gatherings turning into protests against government and getting out of control. Unchecked religious movements have long been considered a threat to government stability.

China is no stranger to religious movements, and Communist Party leaders are well aware of the role secret religious societies played in the fall of the last imperial dynasty in 1911. Secret societies of old, such as the Taipings and Boxers, dealt a fatal blow to the Qing dynasty in the mid-1850s and heralded the demise of the empire.

News reports also say some members of the Communist Party are themselves follows of Falun Gong - and they have been told to leave it or be expelled from the party's ranks.

Falun Gong, which Li founded in 1992, has nearly 2,000 places of instruction and 28,000 group exercise areas in China. Falun Gong says it has from 40 to 60 million members, a number that rivals the Communist Party's membership of 55 million people. A senior government official in Beijing said, however, that it actually has only 2 million adherents.

In a 70-minute broadcast Thursday, China Central Television announced the banning of the sect and aired interviews with people who narrated how followers had gone berserk or murdered relatives.

But one Falun Gong member in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou said it was ridiculous to call the group an illegal organization. The government can arrest us all if it has the space to detain us, he was quoted as saying by the Post.

In China and Hong Kong, sect followers say they will continue to adhere to its teachings despite the ban.

On Friday, the Hong Kong Standard said: Beijing must make a clear distinction between the actions of Falun Gong members in organizing illegal organizations and activities, perhaps with political objectives in mind, and members who are no more than followers of a health discipline deeply rooted in Chinese culture.

This week's clampdown, however, may have inevitably pushed Falun Gong into the political realm. The Chinese government announced the banning of the sect at the height of the latest stand-off with Taiwan over statements by the island's president, Lee Teng Hui, that cross-strait ties should henceforth be on a state-to-state basis.

Some say Beijing's priorities should be addressing this issue and other problems like unemployment, instead of cracking down on groups like Falun Gong.

As Liang, an elderly woman follower in Beijing said in April after sect members protested there, people are still searching for something else after the Mao Zedong era. People have to look for some spiritual support somewhere other than the Communist Party, she said.

(Inter Press Service)