Beijing against a master

Falun Gong: No Communist grip on mystic martial Buddhist cult with deep Chinese roots.

May 08, 1999

DISSIDENTS China's rulers can handle. Ban, shoot, suppress or denounce them.

The Chinese Communist gerontocracy hunts out anything non-Chinese. That's what Mao Tse-tung said he was doing. Never mind that communism and socialism are Western cultural imports.

Beijing also knows how to suppress non-Chinese ethnic majorities in Tibet and Xinjiang. Shut down their institutions and overwhelm them with ethnic Chinese migrants. Pretty straightforward.

But what to do about a murky, amorphous, unorganized cult or non-cult with martial arts, healing, meditative and Buddhist components that springs from origins in China's past milleniums and touches many Chinese, even in the leadership, at the innermost core of their souls?

That's where Beijing's formula of liberalizing private life, removing the Communist yoke from the home, allowing private agendas and encouraging personal ambition and consumer taste -- while tightly controlling political expression -- runs up against reality.

Sun correspondent Frank Langfitt recently described the remarkable silent protest by 10,000 adherents of Falun Gong (meaning "wheel of law") at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The government let it go on because it didn't know what to do about it.

The group, or nongroup, is a "qigong," or discipline involving movement, mediation, belief and healing. The founder of the sect, which says it is not a sect, is Li Hongzhi, a martial arts master, who was banished from China and surfaced in New York.

The Chinese government says the group has 70 million members. Members say that is a low figure. The group says that it has no structure or hierarchy, that people are free to join or quit, and that it is not a religion. All of which makes it difficult to get a handle on, much less suppress.

The rulers in Beijing, who want a pluralist market economy within a monolithic state, find it as difficult as past tyrants did to lighten up a little.

Falun Gong by its own lights is not an opposition. But the tyrants know better. If people can come together to breathe any way they want, there's no telling what they may do next.

Pub Date: 5/08/99

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