BEIJING -- It was a stunning moment for the Chinese leadership.
Dressed in drab provincial clothes and carrying copies of their leader's manifesto, about 10,000 members of the Falun Gong meditation sect slipped into the capital in April and staged the biggest anti-government demonstration in a decade.
In an act that no one seemed to have anticipated, the crowd of mostly middle-aged disciples sat cross-legged in lotus positions outside the vermilion walls of the Zhongnanhai leadership compound, silently protesting the detention of fellow members and asking for official recognition.
Not since the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising and the subsequent massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators had so many people gathered in Beijing to oppose government policy.
After being told followers would be released, the crowd left as quietly as it had come. The government said it did not oppose groups such as Falun Gong, but deemed the protest "wrong."
That was then. Now Chinese leaders are cracking down with a vengeance.
Embarrassed and alarmed by Falun Gong's persistent ability to organize large demonstrations under the nose of their security service, the government arrested 70 of the group's leaders and detained more than 10,000 members after protests erupted across the country this month.
In a tactic that recalls the Tiananmen crackdown, the regime has ordered Falun Gong members to renounce their movement and write self-criticisms.
"Only with an improved Marxist theoretical education can the party build an ideological Great Wall to resist the entry of wrong and fallacious ideas," the party newspaper, the People's Daily, said on Monday.
Exhorting people to study Marx, though, does more to illustrate the problems facing the Communist Party today than it does to solve them. That Chinese leaders can think of no better way to address the challenge of a wildly popular spiritual movement helps explain why the group exists in the first place.
Filling a void
The ideological collapse of communism in China has left a spiritual void that many citizens are desperate to fill. With the party unable to offer credible alternatives, millions have turned to Falun Gong as well as conventional and home-grown religions in a search for meaning and guidance.
"People obviously need something to believe in," says a Beijing intellectual, explaining part of Falun Gong's appeal, but speaking -- as so many do here -- on condition of anonymity. "Nowadays in Chinese society, everybody has become so selfish and everybody wants money. I don't think Falun Gong is a good thing, but it meets a need for people."
What might fulfill a need for millions, though, is seen as a serious threat by a regime with few sources of legitimacy. While Mao Tse-tung's vision of building a great socialist state unified people in the 1950s, current leaders must rely on raising incomes and stoking nationalism for survival.
The party fears that if it allows groups such as Falun Gong to fill the vacuum in people's personal lives, its monopoly on power could begin to slip.
In the past week, the regime has focused its formidable resources on crippling, if not destroying, the sect. A saturation media campaign in print and on TV has savaged Falun Gong, portraying it as a crazed cult whose members have killed themselves and others in psychotic rages. Chinese newspapers present leader and former grain bureau clerk Li Hongzhi as an "evil" mastermind with political ambitions.
In interviews and through the group's Web sites, Li, who left China under government pressure and now lives in New York, denies any political designs and says that followers who turned violent were mentally ill and should not have been practicing in the first place.
The government has blocked access to the sect's Internet address as well as 1 million domestic e-mail accounts to prevent followers from communicating. During work hours, some state offices have required workers to watch a documentary on the group's alleged abuses.
"I can understand the government's reaction," says a 33-year-old artist from coastal Shandong Province. "Falun Gong's potentially dangerous because it has no clear intention and it can be used by people with ulterior motives."
`Wheel of Law'
Falun Gong, which means "Wheel of Law," is a spiritual type of qigong, an ancient Chinese exercise regimen that tries to direct energy from inside and outside the body to improve health. Disciples believe Falun Gong can heal all kinds of illnesses and that they have a wheel of law in their abdomen to protect them from evil spirits.
Followers abstain from smoking, drinking and often medicine, while following a moral code that has broad appeal at a time when prostitution and public corruption are rampant in China.