BEIJING -- Before a television audience of millions, retired Communist Party member Liu Shuwen confessed her sins against the state this week as thousands have done before her.
A middle-aged woman with salt-and-pepper hair, she told how she had helped Li Hongzhi, head of the now-banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, direct more than 10,000 members to surround the capital's Zhongnanhai leadership compound in April.
"I was deceived by Li's false reasoning and evil thoughts to do something which is not in accordance with my identity as a party member," Liu said. "I'm really filled with regret."
Relying on tactics used during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square crackdown a decade ago, the government has mounted a saturation media campaign over the past two weeks to cripple the popular meditation and exercise sect.
Each day, former Falun Gong members appear on state-run television to denounce Li as a liar, cheat and enemy of the state while urging followers to abandon the practice. In expanded news broadcasts, tearful relatives recount how family members died after refusing medical treatment in accordance with the group's beliefs. On front pages, newspapers plaster gruesome photos of followers who allegedly lost their minds and killed themselves or others.
To many intellectuals, the propaganda blitz appears absurd, a throwback to earlier political campaigns when the party tried to bury perceived enemies, including reform-minded leaders and democracy advocates.
"I think it is a farce," said one Beijing professor who, like many people, is too afraid to permit his name to be used.
But the campaign seems to be damaging the group's image. Since the crackdown, public discussion of Falun Gong ("Wheel of Law") has taken on the characteristics of an echo chamber.
"Falun Gong should be totally banned because it does not advocate materialism and it creates instability," said Zheng Jigang, 22, a biochemistry major at Beijing Normal University, repeating political jargon the state-run Xinhua news service has used. "We should totally support the decision made by our leaders."
Falun Gong is a spiritual exercise regimen that claims up to 70 million practitioners in China. The government puts the number at 2 million.
Disciples, many of them middle-aged women and retirees, believe Falun Gong can heal illnesses and make them better people. The government, which fears large organizations of almost any kind, says Falun Gong is a crazed cult led by a charlatan with political ambitions.
The group stunned party leaders in April when it surrounded the elite's Beijing compound in the largest protest since Tiananmen Square. On July 22, the government struck back, banning the practice of Falun Gong and detaining about 10,000 members.
The regime has mounted a detailed case against Li, 48, who founded Falun Gong in 1992 and now lives in New York.
The government says he has contributed to the death of hundreds by telling his followers not to take medicine or see doctors, something Li denies. In an effort to discredit him, China Youth Daily reported Wednesday that he had undergone an appendectomy in a hospital in 1984.
Former practitioner Tang Zhihua, 65, said Li had used Tang's recovery from heart disease as an advertisement for Falun Gong, but never mentioned that Tang had also gone to the hospital.
"He is so bad, so mean," Tang told television viewers.
The campaign appears to be succeeding for a variety of reasons.
Many Chinese are not familiar with Falun Gong, so the regime has had a relatively easy time defining the group. Despite China's growing number of Internet users, the government maintains complete control over the mass media.
And, in a society where Confucian culture still has a strong influence and schools do not encourage critical thinking, many people do not have the skills or confidence to challenge the government line.
"Chinese are very easily persuaded by others' opinions about things they haven't seen," said a Beijing professor. "It's a part of the culture."
In the overheated rhetoric of the current campaign, one hears echoes of the past.
The regime has blamed the Falun Gong demonstrations on a handful of "plotters and core members" just as it blamed the huge 1989 democracy protests on a small group of "black hands."
One scholar sees a resemblance between the invective against Li -- described as "an evil person who has had an extremely disastrous effect on society" -- and the attack on veteran Communist leader Liu Shaoqi, who was labeled a "hidden traitor and scab" during the Cultural Revolution.
Liu, who died 30 years ago, was vindicated in 1980.
If the campaign against Falun Gong shares traits with earlier ones, it is nowhere near as harsh. Previous campaigns involved mass imprisonment, but this one seems more focused on scaring and intimidating people.
Thousands went to jail during the Cultural Revolution and after the 1989 massacre. While the government detained thousands of Falun Gong demonstrators last month, most appear to have been released.
During the Cultural Revolution, people were forced to wear dunce caps, make self-confessions before mobs or stand for hours with their backs bent and arms out in what was known as the "airplane position." Today, members confess to reporters on the national television network.
Pub Date: 8/07/99