Chinese leadership in crisis of confidence

Movement: Communist elders' crackdown on Falun Gong indicates insecurity, as the party struggles to remain relevant.

August 08, 1999|By Jennifer Lin

BEIJING -- A joke making the rounds in cyberspace last May was that President Jiang Zemin had found a way to deal with the charismatic leader of the Falun Gong spiritual movement: He made Li Hongzhi a Communist.

Today, the brouhaha over Falun Gong is no longer a joke, and no one here even dares to mention Li's name in Internet chat rooms and bulletin boards.

Communist Party elders have launched an old-fashioned political campaign against Li and his followers. "Work units" at state-run enterprises are forcing workers to sit through political sessions denouncing Falun Gong. Government television shows people snitching on relatives who follow Falun Gong and turning them over to police. The official People's Daily newspaper reported Aug. 1 that Falun Gong "spreads evil ideas to confuse and poison people's minds, to create disorder in society and to damage social stability."

The 47-year-old Li, who lives in the United States, is a wanted criminal in China. Practicing Falun Gong is outlawed, and leaders of the movement are treated with the brutality usually reserved for political dissidents. As many as 5,000 people have been arrested or detained.

Iron hand

The crackdown, however, reveals not the Communists' strength, but a dangerous crisis of confidence within the party that has ruled China with an iron hand for 50 years. With the tenets of Mao and Marx ringing hollow among people more preoccupied with finding work, paying for medical care or scraping together money to send their children to school, the Communist Party is struggling to remain relevant.

Party propaganda doesn't match the reality of most people's lives. While the People's Daily extols readers to stay the course of Marxism, people watch with bitter cynicism as corrupt party cadres exploit their power for personal profit.

As the leaders of the party gather this month at their annual seaside retreat at Beidaihe, east of the capital, Falun Gong is on everyone's mind.

Belief system

The party could use something like Falun Gong -- a belief system to harness the loyalty of the masses as in the good old days of the Cultural Revolution, when Mao was god and Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought was the only religion people needed.

Created by Li, Falun Gong, which means "Buddhist law" in Chinese, is hard to define. It's a New Age amalgam that borrows beliefs from Buddhism and Taoism and uses the breathing exercises and meditations of "qigong," a traditional martial art. But Li has added his own "X-Files" views to this mix.

He foresees an end of the world and thinks every person has an orb of energy rotating in his belly. Followers eschew medicine and doctors' care. The Falun Gong movement claims it has as many as 70 million followers; the government puts the total at 2 million.

Followers who live outside China have come charging to Li's defense, arguing that he promotes only clean living and good health.

"Falun Gong practitioners do not have hatred or anger and will never engage in any activities against the government," said Wu Yingnian, a follower at the University of Michigan.

If followers in China had stuck to practicing their trancelike meditations in the park, there would not be much of a flap. The wrath of the government came crashing down on Falun Gong after practitioners openly defied the government by holding a peaceful public protest April 25, after several of their members were arrested. As many as 10,000 followers sat outside the walled Zhongnanhai compound in central Beijing, where China's top leaders reside.

That act made the crackdown inevitable.

"I'm afraid it looks like the Cultural Revolution now," said a middle-aged Beijing resident who practices another type of qigong and edits publications on the subject and who asked not to be identified. "When the government cracks down, it always overdoes it. But China is ruled by the Communist Party, and it will not allow anyone to promote another ideology or agenda."

President Jiang was reportedly stunned and furious that the country's security forces had no inkling of the protest and little knowledge of the movement. Equally disturbing was the fact that so many party members were among Falun Gong's followers.

Jiang loses sleep

According to published reports and separate sources, on the day of the protest, Premier Zhu Rongji strolled out of the Zhongnanhai compound to see what the fuss was about. He invited five representatives to meet with him inside. At least three of the five were said to be retired high-ranking government officials -- party members. Though the protest broke up without incident, Jiang reportedly was so rattled he couldn't sleep.

Joseph Fewsmith, a China expert at Boston University, said the government finds two aspects about the Falun Gong phenomenon particularly troubling.

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