BEIJING - The Temple of Earth Park these days is unusually quiet, some of the loudest sounds on a recent morning being the soft scraping of bamboo brooms as the grounds crew sweep the stone walkways of snow.
In the past, the park echoed each morning with hypnotic music from boom boxes as hundreds of people practiced qigong, a traditional Chinese form of meditation and exercise. Now, 18 months into a government campaign to destroy the nation's largest qigong group, Falun Gong, few practitioners dare venture here.
The Communist Party's propaganda war against Falun Gong has often seemed clumsy, inviting comparisons to the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when Mao Tse-tung demanded that the public attack alleged enemies of the Communist revolution, as a part of a countrywide purge to defeat political foes.
People were forced to denounce family members in rehearsed confessions.
Last week, though, the regime's offensive against Falun Gong finally seemed to strike a nerve. Capitalizing on the self-immolation in Tiananmen Square by five people the government has identified as Falun Gong members, the state-controlled media saturated the airwaves with images of flaming bodies and tugged at hearts by focusing on one burn victim, a 12-year-old girl named Liu Siying.
As part of the expanded government campaign, national television showed former Falun Gong practitioners held in a re-education camp weeping as they watched video footage of the attempted suicides.
Falun Gong was established by Li Hongzhi, a former government clerk, in 1992, and it is a spiritual, meditation discipline that blends moral teachings based on Buddhism and Taoism with slow-motion calisthenics. Many followers speak of Falun Gong with evangelical zeal, claiming it has healed their illnesses and made them better human beings.
Falun Gong representatives insist the five people are not genuine practitioners, but that seems to make little difference here. The regime's reinvigorated campaign appears to have hardened public opposition to the group and served to buttress government accusations that Falun Gong is an evil, crazed cult that threatens political stability.
"I hate them even more," says Liang Fuquan, a 59-year-old retired worker from a state-owned engine factory, as he stands amid the snow in the Temple of Earth Park. "We should extradite Li Hongzhi back to China and shoot him," he adds, referring to the group's leader, who is said to be living in the United States.
But gauging popular opinion in this authoritarian nation of 1.3 billion is difficult at best.
Chinese might bluntly state their opinions among friends, but some also acknowledge that in interviews with foreign journalists they would profess support for a government crackdown that they actually think has gone too far.
Despite the reticence in public, opinion appears to be shifting: In the battle between Li Hongzhi and the Communist Party, more and more Chinese seem to like neither.
Many appear to subscribe to the government's claim that Li Hongzhi is a manipulative charlatan, but they simultaneously distrust the regime and its relentless propaganda machine. Some intellectuals - defined in China as anyone who has gone to college - blame the party for creating a spiritual vacuum from which a group like Falun Gong was bound to emerge.
After 20 years of market reforms, Communist ideology is essentially dead here. Leaders still mouth the words of Mao and Karl Marx, but the government is far more interested in economic development and maintaining power than in the plight of workers and peasants.
The party, though, refuses to let any other ethos gain a foothold - be it democracy, Christianity or Falun Gong - for fear it will be used to topple the regime. The strategy has kept the party in power but left many people rudderless in an increasingly materialistic and corrupt society.
"China has just improved the economy, but has left spiritual life untended," says a 23-year-old People's University student from Western China's Gansu Province, who refused to give his name. The young man blames the government's failure to deal with Falun Gong peacefully on China's authoritarian style of rule.
"The Communist Party is a dictatorship, so when this happens it can only destroy it," says the student, whose father was jailed for six months in the early 1980s after speaking openly about politics. "That's the difference between dictatorship and a two-party system."
No longer able to bind the nation together with communism's ideological glue, the regime has increasingly turned to nationalism, sometimes alluding to shadowy foreign conspiracies to galvanize support. The campaign against Falun Gong fits that pattern.
Capitalizing on the fact that Li Hongzhi has lived in the United States, the party has suggested foreign forces are using the spiritual leader to bludgeon China on the sensitive issue of human rights. The charge seems to be sticking.