How China Beat Down Falun Gong

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    It is rare and dangerous for practitioners to meet. But Falun Gong's leaders overseas can still get their message out through followers like a woman in her 30s who met recently with TIME. An accountant for a foreign company in Beijing, she secretly uses her firm's overseas data line to read Falun Gong's website. In early January she found an essay by Li Hongzhi called "Beyond the Limits of Forbearance." Written at the time the demonstrations were starting to ebb, the essay urged more dramatic actions against the "evil" of the crackdown. "I copied it to a CD-ROM and gave it to everyone I know," she says. Through such networks, Li's words have spread to more radical practitioners. On Jan. 23, five suspected followers set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square. Two of them, a 12-year-old girl and her mother, were killed.

    The immolations were a gift to the authorities. China's newspapers and TV screens were covered with grisly images of smoldering human forms. Suddenly, the "evil cult" looked genuinely sinister. In South China, 1,200 miles from Beijing, the incident gave a typical follower pause. The young man, an artist, had tried to preserve his faith. Though he had put his thumbprint on a police document promising never again to practice Falun Gong, privately, he continued meditating and gliding through the exercises at home. The deaths shook his belief. "I thought, 'It's wrong for people to do that, for any reason,'" he recalls. He no longer practices.

    The Communist Party's most ingenious weapon has been its "responsibility system." According to an internal party document seen by TIME, for each protester who reaches Beijing, "all levels of government leaders, police, neighborhood cadres, work units and family members must receive punishment." Bosses face fines or demotions when their workers protest. Worse, police officers face heavier penalties for allowing people under their watch to demonstrate than for beating them to death.

    Although foreign companies often provide havens for practitioners, many comply with the authorities' demands. Indiana-based Cummins Inc., for example, followed government orders to investigate workers at its Beijing engine factory and issued a document to the police stating that nobody practiced Falun Gong. Had it found Falun Gong followers, says a company spokesman, "the government would have wanted us to report them, so we would have [done so]." Nor is Cummins alone. Chen Gang began working in 1996 for Carlsberg Brewery, the Danish firm that produces one of China's most popular beers. Police last year sentenced him to a year in a Beijing prison for practicing Falun Gong, and relatives say he was tortured when he refused to disavow his beliefs. Chen is due for release this week. He needn't bother asking for his old job back. "If a person can't work, then we have to find someone else," explains Wang Hong, head of human resources for Carlsberg.

    Yet for all its success in breaking the movement, the government has not yet addressed the sense of spiritual emptiness that gave birth to Falun Gong. Incense smoke flows thick in Buddhist temples across China, and the number of Christians has increased tenfold, to roughly 40 million, since the communists first swept to power. Even Liu Shujuan, the apostate who now leads others away, seems ambivalent about her conversion. "It's hard to say," she replies when asked whether she would still practice had the government not banned Falun Gong. Pause. A glance at her government minders. "I think it's still better not to."

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