Falun Gong (or "Law of the Wheel Breathing Exercise") blends a series of traditional Buddhist beliefs and simple exercise routines into a package that its followers believe promotes spiritual and moral well-being, and cures illness. Although many of its practices are simply a variation on the age-old Chinese Qi Gong belief, the authorities may be particularly threatened by the practitioners’ fierce loyalty to the group’s New York-based founder, Li Hongzhi. The Communist party presents itself as the country’s supreme moral authority, and isn’t about to tolerate competition –- particularly from a group whose leader believes computers, airplanes and other symptoms of modernity were introduced by aliens seeking to enslave the human spirit. Which is a problem for Beijing, since those attracted by Li’s message are hardly likely to be impressed by the communists’ denunciation of his teachings as "false science." Science, according Master Li, is a tool of the aliens.
Banning the fastest growing religious group in modern Chinese history may be a risky move for Beijing, but letting it flourish may have been even riskier. That appears to be thinking behind a government decision Thursday to declare the 70-million strong Falun Gong religious cult illegal. The move came as protests continued in Beijing and other major cities against the arrest Wednesday of thousands of members and leaders of the group. "The government fears that Falun Gong, as a nationwide movement with more members than the Communist party, could become a lightning rod for the political frustrations of a nation undergoing traumatic social and economic changes," says TIME correspondent William Dowell. "Their belief system is a symbolic representation of the difficulties of modern life, and that could make it a very powerful force in a largely peasant population easily swayed by mysticism."