Why Crackdown on China Sect Could Backfire

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China's crackdown on the Falun Gong sect may be inflating the size of the dragon it is trying to slay. Beijing ratcheted up its campaign against the religious group Thursday, branding it a "devil-cult" and vowing to show it no mercy. But despite the heavy prison sentences that Chinese law prescribes for members of cults, hundreds of Falun Gong members continued their almost daily protests in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere in China. Although the authorities fear the consequences of allowing a millions-strong religious sect whose leader is based in the U.S. to flourish beyond official control in China, the very form of the Falun Gong protest — quiet meditation and exercise — highlights the problem facing the authorities' attempts to crack down. "It's almost impossible to stop a movement that's spread by word of mouth and whose basic manifestation is a regime of exercise and meditation," says TIME correspondent William Dowell. "Security services can monitor small networks of dissidents, but they simply don't have enough people to monitor something of this scale."

Beijing fears that the uncertainties brought on by China's dramatic economic reforms, which have left millions suddenly unemployed, will prompt a retreat into unpredictable cults that could spark cataclysmic social unrest. But the nature of Falun Gong — which blends traditional Qi Gong exercise practices with elements of Buddhism and Taoism — makes it harder for the authorities to win the battle for public opinion. "If all the Falun Gong members appear to be doing is exercise and meditation, it may be hard to convince the broader public that they represent a threat," says Dowell. "A harsh government crackdown could make the authorities look irrational in the eyes of the public. By choosing to clamp down rather than ignore Falun Gong, the authorities may have elevated its political importance." And if the sect is indeed an expression of the anxiety brought on by traumatic social changes, eliminating it will force that anxiety to simply find other channels of expression.