Like modern-day Gandhis, they sit lotus-style on Tiananmen Square's cold pavement, in quiet defiance of a harsh government crackdown. The protesters are routinely bundled away by police--only to be replaced the next day by fellow devotees of Falun Gong, a sect that claims to outnumber China's 60-million-strong Communist Party. Although only a few hundred people have taken part in such sit-ins in recent days, the defiance has been sufficient to strip away the veneer of social stability that Beijing has so carefully crafted.
Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that combines breathing exercises with aspects of Buddhism and Taoism, is giving Beijing headaches. Defying threats of persecution and imprisonment, the group has organized a seemingly endless series of demonstrations--and a few clandestine press conferences--to protest the government's suppression. Certainly, Beijing has done what it can to obliterate the group. The official media initially accused Falun Gong's leaders of leaking state secrets and then, echoing President Jiang Zemin's earlier pronouncements, labeled the group a cult. To give the crackdown a legal cloak, parliament passed a law banning cults and superstitious sects. The judiciary and the police promptly publicized a set of punishments against violators, including jail terms of three years to life. Last week, at least four Falun Gong leaders were indicted. The crackdown appears to be having the desired effect. Han Mingyang, a sexagenarian Falun Gong practitioner in Hunan province, is certainly spooked. I practiced it to improve my health, he says. But now that it has become so political, I'm out of it. Yet there are still pockets of defiance. I'm not afraid to die, says Yang Xiuzhen, an elderly woman from Jilin province, home of Li Hongzhi, Falun Gong's founder who now lives in the U.S. Our conscience is pure. Our loyalty to Falun Gong is unswerving. People like Yang have turned to the sect not only to boost their physical well-being but also to fill a spiritual vacuum. Two decades of rapid socio-economic change have left many of the country's 1.3 billion people feeling rudderless.
Conscious of such spiritual dislocation, Beijing has been careful to portray Falun Gong members as victims, not villains. The government has stressed that the Tiananmen holdouts will be immune from prosecution as long as they return home and make a clean break from the group. That policy jibes with the views of many Chinese citizens who see the protesters as simply naive--if not a little nuts. Most of the protesters who have gathered in Beijing hail from the provinces, a motley crew of retirees, middle-aged women and students who lack political acuity. We don't understand why they are persecuting us, says Zhao Ming, a university student. We are law-abiding and we teach kindness. What's wrong with that? If Beijing fails to win their hearts back, the suppression could lead to more alienation--and more protests.
Aside from Falun Gong's sheer size (its leaders claim 100 million adherents worldwide), the sect alarmed officialdom in April when it mobilized 10,000 followers for a sit-in outside Zhongnanhai, the seat of Chinese power, demanding official recognition. In July, the group was banned on the grounds that it damaged social stability, spread superstition and fallacies and deceived people. Domestic politics may also be fueling the hard-line response. The crackdown is meant to divert people's attention from other problems, like the slumping economy and unemployment, says a political science lecturer in Beijing.
Whatever the motivation, Chinese authorities remain nervous. In a clumsy case of harassing the carriers of bad news, police last week confiscated the press cards and residence permits of five foreign journalists who covered a secret press conference organized by Falun Gong members. (Police returned their documents within a couple days.) The communists see their own ghosts in Falun Gong, says a Western diplomat in Beijing. Chinese history is replete with uprisings by marginalized peasants overthrowing an unpopular regime. They were the winners of the last round, but they could be the victims next. Beijing's tactic appears to be to isolate Falun Gong's diehards and demoralize its rank and file. The country's largely apolitical populace will likely go along with such suppression, in the name of social stability. But in the long run, unless Beijing can address the crisis of faith on display in Tiananmen Square, it may ultimately lose its fight for China's soul.