The Chinese Government believes it is engaged in a fight to the end with the most serious threat to its power since the foundation of the Communist State in 1949. It is a spiritual movement based on Taoism and Buddhism called the Falun Gong. Phil Rees reports.
Suddenly, security guards in suits with earpieces closed the exit doors. The auditorium fell silent. The collective buzz of a thousand voices then rose to a crescendo. The audience, devotees of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, knew that their saviour had arrived.
I was attending a rally in Ottawa organised by Canadian followers of Falun Gong.
The founder of the movement, Li Hongzhi, was about to make an unannounced visit. It was his only public appearance in more than six months.
Known as Master Li to his followers, he wore a crisp dark suit and white shirt. He resembled more a well-fed business executive than the leader of quasi-Buddhist, spiritual movement.
Li Hongzhi, the Chinese Government's "Enemy Number One"
The baby-faced Li, who is now turning 50, also cuts an improbable threat to the might of the Chinese State. President Jiang Zemin is said to believe that the Falun Gong movement is the most serious challenge to the Communist Party since it came to power in 1949.
Li lives in hiding in the New York area. His followers mutter that his life is at risk because the Chinese Government has ordered hit squads to track down and murder him. It is rumoured that US Government agents are assisting Li with his security.
Falun Gong - which literally means "The Power of the Law Wheel" - is derived from the ancient Chinese practice of Qi Gong. The Qi is an energy force that is said to be circulating within the body.
Li Hongzhi - a former trumpet player and government clerk, blended Qi Gong with theories drawn from Taoism and Buddhism, as well as more eccentric musings about the universe.
In the mid-1990s Li toured China, claiming supernatural powers and apparently healing the sick. Stories of his miraculous deeds swept through the country and tens of millions were attracted to the faith.
Falun Gong is banned in China
It really hurts, it's unbearable, you feel numb, but you can't shout, they put the baton in front of your mouth and say, 'If you shout, I will put it in your mouth'.
Two years ago, the government banned Falun Gong. It arrested tens of thousands of its followers. Hundreds and perhaps thousands who refused to denounce Falun Gong were tortured.
The group says that more than 200 of its practitioners have died in police custody. Observers who have studied individual cases found Falun Gong's claims to be mostly accurate.
Professor Zhang Kunlun fled China earlier this year and now lives in Canada. He is slight of frame, quiet and courteous. In his 60s, he seems an unlikely enemy of the Chinese State.
Professor Kunlun, tortured for his belief in Falun Gong
Yet the Professor says that he was repeatedly tortured by policemen using electric cattle prods. He shuddered as he spoke of the electric charge running through his body: "It really hurts, it's unbearable, you feel numb, but you can't shout, they put the baton in front of your mouth and say 'If you shout, I will put it in your mouth'. "
What I could not understand when I heard such testimony was why? The Chinese Government is authoritarian and sometimes brutal but it is not mindless.
The audience at the meeting in Canada was overwhelmingly Chinese, mostly women in middle age. It seemed absurd that an elderly group, which practised slow motion breathing exercises, should fixate China's vast security apparatus.
The perceived threat of Falun Gong
I was soon to realise that the confrontation with Falun Gong illuminates better than any other issue the weakness of Communist Party rule.
The primary concern of the government is to contain growing public unrest - and with it social stability - in the face of a rapidly changing economic landscape. There are tens of millions of unemployed, maybe many more. The state no longer provides the socialist "Iron Rice Bowl" - health care and social security - for the needy.
All the methods employed by the evil gang of dictators in the Chinese Government are the most despicable known to history. They have reached an extreme. They've really out done themselves. Never before has a government done these terrible things.
In April 1999, Falun Gong brought 10,000 people to demonstrate in the heart of Beijing. Party leaders were stunned. Here was an organisation which could mobilise large numbers of people at short notice. What would happen if 1000s of disgruntled peasants or unemployed factory workers were to march on Beijing?
The Communist Party feels vulnerable for another reason. In the wake of cut-throat capitalist reform, the party has lost the moral and ideological leadership it could claim during former decades. Corruption and crime are growing. The gap between the rich and the poor is widening.
Authoritarian governments in China have always justified their monopoly of power by claiming a benevolent stewardship of society. Now, Falun Gong offers an alternative creed that undermines the Communist Party's increasingly unconvincing claim to moral superiority.
Chinese history has periodically been ruptured by rebellions led by religiously motivated secret societies. They triggered popular uprisings whose aim was to remove corrupt officials and restore moral rectitude.
Falun Gong practitioner Amy Lee escaped from China
In the convention centre in Canada, Li Hongzhi was keen to find a place for today's Communist rulers in terms of China's turbulent past. "All the methods employed by the evil gang of dictators in the Chinese Government are the most despicable known to history", he said. "They have reached an extreme. They've really out done themselves. Never before has a government done these terrible things."
I found Li Hongzhi's tone uninspiring. He is no Billy Graham. His message is often convoluted. But he has found, almost by accident, a place in the destiny of his nation. He is challenging the regime at a moment in China's history when the country seems to be evolving beyond the grip of itscentral government.
Meditating and practicing their five exercises, a group of Falun Gong members gathered in De la Guerra Plaza on Wednesday hoping to raise awareness about the persecution of their fellow members in China.
The group claims that more than 200 Falun Gong members have been killed as part of a crackdown by the Chinese government, which outlawed the movement it says is an "evil cult."
But followers say its meditative exercises and principles are designed to improve one's inner self. Their beliefs are an eclectic mix of Taoism, Buddhism and mysticism that has appealed to a large number of Chinese citizens.
Although government officials say there are now fewer than 80,000 members in China, Falun Gong officials claim tens of millions of members there. The group's leader, Li Hongzhi, lives in exile in New York.
Earlier this month, 45 members of the group deemed "die-hard" followers were sentenced to prison by a Chinese court.
According to a story in the Washington Post last week, one man, accused of renting a safe house to followers and printing leaflets for the group, was sentenced to 13 years. The report said two other men were sentenced to 10 years for making banners and trying to raise them in Tiananmen Square.
The sentencings followed the murder convictions of four people accused of organizing the Jan. 23 self-immolations in Tiananmen Square of purported Falun Gong practitioners. The dead included a woman and her 12-year-old daughter.
Persecution of Falun Gong members has been condemned by human rights groups and the United States government.
On Wednesday, seven members of the group, walking from Los Angeles to San Francisco, stopped in Santa Barbara.
"We're appealing to the world to help stop the persecution in China," said Ping Wang, an assistant to an attorney in Los Angeles who helped organize the event.
Also along for the monthlong walk is Mingjing Xue, a Falun Gong member who says she was detained for 104 days in China and subjected to torture. Ms. Xue also says she witnessed severe torture of other sect members.
On Wednesday, the group displayed posters showing members with bruises and burns they say came from beatings at the hands of Chinese officials.
Chinese police are taking extra precaution to maintain public safety during the upcoming National Day holidays.
A source close to security departments in Beijing said more police would be deployed to guard public places such as railway stations, bus depots, airports, skyscrapers, squares, and large department stores during the week-long vacation next week.
"More security personnel will be deployed in places with large congregations of people," the source said.
"Prime targets includes disaffected Chinese such as the unemployed letting off bombs to vent their frustration at the existing order.".
The special security measures will be in place right through Chinese New Year early next year.
Soon after the terrorist attacks on the United States, President Jiang Zemin asked Politburo member Luo Gan to make a thorough check on national security.
Luo, a veteran expert on law and order, is expected to look at weak links in the country's security measures -- as well as the underlying courses of discontent in society.
For example, under Luo's orders, security and fire-safety standards in skyscrapers throughout the nation have been beefed up.
Cities have been told not to compete with each other regarding the number and height of buildings.
Restrictions have also been imposed on the use of aircraft by companies such as tour agencies.
Diplomatic analysts in Beijing said the authorities were much more worried about the unemployed than armed terrorists from Xinjiang Autonomous Region.
In the past two years, jobless Chinese from both cities and the countryside have perpetrated quasi-terrorist actions such as the bombing of vehicles and buildings.
They said the only good news for China's security personnel was that members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement had been lying low to avoid further arrests.
BEIJING - Five more members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement have died after beatings in Chinese police custody, the group's U.S.-based information centre said.
The centre said in a statement late on Saturday it now had details of 283 adherents who had died from torture during detention in China, but quoted government sources putting the actual number at more than 1,000.
Three of the five men died after police beat and force-fed them when they went on hunger strike in protest at their detention, the statement said.
Police in the provinces of Sichuan, Jiangxi and Shandong, where Falun Gong said the men died between April and August this year, declined to comment.
China banned Falun Gong in 1999, branding it an "evil cult," after the quasi-religious group shocked leaders with a mass protest around the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Beijing demanding official recognition of their faith.
Falun Gong has said more than 50,000 adherents have been sent to prisons, labour camps and mental hospitals in China since it was banned.
Group spokesman Adam Montanaro said he thought China would arrest more adherents in the coming weeks.
"Chinese leaders have traditionally prepared for large-scale public celebrations, such as China's National Day coming up on October 1, by rounding up practitioners of Falun Gong who might reveal the persecution campaign," he said.
Montanaro added he thought President Jiang Zemin would escalate the persecution of Falun Gong believers while the world's attention was focused on the attacks on the United States.
Following the death of two of the adherents in Shandong, the authorities responsible were given new assignments, the Falun Gong information centre said.
The group, which Beijing says is trying to overthrow the ruling Communist Party, follows a mixture of Taoist and Buddhist beliefs and traditional Chinese physical exercise.
Chinese authorities have acknowledged several deaths of Falun Gong members in custody, but say most resulted from suicide or illness.
Beijing also says the group has caused the death of at least 1,800 people by suicide or refusal of medical treatment.
What Is Falun Gong? See "Falun Gong 101", by Massimo Introvigne
"Falun Gong 101. Introduzione al Falun Gong e alla sua presenza in Italia" (in italiano), di Massimo Introvigne
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