Followers of a former Chinese government clerk now living in New Yorkwould appear en masse, as if from thin air, on famed Tiananmen Square,on obscure street corners, or outside the homes of high officials.
Adherents would unfurl trademark yellow banners or conduct silent vigilsuntil the police trucks arrived. China-wide, Falun Gong's grass-rootsnumbers ranged to the tens of millions, according to internal Chineseresearch.
So quickly had the quasi-Buddhist movement grown in the late 1990s, andso effective had it been in organizing outside Communist Party channels,that when members demanded official recognition, no less a person thanChina's supreme leader, President Jiang Zemin, oversaw a campaign tostop it.
Today, it appears that campaign has succeeded. After two years ofarrests, reeducation programs, and media attacks--the most extensivesince the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown--most of the sect's topechelon of leaders are in camps or behind bars. It's estimated that tens--perhaps hundreds--of thousands of adherents still remain, but theyhave gone deep underground and practice at home.
On July 22, the second anniversary of the official crackdown on FalunGong, only four protesters were seen carried off by police fromTiananmen Square--a testimony to the state's success against what itterms "an evil cult."
"It's been a war of attrition," says a Western expert who declined to beidentified. "Falun Gong has been creative and has staying power farbeyond what people thought. But as an organized protest movement it'sbasically crushed. The best people are in jail. The second-best peopleare in jail. Now [it is] fourth-stringers--mostly women from smalltowns - who come to protest."
"We are close to completely wiping out Falun Gong. There are just a fewhard-core members left," said a State Council official, Zhao Chongxing,to reporters last month.
In January, on the eve of the Chinese Lunar New Year, five Falun Gongmembers lit themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square in the most dramaticprotest since the group was outlawed in 1999. Two of theself-immolations resulted in death.
For weeks, China's state TV and newspapers used grisly video of theevent as evidence of the extreme behavior of a group that Chineseofficials maintain poses a risk to public health and social stability. The immolations and the media campaign seem to have ended what vestigesof legitimacy Falun Gong held among the mainstream Chinese public. Thereal vitality of the movement had flagged as long as a year ago, expertssay, following the all-out crackdown that human rights groups reportinvolves thousands of cases of beatings or torture.
Still, Beijing is taking no chances. In an anti-Falun Gong exhibit atthe downtown Museum of Military Affairs that ended last week, more than850 photos, drawings, and editorials highlighted 134 cases of Falun Gongadherents alleged to have maimed, killed, or otherwise harmedthemselves, family, or friends. Drawings depict sect members throwingthemselves from buildings, into wells and rivers, and out of windows.
Falun Gong officials in the US call the two-week exhibit "propaganda."Experts say that outside China, there is not a case record of the kindor degree of destructive behavior illustrated in the Beijing exhibit.(It opened right after the July 13 decision to award Beijing the 2008summer Olympics. China has promised that foreign athletes who practiceFalun Gong may participate in the Games.)
During the exhibit, the English-language China Daily ran four editorialswarning of "lurking danger," "spiritual poison," and "bloodcurdlingmayhem" caused by the sect.
The ongoing campaign is so effective that most ordinary Chinese don'twant to talk about Falun Gong. "I think I'll be in hot water if Idiscuss this," says one Chinese interviewed at random in Beijing. China still faces a skirmish over the status of Falun Gong in Hong Kong.The former British colony has operated under a "one-country, twosystems" formula since it was returned to China in 1997. Legalprovisions for religious expression, protected by the British common-lawsystem, have thwarted efforts to single out the group for a ban--thoughHong Kong chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, a close ally of Beijing, refersto Falun Gong by its obligatory moniker, "the evil cult."
Last month, a permanent resident of Hong Kong, Chan Yuk-to, was arrestedin Beijing for involvement in the sect.