It is 7:00 a.m. on a chilly October morning in Manhattan1s Riverside Park, and the woman's eyes shine with the unnatural brightness of ecstasy. "I had searched for something, maybe all my life," she said in Mandarin, brushing back raven hair. "When I read the master1s words, and heard his voice, I knew I had found what I was looking for."

The woman is a practitioner of Falun Gong, or Falun Dafa, an exercise, meditation, and "moral cultivation" movement that started in northeast China in 1992 and now claims 100 million followers worldwide. Freighted with an oddly apocalyptic metaphysics that rejects evolution, says we live in "the period of Last Havoc," and pushes moral guidelines that warn followers against such "degenerate" influences as rock and roll, television, computers, homosexuality, and modern medical care, Falun Gong has been an easy target for critics. It has also been targeted for an unusually harsh Chinese government crackdown.

That crackdown was sparked by the extraordinary gathering in Beijing on April 25, 1999, of some 10,000 practitioners for a sit-down protest at the compound of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. The vigil, which fell around the tenth anniversary of the largest 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, was called because of the arrest of fellow practitioners in coastal Tianjin (these, in turn, had protested publication of an anti-Falun Gong article in a local journal). Li Hongzhi, the movement's controversial and charismatic founder, claimed the demonstration was spontaneous, apolitical, and held while he was out of the country (this final claim was proven false by Chinese immigration records).

Peaceful as it was, the size and suddenness of the protest rocked leaders and public alike.

Since then, thousands of followers have been arrested, and Falun Gong leaders say those who refuse to recant are being tortured (there have been numerous reports of members dieing while in police custody). Twelve-hundred-plus government officials have been detained and forced to write confessions and self-criticism for Falun activities. Some 1.5-million Falun Gong tracts have been burned in televised bonfires that evoked the thought-control campaigns of Chairman Mao, or his model, the harsh ancient emperor Qin.

A barrage of anti-Falun Gong articles and books have been churned out. Police have ransacked homes, confiscating books, tapes, and videos. Notices have gone up banning practice in parks. In July 1999,Falun Gong was banned entirely. Practice has been banned even in private, and taking part in protests is grounds for an instant and harsh prison sentence.

Beijing also has declared Li Hongzhi a criminal and sought support from the United States and Interpol to bring him back to the People1s Republic of China (PRC). This request was in all likelihood pro forma, since the U.S. has no extradition treaty with the People1s Republic. Interpol duly refused. But the attempt reveals some kind of desperation among the Chinese leadership. What is the movement1s appeal, and what about it has the Chinese government so upset?

Numbers of Falun Gong practitioners are disputed, but all agree they are large; most news reports now quote 20 to 60 million. Some estimates go as high as 100 million worldwide. Before the crackdown, practitioners by the hundreds could be seen in parks throughout China.

Li Hongzhi is a 48-year-old former clerk who is referred to by his followers as "Master Li," or simply "the Master." Li's system of breathing exercises draws on China1s traditional qigong (CHEE-gung) practice (which enjoyed a popularity craze in the early 1990s), Buddhism, and Taoism. It also includes beliefs that seem drawn variously from creationist fundamentalism, Scientology, pop science, Christian Science, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

While the content of the sect's official website, the Master1s lectures (Falun Buddhist Law, Falun Fo Fa Publishing), and the movement1s "bible," the Zhuan Falun, can be contradictory, the recurring themes are simplicity and nostalgia for a purer day.

"Falun Gong is really three systems in one," explains Gail Rachlin, owner of a public-relations consultant firm and one of the movement's four "unofficial contact persons" in New York. "It1s an exercise practice, a meditation practice, and a system of moral guidance." While the exercises are straightforward, the metaphysics of the movement have drawn criticism from nonbelievers.

In an interview with William Dowell of Time (which Rachlin claims was taken out of context; Dowell says the quotes were "absolutely accurate"), Li Hongzhi said the biggest cause of decline in society "is that people no longer believe in orthodox religion. They go to church but they no longer believe... The second reason is that since the beginning of this century, aliens have begun to invade the human mind." These aliens, Li said, "have corrupted mankind... The aliens have introduced modern machinery like computers and airplanes. They started by teaching mankind about modern science, so people believe more and more science, and spiritually, they are controlled. Everyone thinks that scientists invent on their own when in fact their inspiration is manipulated by the aliens." He concluded the alien goal is wholesale takeover of humanity, via cloning.

Li's published works describe the Falun or "wheel of law" as a constantly spinning miniature universe that Li "installs" in followers' bellies via telekinesis. The Zhuan Falun also describes a presence called Fashen, a set of "mind and thoughts controlled by the (practitioner)" which is "also a complete, independent and realistic individual life" brought into being through exercise and spiritual practice. The Master's Fashen, of course, is most powerful, due to what he calls "my extraordinary divine superpower." Li promises followers: "You have the protection of my Fashen, and you will not run into any danger"; and "those who practice at the exercise sites will have my Fashen to cure their illnesses" (though interestingly, he forbids followers from attempting to cure illness with their Fashen).

Falun Gong also offers moral guidance, based on the triple concept zhen-shan-ren ("truthfulness-compassion/ benevolence-forbearance/acceptance-endurance") which, Li writes, "is the sole criteria to judge good and bad people." Many of Li's other directives take a leaf from fundamentalist movements. He denounces drugs, modern music, sloppy clothes, funny hairdos, sex out of marriage, homosexuality, and "sexual liberation" in any form. "Advocacy of women1s liberation," he writes, "appears only after the degeneration of the human race." In ancient times, "men knew how to treat their wives, be loving and take care of their wives; and wives in turn knew how to be loving to their husbands" (unlike today, when in the wake of women's liberation "all kinds of social problems appear, such as divorce, fighting, children being abandoned, etc."

More ambiguously still, Li exhorts followers to avoid "attachments" (to money, things, ideas, even people) which distract from their own cultivation. This concept is not taken to the extremes of some groups; followers are encouraged to hold jobs, marry, have families, and lead normal lives. There's a degree of play in the system. Moderate meat-eating, for instance, is allowed so long as followers aren't "attached" to meat, while alcohol and tobacco are forbidden as inherently "attaching."

But the dedication to avoiding attachments has serious implications for the role practitioners see for themselves in society. While dedicated to zhen-shan-ren in their own lives, followers will not, Rachlin told me, seek this in others, because that means being "attached to the idea of improving them." At best this seems to eliminate the spur to proactive "goodness" inherent in concepts like Christian charity, or Judaism1s "tikkun olam," or directive for working for social justice. A Falun Gung practitioner might choose to volunteer with the poor, or in a hospital or school, Rachlin said, but "that's his business; it has nothing to do with his status as a practitioner."

Would a practitioner, for instance, seek to educate a neo-Nazi known to have defaced a synagogue? "Why?" Rachlin asked in return. "Why should I attach myself to changing him?" Would a practitioner seek to stop a murder in progress? "Maybe, maybe not," she said. "It would have to be case by case. Because it might also be that person's karma to die, and then it would be wrong for me to interfere."

In fact, it seems the only attachment followers are encouraged to make is to Li Hongzhi himself. He speaks in public about his status as an ordinary man, and his desire for quiet. But the round-faced, smooth-voiced Master, who looks and dresses more like a businessman than an unattached ascetic, speaks to followers of his mystical powers in ways that encourage close identification. Rachlin and others spoke of him in tones that can only be called rapturous. In the meantime, the only voluntarism Li fosters as part of zhen-shan-ren is dedicating time, money, and energy to spreading Falun Gong.

This fact brings up the closely guarded matter of the movement1s finances. Practitioners eagerly point out that Falun Gong has no churches or meeting halls, no hierarchies or membership dues, and no fees for joining practice sessions. Li portrays himself as a humble man living on meager royalties. But while Falun Gong publications are not expensive, they are not free either. The now-banned Chinese version sold in China for 12 yuan, about $1.50, which doesn1t sound like much until you multiply it by 20 to 60 million. Even allowing for production costs and for the many pirated versions, Li must have done reasonably well (especially considering that the owner of Falun Fo Fa Publishing is: Li Hongzhi.

A Chinese marketing expert I know told me: "the key in China is cheap, cheap, cheap. Slash margins mercilessly. As long as you1re making a little each time, China1s sheer volumes will make you rich." Indeed, money cannot be completely absent from Li Hongzhi1s motivations.

The Wall Street Journal estimated that in a six-month period Li grossed at least $35,000 through the distribution by Sino United Publishing of Los Angeles of the English version of Zhuan Falun (which "also has been Translated, into Spanish, French, German, Russian, Swedish, Japanese and Korean"). And the Journal estimates Li grossed $20,000 a week in his lecture tours in China in 1992 and 1993. Since followers in search of "karma cleansing" donate time and money to run Websites, manage exercise sites, and organize conferences, Li has in effect a free marketing organization, making his earnings pure profit. As a clerk, Li's monthly income in a state-owned enterprise would have hovered under $100.

Discussing the attraction of new religious groups, Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo argued in the American Psychiatric Association Monitor that there's a tendency to dismiss those "whose behavior violates our expectations about what is normal" as "kooks, weirdos, gullible, stupid, evil or masochistic deviants." But, says Zimbardo, "Such pseudo-explanations are really moralistic judgments" which "miss the mark... Instead, our search for meaning should begin at the beginning:

`What was so appealing about this group that so many people were recruited/seduced into joining it voluntarily?' We want to know also, `What needs was this group fulfilling that were not being met by traditional society?'"

In contemporary China, the answers are fairly obvious. With Marxism-Maoism debunked and the market economy roller-coastering, economic uncertainty and fear for the future grip the vast middle class, which grew up expecting cradle-to-grave security in a state-owned enterprise. At the same time, the vast amount of new information delivered by the rapidly opening media is confusing to a population that had few emotional mainstays due to earlier official attacks on traditional culture. This confusion and imploding faith in the state has provided fertile ground for a variety of belief systems.

Traditional religions are on the rise in China (official estimates cite more than 300 million Buddhists, more than double the number a decade ago), as are charismatic faiths of all kinds. The New York Times recently profiled a "delicate-looking man with bright eyes . a scraggly beard and a preference for plastic flip-flops" named Liu Jiaguo, the "God" of the Supreme Deity movement. "More than a dozen of his devotees, the authorities now say, were young women who were coaxed into his bed. Countless others were persuaded to empty their wallets." After his arrest, Liu admitted he'd learned about the God business by following another recent deity named Wu Yangming: "If you flaunt a divine banner, people believe in you and are willing to dedicate everything they have to you. So I thought, if Wu Yangming can be a god, so could I."

The majority of China1s Falun Gong adherents are middle-aged and older (70 percent are over 50, Rachlin said), many of whom suffered through the Cultural Revolution only to be stranded on retirement by the rapid dry-up of pension funds and other safety nets. A disproportionate number are women, many of whom struggled for the much-heralded but little-realized Communist ideals of equality, only to find themselves later judged wanting by capitalist standards of beauty and material success. The appeal to Communist Party members seems clear given the declining moral authority of the Party.

Fewer clear forces of social turmoil operate in the United States, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, other nations where Li Hongzhi1s popularity is on the rise. But the uncertainties of life in a global, digital age and the attenuated ties to family and friends it too often fosters have left many searching for meaning. That search was a common theme among Falun Gong followers I spoke with, as was the movement1s "simplicity."

"It simply has all the answers to all the questions I was asking," says one practitioner on the official videotape. Falun Gong followers insist they are not a "religion" or "sect," let alone a "cult." They are, they say, not even an "organization"; they are merely followers of a "practice."

Falun Gong followers have the right to believe what they like, under every international covenant China has signed, so long as their actual activities are legal. This means Beijing had the right to stop the protests (under PRC laws banning assembly without a permit), but not to crack down wholesale on the movement that spawned them.

There are legitimate concerns about Falun Gong1s shadowy organization, mysterious finances, potentially apocalyptic tendencies, and unclear political aims. But nothing in law, morality, or wisdom allows banning a movement because of negative potential.Indeed, the chief result of the ban so far seems to have been rapid mobilization and politicization of followers. Li seems to be rapidly collecting friends in high places. Meanwhile, Rachlin speaks of arrested followers being tortured, then released, only to spread Falun practice and be captured again. "They accept the torture as their karma," Rachlin said. "They will not give up."

At this rate, the party that legitimized its own rule partly by establishing a series of parks throughout China dedicated to the martyrs it lost in the revolution may be on the way to creating a new generation of martyrs for the future believers of Falun Gong. Sort of the ultimate in self-fulfilling prophecies; it's hard to see what else could have so focused movement attention and international growth.

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