Reprinted with permission from the Online Journalism Review.

In 1999, the Chinese government launched a campaign against superstitions and unauthorized spiritual groups. One group targeted was Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, which practices a form of Qi Gong, a slow-motion meditative exercise related to martial arts such as Tai Chi.

Members of the group reacted to the government offensive with a daring demonstration, staged in Beijing's Tiananmen Square--the site of the 1989 crackdown on the pro-democracy movement. The demonstration was peaceful, but involved 10,000 of the group's followers, making it the largest demonstration in recent Chinese history. In return, the Chinese government launched an all-out offensive specifically targeted against the group, branding it an "evil cult" and arresting and imprisoning its leaders and members.

Is this just another example of religious repression? Why should we care about the Chinese government's beef with a bunch of people who appear to be devoted to the practice of an ancient meditative exercise regime?

Before we dismiss what appears to be a marginal religious cult, we should remember that estimates of this group's size range from two million to 100 million. We might also recall the last time an unorthodox religious movement swept across China (as Jonathan Spence tells the story in "God's Chinese Son"), the result was a war, the Taiping Rebellion, that killed twenty million people. Imagine if Hong Xiuquan, the messianic leader of that nineteenth-century cultic crusade, had had access to twenty-first century technology-and you'll have a clue as to why the Chinese regime is so scared of this group.

A little Web surfing reveals that there's more to this story than meets the eye. Falun Gong's Internet savvy was a crucial factor in its ability to organize the unauthorized demonstration under the noses of Chinese intelligence. The group's secretive leader, Li Hongzhi, lives in New York and directs his movement from abroad with Internet, fax, and telephone. The group is thoroughly wired, with Falun Gong Web sites all over the world, including Asia, the USA, UK, Canada, Israel, and Australia.

In response, the Chinese government has set up an anti-Falun Gong Web site to discredit the group, and, according to an ABC News report, has also hacked into Falun Gong Web sites worldwide, spamming and causing their servers to crash.

Others have also joined in the fray of the Internet propaganda war between the Chinese government and the Falun Gong, with Web sites such as CESNUR and AsiaSource following the developments of Chinese persecution of the group closely, and offering overviews, commentaries, and site links.

The Falun Gong story appears to be as much about technology as it is about religion; it offers a fascinating glimpse of an ancient religious tradition that is mutating rapidly as it makes the leap into cyberspace.

The Propaganda War
Let's start with the attacking side in the propaganda war. Why is the Chinese government so upset over this group, and what allegations have they made about it?

A July 23, 1999, article in China Daily provides some of the government's justifications of its campaign to arrest and jail Falun Gong followers. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue is quoted as claiming that "Falun Gong organizations have advocated superstitious beliefs and incited the masses to create disturbances and jeopardize social stability under the banner of practicing Falun Gong."

The official Web site of the China Internet Information Center, the center of the government's Internet campaign to discredit the group, contains numerous articles detailing the "cult's" alleged crimes.

In one article, "True Face of Li Hongzhi Exposed," Falun Gong is characterized as a "highly organized, fully functional, and unregistered illegal organization," whose leader is alleged to have bilked his followers of massive quantities of money and even their sanity.

Another article, with the unambiguous title "Analysis of Falun Gong Leader's Malicious Fallacies," accuses the group of being a doomsday cult that has supposedly "deceived" and "harmed" many: "Falun Gong has a set of ridiculous ideas, a basic one of which claims that doomsday is coming, that human beings will be extinct soon, that modern science can do nothing to prevent the catastrophe, that only Falun Gong can save mankind, and that Li Hongzhi is the sole 'savior

.'" Li Hongzhi is alleged to have warned "that the Earth would explode, that only he could postpone the explosion, and that only 'Falun Dafa' was the 'transcendental law' which could save the entire human race."