BEIJING, August 4 (AP)--His followers revere him as Master Li, believing his teachings make them healthy, moral citizens with a "wheel of law" that spins in their bellies, absorbing and releasing energy.
But in recent months, a Hong Kong businesswoman has laid claim to Li Hongzhi's title as leader of China's outlawed Falun Gong spiritual movement, sparking a war of words that has seen the normally reclusive Li angrily denounce his usurper over the Internet.
In the latest headache for the embattled sect, 37-year-old Hong Kong practitioner Belinda Pang has attracted a small group of followers who call her "Lord of Buddhas" and believe she is Falun Gong's true master.
"Several practitioners were enlightened," said Pang follower Mary Qian in a telephone interview Friday. "We realized that (she) is the true master who created the entire universe."
Falun Gong representatives, while clearly annoyed, say Pang's movement does not threaten to divide the group, since she claims at most 30 followers. Li's followers claim he has 100 million believers worldwide.
Still, the assertions have sparked bickering on competing Internet sites. The dispute adds to the difficulties faced by Falun Gong as it struggles to survive a yearlong Chinese crackdown that has seen many of the movement's leaders sentenced to prison terms of up to 18 years and thousands of ordinary followers sent without trial to labor camps.
Li, a former government clerk who moved to New York after founding Falun Gong in 1992, has denounced Pang and her followers, saying anyone who follows teachings other than his own are not genuine practitioners.
"I am the principal being," Li wrote on Falun Gong's official Web site. "Nobody should pay attention to what that saboteur in Hong Kong has instigated or give her an audience."
Pang's followers responded by launching their own Web site that features glowing accounts of their realization May 11--celebrated as Buddha's birthday--that she was their master.
Letters from Li denouncing Pang were fakes, Qian said, adding that she and others believe that Li has finished his mission and left the world, allowing Pang to take his place.
Gail Rachlin, a Falun Gong spokeswoman in New York, said Li is alive and that Pang, formerly an active participant in the group's Hong Kong chapter, is no longer regarded as a practitioner.
Falun Gong attracted millions of followers, most of them in China, with its combination of slow-motion exercises and philosophy drawn from Taoism, Buddhism and the often unorthodox ideas of founder Li.
Chinese leaders declared the group a public menace and threat to Communist Party rule last July. Aside from jailing followers, the government has forced tens of thousands of practitioners to renounce the sect.