It is 7:00 a.m. on a chilly October morning in Manhattan's 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 master's 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 10th anniversary of the largest of the 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 dying 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 People's Republic of China (PRC). This request was in all likelihood pro forma, since the U.S. has no extradition treaty with the People's 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 China's 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 Master's 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.