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 women's 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 Judaism's 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.

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 because of earlier official attacks on traditional culture. This confusion and imploding faith in the state has provided fertile ground for a variety of belief systems.