Followers of a former Chinese government clerk now living in New York would appear en masse, as if from thin air, on famed Tiananmen Square, on obscure street corners, or outside the homes of high officials.
Adherents would unfurl trademark yellow banners or conduct silent vigils until the police trucks arrived. China-wide, Falun Gong's grass-roots numbers ranged to the tens of millions, according to internal Chinese research.
So quickly had the quasi-Buddhist movement grown in the late 1990s, and so effective had it been in organizing outside Communist Party channels, that when members demanded official recognition, no less a person than China's supreme leader, President Jiang Zemin, oversaw a campaign to stop it.
Today, it appears that campaign has succeeded. After two years of arrests, reeducation programs, and media attacks--the most extensive since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown--most of the sect's top echelon of leaders are in camps or behind bars. It's estimated that tens --perhaps hundreds--of thousands of adherents still remain, but they have gone deep underground and practice at home.
On July 22, the second anniversary of the official crackdown on Falun Gong, only four protesters were seen carried off by police from Tiananmen Square--a testimony to the state's success against what it terms "an evil cult."
"It's been a war of attrition," says a Western expert who declined to be identified. "Falun Gong has been creative and has staying power far beyond what people thought. But as an organized protest movement it's basically crushed. The best people are in jail. The second-best people are in jail. Now [it is] fourth-stringers--mostly women from small towns - who come to protest."
"We are close to completely wiping out Falun Gong. There are just a few hard-core members left," said a State Council official, Zhao Chongxing, to reporters last month.
In January, on the eve of the Chinese Lunar New Year, five Falun Gong members lit themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square in the most dramatic protest since the group was outlawed in 1999. Two of the self-immolations resulted in death.
For weeks, China's state TV and newspapers used grisly video of the event as evidence of the extreme behavior of a group that Chinese officials maintain poses a risk to public health and social stability. The immolations and the media campaign seem to have ended what vestiges of legitimacy Falun Gong held among the mainstream Chinese public. The real vitality of the movement had flagged as long as a year ago, experts say, following the all-out crackdown that human rights groups report involves thousands of cases of beatings or torture.
Still, Beijing is taking no chances. In an anti-Falun Gong exhibit at the downtown Museum of Military Affairs that ended last week, more than 850 photos, drawings, and editorials highlighted 134 cases of Falun Gong adherents alleged to have maimed, killed, or otherwise harmed themselves, family, or friends. Drawings depict sect members throwing themselves from buildings, into wells and rivers, and out of windows.
Falun Gong officials in the US call the two-week exhibit "propaganda." Experts say that outside China, there is not a case record of the kind or degree of destructive behavior illustrated in the Beijing exhibit. (It opened right after the July 13 decision to award Beijing the 2008 summer Olympics. China has promised that foreign athletes who practice Falun Gong may participate in the Games.)
During the exhibit, the English-language China Daily ran four editorials warning of "lurking danger," "spiritual poison," and "bloodcurdling mayhem" caused by the sect.
The ongoing campaign is so effective that most ordinary Chinese don't want to talk about Falun Gong. "I think I'll be in hot water if I discuss this," says one Chinese interviewed at random in Beijing. China still faces a skirmish over the status of Falun Gong in Hong Kong. The former British colony has operated under a "one-country, two systems" formula since it was returned to China in 1997. Legal provisions for religious expression, protected by the British common-law system, have thwarted efforts to single out the group for a ban--though Hong Kong chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, a close ally of Beijing, refers to Falun Gong by its obligatory moniker, "the evil cult."
Last month, a permanent resident of Hong Kong, Chan Yuk-to, was arrested in Beijing for involvement in the sect.