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Falun Gong May Exercise Rights--Within Limits

With popularity of group on rise, Beijing government is moving to exert some control over qigong followers.


BEIJING — When more than 10,000 demonstrators gathered here recently on behalf of the spiritual group Falun Gong--the largest such gathering since the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square--Chinese leaders were stunned.

Now, the government is cautiously moving to control disciples of the Falun Gong, or Wheel of Law, group, along with other forms of the ancient system of meditative exercise known as qigong.

After the April 25 sit-in, the state-run New China News Agency reported that the government has never banned qigong as a health exercise, nor does it oppose public debate concerning the issue.

But the report said that surrounding the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in the capital was wrong, and it warned that "those who jeopardize social stability under the pretext of practicing qigong shall be dealt with according to law."

Then, on April 30, the Communist Party and the Cabinet issued a warning to officials and state employees not to take part in any further protests by Falun disciples.

As observers puzzle over how thousands of those adherents managed to outwit Beijing's security apparatus, experts describe an emerging spiritual movement with a unique mix of ancient Chinese cosmology and Internet communications.

"It's kind of a new and improved qigong for the 21st century," said UC Santa Cruz anthropologist Nancy Chen, who is writing a book about qigong.

Experts say that the Public Security Ministry and the Chinese Buddhist Assn. have already internally branded Falun Gong a heretical sect beyond the bounds of the mainstream Buddhism sanctioned by Beijing.

But recently, officials under the State Sports Bureau have begun testing and registering all qigong teachers in an attempt to increase their control over the practice and weed out charismatic cultists and scam artists. The Sports Bureau has selected certain qigong styles for popularization, but Falun Gong is so far not among them.

This effort puts the officially atheist government in the awkward position of having to judge people's ability to master unseen, cosmic forces, as well as arcane theories from China's indigenous Taoist religion.

Official caution and ambivalence about Falun Gong are due not simply to the fact that many practitioners are high-ranking officials and intellectuals, or that the regime wants to downplay any displays of dissent.

"Qigong has always had an intimate relationship with the Chinese state," Chen said. The concept of qi, a primordial energy, has been central to the cult of immortality worshiped by emperors and to a traditional world view that still dictates how ordinary Chinese look at health and other aspects of daily life.

Falun followers claim 100 million adherents worldwide, although critics say that figure is inflated.

Practitioners say they pay no fees to join activities. But to study the theories of founder Li Hongzhi, they must buy his books, which cost a dollar or two and are circulated clandestinely after being banned on the mainland.

Since he started spreading Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, in 1992, and before leaving China early last year to live in the U.S., the 47-year-old Li toured the country giving about 50 weeklong lectures to packed auditoriums and stadiums and producing a core of thousands of senior students.

In traditional Chinese martial arts and qigong societies, the master delegates teaching duties to his senior students. But the "assistants," who lead practice groups of tens or hundreds of Falun disciples, have often had no contact with Master Li. These decentralized networks, linked by modern communications, can rapidly mobilize followers and spread beliefs without the direct involvement of top leaders.

Falun Gong also has spread rapidly overseas. In China, most practitioners are middle-aged or elderly, but followers abroad are typically Chinese graduate students and young professionals.

What observers find perhaps most disturbing about Falun followers is their apparent intolerance of criticism, which contrasts with the forbearance the group preaches.

The day after the Beijing demonstration, several dozen practitioners convened at the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles to protest the arrest of Falun disciples in China and the banning of Li's books.

Other members wrote to major media, including the Los Angeles Times, to protest the depiction of Falun as a religion or cult and to disavow any financial or political ambitions.

Critics say that Falun's organizers have intentionally used the Beijing gathering's proximity to the upcoming 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre to add to the impact of their protests and to warn the government of their power.

"This is very much about power incarnate," said one qigong expert, in regard to Li's self-made avatar image and remote control of his followers. "He's trying to show that he's capable of a lot more."

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