WASHINGTON — Two years ago, more than half a million members of Promise Keepers, a Christian evangelical men's movement, thronged onto the Mall here for one of the largest rallies in U.S. history, attracting extraordinary press coverage in the process.
Since then, this organization has continued to exist, but it has faded from public view. Promise Keepers has become one of the many diverse groups that make up the panoply of American life--highly interesting to some, threatening to hardly anyone.
That is not what would have happened in China. There, a budding social movement like Promise Keepers would have been banned and officially condemned. Its adherents would have been kept out of the capital city. Its leaders would have been thrown into jail.
This has become evident in recent weeks as China's Communist Party leadership has done all this to the spiritual movement called Falun Gong. And, largely as a result of the uncertainty over whether this repression can succeed, Falun Gong has become in China something Promise Keepers is not in America: a threat to the country's top political leadership.
Falun Gong is a movement that blends elements of Buddhism and Taoism with traditional Chinese breathing exercises, called qigong. Its leader, Li Hongzhi, lives in exile in the United States. Members of the group seek to achieve enlightenment through yoga-like exercises and good deeds.
"I tend to equate Falun Gong with Promise Keepers in the United States," observes Bruce Dickson, a George Washington University professor who specializes in social movements in China. "Most of the people who are drawn to it take it at face value and don't always know what the leaders' political goals might be. People are in the movement for health, exercise and the social dimension.
"The attraction of the movement is based on the notion of a simpler life, a more honest life than what Chinese people see around them. It is a counter to the [Communist] party's inability or unwillingness to deal with the problem of corruption that people see all around them."
While Beijing has been at the center of the struggle over Falun Gong, the movement is active in many other parts of China too. Specialists say it is largely an urban movement that appeals to retirees, the unemployed and government workers--the sort of ordinary people who were once attracted to the Communist Party.
Why do China's President Jiang Zemin and his colleagues seem so spooked by Falun Gong?
"My sense is that the same two things that grabbed the leadership in 1989 [when China repressed the Tiananmen Square demonstrations] are grabbing them now," observes UCLA professor Richard Baum, a specialist in Chinese politics. "First, there seem to be converts from within the establishment. And secondly, there is [a] question of controllability."
Falun Gong seems to have a following in the police and the army. Indeed, Li, the movement's founder, worked for a time in China's security apparatus after he was demobilized from the People's Liberation Army. Moreover, Falun Gong has shown a knack for clandestine work--organizing safe houses for meetings with reporters, orchestrating surprise demonstrations, evading detection.
It almost seems as if China's Communist Party leaders, repelled as they are by Falun Gong, also have a curious identification with the movement, which operates the way the party did in its early days.
The People's Daily, the Communist Party organ, last week published a 3,800-word denunciation of Falun Gong in which it sought to define the characteristics of a "cult." Among the traits cited were the worship of a founding leader, mind control, heretical ideas, illegal monetary gains and a secret organization. All of these traits could have been applied to the Chinese Communist Party at one time or another.
Of course, today the Chinese Communist Party doesn't stand for much of anything in the way of ideas. And that is part of the problem: Falun Gong is merely a manifestation that many Chinese people are searching for something in which they can believe.
On the other hand, China's Communist Party does continue to insist on its right to rule the country, to the exclusion of all other organizations. That's part of the problem too.
"The regime has no mechanism to deal with social discontent. Falun Gong is an example of China's failure to deal with political reform. Today, it's Falun Gong, tomorrow it will be something else," says Bao Pu, the New York-based founder of the Web site www.futurechina.org, whose father, Bao Tong, was a senior Communist Party leader jailed for supporting political reform in 1989.
China's Communist Party has proved adept at enlisting, co-opting, buying off or intimidating the country's educated and technocratic elite. But there are many millions of ordinary people in China who can't be neutralized in this fashion, because they have few skills to reward.
Cracking down on Falun Gong, then, is the way by which the top rungs of China's society, those benefiting from the Communist Party leadership, make sure that those in the lower rungs remain unorganized.
The People's Daily said that leaders of groups like Falun Gong are "mostly parvenus." How revealing! Once upon a time, the Communist Party represented those who were shut out from wealth and power in China. Those days are history.
Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.