BEIJING — As the Chinese government and the Falun Gong spiritual group step up their rhetorical attacks on each other, each side seems increasingly braced for a war over that most basic of aims: survival.
An 18-month-long standoff between the two sides has apparently produced opposing groups of die-hards--one of government hard-liners bent on smashing a movement they see as a threat to the very existence of the Communist regime, the other of dedicated zealots who appear more willing to take extreme measures to preserve their beliefs.
The polarization has been growing over the past few months, with deadly results. The most grisly of these came two weeks ago, when several purported Falun Gong adherents set themselves on fire, apparently to protest the often brutal campaign of repression against them. One woman died in the incident.
The government, which sees Falun Gong as the most serious threat to its monopoly on power in a decade, has responded with a vitriolic nationwide propaganda offensive, organizing forums and petition drives condemning Falun Gong, from Liaoning province in the northeast to Sichuan province in the southwest.
Yet while the drama plays out in varying degrees across the country, in many ways this remains a very local conflict, with the main staging ground here in the Chinese capital.
Ever since thousands of Falun Gong followers mounted a surprise sit-in around the central government compound in April 1999, the big battle has been over Beijing's Tiananmen Square, long the symbolic heart of China and seat of state power.
Protesters have poked through the square's tight security almost daily to unfurl banners and assume meditation poses in defiance of the 1 1/2-year-old ban on their group. On Oct. 1, China's National Day, hundreds of demonstrators from around the country converged on Tiananmen, slipping through a massive security cordon and embarrassing the authorities, who carted them off to detention centers by the busload.
The recent self-immolations in the square seemed to mark a new, potentially dangerous phase in resistance, analysts say, although Falun Gong spokesmen overseas have disavowed those involved, alleging that they are not disciples but, possibly, dupes of the government.
The group insists that it has no political agenda, that it only wants to go on peacefully practicing its beliefs, an eclectic blend of Buddhist and Taoist elements, strict morals, slow-motion breathing exercises and apocalyptic prophecies.
But the more protests that take place in the politically charged square, the more leaders such as President Jiang Zemin interpret their struggle as a political one, a battle against a group intent on overthrowing the Communist Party. Tiananmen Square has been the site of politically motivated uprisings throughout Chinese history, most recently the pro-democracy protests of 1989.
In the Communist regime's eyes, the question is therefore not one of individual freedom and civil liberties, as many outside China see it, but one of political supremacy and survival.
"My instinct is that the government views it in a totally different cognitive frame in which it has nothing to do with human rights," said Andrew Nathan, a Columbia University scholar on China. "We have to assume the Chinese leadership doesn't think this is an issue of religious freedom and doesn't see how any decent, honest, clear-thinking person could think so."
That the government cannot control Tiananmen Square--its own backyard--especially unnerves the leadership.
"The uncanny way in which the movement is able to carry out organized, albeit peaceful, actions is what the party finds so frustrating," said Merle Goldman, a professor of Chinese history at Boston University. "Clearly, the party has not been able to gain access to the Falun Gong's Internet connections [through which many protests are organized], no matter how hard it has tried. Nor has it been able to infiltrate its ranks."
Instead, the regime has resorted to some of the old weapons it honed during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and the 1989 pro-democracy protests: mass denunciations, widespread arrests and a propaganda blitz.
Part of the propaganda includes familiar claims that "hostile anti-China forces" from outside have helped whip up the crisis. The fact that Falun Gong members pay allegiance to a man who lives abroad--much the same way that members of China's underground Roman Catholic churches look to the pope or Tibetan Buddhists revere the Dalai Lama--feeds the regime's xenophobia and paranoia.
Chinese newspapers have even accused some Western media, such as CNN and the Associated Press, of knowing in advance of last month's self-immolations and doing nothing to stop them. The news organizations deny the charge.
So far, hundreds of practitioners have been shipped to labor camps, and dozens are said to have died in custody. Human rights groups and governments around the world, including the U.S., have called on China to end the harassment.