Chinese police call people like Liu Shujuan die-hard elements. After the government banned Falun Gong, her spiritual practice, Liu traveled three times to protest in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. The last time, in November, she took her four-year-old daughter and unfurled a yellow banner reading THE FALUN LAW IS THE UNIVERSAL LAW! Police jailed Liu and threatened to dispatch her to China's labor-camp gulag. Her parents, terrified, begged her to disavow her beliefs; her husband smacked her face; her boss threatened her job. Liu waved them away. Then someone brought her weeping daughter to jail, and Liu's will broke. In writing, she promised never to protest again.
In March the Communist Party confined Liu to a hotel room for five days with others who had given up Falun Gong. They picked apart supposed flaws in the spiritual movement's doctrine and blamed Liu, 31, an elementary school art teacher, for ruining her family. By the time the sessions had ended, Liu "realized I was thinking only of myself." She signed a promise to "split from the evil cult Falun Gong and its heresies." These days, at the party's behest, she leads similar sessions. Speaking in a carefully monitored meeting that includes government officials and her school principal, she says her spirituality has died: "I believe in nothing."
One person at a time, the Chinese Communist Party has broken Falun Gong. The organization once stunned the party by claiming tens of millions of followers; on April 25, 1999, 10,000 showed up to demonstrate in central Beijing. As recently as last winter, dozens arrived in Tiananmen Square nearly every day to protest the party's crackdown on the movement. But on the recent second anniversary of the 1999 demonstration, only about 30 people reached the square; most days no one does. The majority of practitioners, like Liu, seem to have surrendered their faith--or, at least, say they have. Most of the die-hard elements have "cast off the fetters of the evil cult," crowed the People's Daily, the party's mouthpiece, last week.
The crackdown is revealing. Though decades of economic reforms have empowered many in Chinese society, the party retains a firm grasp on the tools of repression. But it deploys them only when it feels directly threatened. In 1992 a grain clerk named Li Hongzhi, who had once played trumpet with a song-and-dance troupe, first mingled the tenets of Buddhism, Taoism and traditional qigong exercises to create Falun Gong, a cocktail of religious beliefs and physical exercises aimed at leading its practitioners to enlightenment. The party took no action, though Li published books, sold videotapes and lectured to large audiences. By some estimates, his organization grew to 60 million followers--almost as many as the party's--and still China's leaders had never heard of Falun Gong. Then came that morning, two years ago, when the leaders found all those people meditating on their doorstep in silent protest against a magazine article that followers of Falun Gong considered slanderous. When President Jiang Zemin received his first report on the group that day, he bellowed, "Why did no one tell me about this?" according to the report's author, physicist He Zuoxiu.