It was so easy to get pulled in. A friend might have mentioned that a new group was gathering in the local park to do a form of traditional qigong exercises. One morning you found them, 20 or 30 people, under the yellow-and-red banner of Falun Gong--the Law of the Wheel Breathing Exercise--doing the slow-motion exercises to music from a tape recorder. There was no fee, no formal teaching--they just invited you to join in and copy their movements.
It was gentle and somehow calming, and not suspecting anything, you went back the next morning. After several sessions, you were offered the book written by their "master," Li Hongzhi. It was about self-control and Buddhist enlightenment, written in a chatty style that was not hard to understand, and it cost only $2. The group would read and discuss parts of it after the exercises, so you bought a copy. What you didn't know was that you were being watched--that you and millions like you were already caught in the net of China's biggest internal security operation since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. One of the other members in your group may have sent you an e-mail about how some 10,000 Falun Gong members had gathered in Beijing in April to protest being called a cult. But nobody had been arrested, and you thought little of it. The exercises got your circulation going, and meditation afterward helped dissipate frustrations from work and your crowded apartment block. China began to seem livable again.
Then came the big shock.
On July 22 the Chinese government announced that Falun Gong was banned--for practicing "evil thinking" and threatening social stability. All over China police began rounding up thousands of Falun Gong practitioners and driving them off to sports stadiums. There they were interrogated, sometimes for hours, and forced to sign letters disavowing the group. In scenes reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, more than 2 million books and instructional tapes were pulped or crushed by steam rollers last week. And there was also the astonishing news that some of the arrested Falun Gong members were top Communist Party officials. On Thursday, Beijing put Li, 48, on a wanted list and requested Interpol's help in apprehending him. Li has lived in the New York City area since February 1998; a spokesperson for Falun Gong said the State Department assured them Li was safe as long as he stayed in the U.S.
But if Li is out of reach of the Chinese police, millions of his acolytes are running scared. Nobody dares go to the parks to exercise anymore. Many Falun Gong members have temporarily left home, and others are waiting for a knock on the door. "My mother was detained for 44 hours," says Sophie Xiao, a Beijing-born investment analyst now living in Hong Kong. "I was very worried. She is stubborn and wouldn't sign the letter of confession. She had to go to two police stations for questioning." Her mother is also a Communist Party member, which singled her out for special treatment. The authorities repeatedly asked her about Falun Gong's organizational structure. Finally, she recanted so she could go home. "The security forces can lock up their bodies but not their hearts," says Xiao.
The crackdown came after a secret three-month investigation of the sect by China's security services, during which agents infiltrated Falun Gong activities and clandestinely videotaped exercise sessions. The investigation was reportedly ordered by President Jiang Zemin himself after the silent demonstration by 10,000 members of Falun Gong on April 25 outside Zhongnanhai, the Beijing compound where China's top leaders live. At that time the group said it was protesting magazine articles labeling it a superstitious cult, a charge that could have led to its being banned. Instead it wanted to be recognized as a legitimate religious group.
What scared the leadership was that so many people could assemble without the normally vigilant security services' finding out. Some Westerners were comparing it to the flight of German Mathias Rust, who landed his small plane in Red Square in 1987, an audacious act that showed up the limits of what was supposed to be a formidable Soviet air-defense system. The Falun Gong gatherings were more than a worry for China's security services; they were also an embarrassment. The police discovered that the protest was planned in large part by e-mail and that Falun Gong had a "virtual" organization, which it claimed linked 39 provincial branches with 1,900 lower-level "guidance stations" and 23,000 practice sites.
Beijing estimates that Falun Gong (also known as Falun Dafa) has acquired 2 million adherents since it was founded in 1992; the group claims 100 million practitioners. Official paranoia about this invisible force reaches as high as President Jiang. The 72-year-old leader, not known for late-night Web surfing, has reportedly become obsessed with the sect and its ability to organize its activities in cyberspace. Apparently Jiang frequently brings up Falun Gong in conversations with high-level foreign visitors, and Western diplomatic sources say he was driven outside Zhongnanhai in a car with tinted windows to observe for himself the group's silent protest in April.