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Part 2: A rude awakening

By Francesco Sisci

BEIJING - When China's leaders woke up on April 25, 1999, they were astounded to see that for the first time in the history of communist China their official compound, Zhongnanhai, was under siege. At least 10,000 mostly elderly people were quietly practicing the Falungong exercises that some of the leaders knew quite well, having learned the discipline themselves.

A delegation of demonstrators had a petition for Premier Zhu Rongji, who had just returned from a trip abroad, and asked to talk to him. Despite later Falungong claims, it seems Zhu refused to meet the delegates and sent his secretary to collect the message.

It took until that night for police to regain control of the streets around Zhongnanhai, by persuading the people to take buses back home.

The demonstration was an incredible sight, but even more incredible was the fact that the police apparently had no forewarning and had no clue about how to deal with it. The demonstrators simply refused to speak to the officers and referred them to sect officials responsible for dealing with the authorities.

Zhongnanhai, just west of the Forbidden City, is China's power enclave. Since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, it has been the residence of the highest ranking members of the Communist Party. It also contains the offices of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, the State Council, the Central People's Government and the Military Commission of the Party Central Committee.

The fact that the security system appeared taken completely by surprise was a major blow to the leadership. This time Falungong had staged a peaceful demonstration, but what if they decided to take up arms against the government? There were only two explanations for the serious security lapse. The security apparatus either didn't know about the demonstration beforehand, and thus must have been highly incompetent, or it knew but covered it up, and thus even a coup might be in the offing.

According to foreign security experts, it is impossible to mobilize thousands of people in a city like Beijing without all kinds of warning signs. Most likely, police officers did not pass on the message of the impending demonstration, or did not pass it on with due urgency. In other words, the security apparatus had been at least partly infiltrated by Falungong.

In fact, there were stories that some policemen sent to spy on the Falungong had been converted by the sect and had started to collaborate with it. It is hard to verify these stories, but certainly in previous years police and army had introduced some Falungong training, supposed to be good for the physical readiness of soldiers. Through such training, the Falungong could have made deep inroads into the army and police. Besides, it was no secret that some senior military officers were practicing Falungong and were making converts.

In this atmosphere, what was President Jiang Zemin to think? The sect had mobilized a huge crowd, yet its demands had been relatively modest: the recognition of Falungong as a religion and the punishment of physicist He Zuoxiu, who had written an article critical of the sect (see Part 1: "From sport to suicide"). The demonstration appeared more like a threatening show of force by Falungong, which proved it could elude the security apparatus or could boast good accomplices there. And any state that can't rely on its security forces is in deep danger. This was the logical conclusion of the leadership.

Furthermore, in the preceding months Falungong had attracted quite a lot of the government's attention. A discreet investigation at the end of 1998 ascertained there were some 40 million Falungong practitioners all over the country. The figure was lower than the 70 million that Li Hongzhi, the Falungong master, had boasted about, but it still represented a huge force. Qiao Shi, who had retired from all official posts a year earlier after a drawn-out power struggle with Jiang, had suggested that nothing be done against Falungong. Qiao was formerly head of China's security and through his aide Wei Jianxing still had influence there.

Put together, these facts were enough to make Jiang suspect a more complicated plot. And certainly, given the nature of Chinese politics, Jiang should have acted as if a plot was indeed afoot.

This does not mean that any present or past senior leader was actively involved in a plot. On the contrary, in January 2001 a Falungong bulletin circulated in China reported about Qiao's suggestion on handling the sect. This indicates that the retired leader had not been actively involved with the sect. Yet, in the spring of 1999, there were further indications of a possible conspiracy.

The government made an effort to persuade Falungong to stop its protests. In several commentaries, the official People's Daily newspaper tried to reach out to the sect, saying that it should halt its demonstrations demanding recognition as an official religion. What was so important about being a religion rather than just a sport association? The official label did not make any difference to its spiritual practices, so, arguably, the issue was not about religion but about power. And Falungong would not step back.

So was somebody pulling strings behind the Falungong movement? In fact the Falungong agenda looked quite political. The sect was against modern Western science, preached the end of the world, forbade its followers watching TV or being treated in hospitals, and maintained that diseases do not exist and that ailments are due to sins people commit.

Reminiscent of the American movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, remade in 1978), Falungong said that UFOs had arrived on earth, aliens had taken over human bodies, and were trying to annihilate humanity through the control of TV and radio. One can look at such teaching as pure madness, or one can detect a deep-seated plan to carry out its own indoctrination. A Falungong follower who does not watch TV is not influenced by government propaganda, and by entrusting his own health to the sect rather than to public hospitals, he cedes all his person to the sect.

Many Falungong followers had strong reservations about current Chinese politics. They were conservative, xenophobic old party members, strongly opposed to the government's reforms and opening up. Cynical and materialist Chinese leaders certainly saw politics as the issue, and probably many other governments would have done so in similar circumstances.

From this analysis came the sudden banning of the sect in July 1999. The ban took Falungong by surprise and proved to its followers, the world and the Chinese people that the Communist Party was still in control. Before news of the ban leaked out, police managed to arrest a few Falungong leaders.

In the following months the authorities collected more evidence of a Falungong plot. The sect's leader, Li Hongzhi, had been in Beijing briefly to finalize plans for the April demonstration. The actual organizer of the Zhongnanhai siege was a retired general, Yu Changxin. (On January 6, 2000, the 74-year-old general was sentenced to 17 years in jail, which at his age amounted to a life sentence.) Furthermore, the very organization of the sect pointed to a politically motivated force. It was structured on the model of the Chinese Communist Party, with cells and an underground central committee, local stations in every province and three lines of cadres ready to replace those who would be arrested in case of a crackdown.

It is not yet clear how far Falungong was involved in a political plot, but certainly the involvement of the general, the political agenda, and the organization of the sect showed it had ambitions of attaining real power. Beijing realized then that the fact that millions of people believed the "body-snatcher" doctrine proved that the policy of opening up was too cautious, rather than too bold.

But, of course, the government could not simply denounce Falungong as a political conspiracy, and arguably it did not choose the best method of fighting the perceived threat.

(Special to Asia Times Online)

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