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Revered by Millions, a Potent Mystic Rattles China's Communist
World Tibet Network News
Wednesday, May 5, 1999
3. Revered by Millions, a Potent Mystic Rattles China's Communist
By CRAIG S. SMITH Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
April 26, 1999 Page One Feature
NEW YORK -- The greatest threat to China's ruling Communist Party may
not come from democracy advocates or disgruntled workers, but from
mild-mannered New York resident Li Hongzhi.
Mr. Li is the spiritual leader of tens of millions of Chinese and
thousands of other people around the world. His flock far surpasses that
of the Dalai Lama, the exiled religious leader of Tibet, or that of any
of the world's emerging new religions. By the Chinese government's own
estimates, his following outnumbers China's 55 million-strong Communist
The magnitude of the movement was made clear Sunday morning, when more
than 10,000 devotees quietly began filling the sidewalks around
Zhongnanhai, Beijing's leadership compound, to demand recognition by the
government and the lifting of a ban on the publication of Mr. Li's
writings. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder, then sat, legs crossed in the
"lotus" position, as many as eight deep, in passive silence. The
well-organized, peaceful demonstration, which broke up late Sunday
night, was the Chinese capital's largest gathering of protesters since
the army's bloody dispersal of pro-democracy demonstrators on June 4,
A Sharp Reminder
That it was a spiritual gathering, and not a political rally, makes it
no less sensitive. Not only did it flash like a beacon of the past
almost a decade to the week after the democracy movement began in 1989;
it also is a sharp reminder of communism's lost relevance in China's
free-for-all market economy. Groups like Mr. Li's are on the rise, and
the Beijing government can suppress them only at its peril.
Sunday's demonstration followed the arrest of several of Mr. Li's
followers in the nearby port city of Tianjin after a group of followers
surrounded the offices of a youth magazine that had attacked the
discipline as fraudulent and dangerous. "The police came and drove them
away with force, using very rude and violent behavior, and even arrested
some people," says Zhang Erping, one of Mr. Li's closest associates in
New York. He says that the followers went to Beijing to seek redress
from the State Council, China's cabinet, and that he was told that some
of Mr. Li's followers met Sunday with Premier Zhu Rongji. The government
has said nothing of a meeting.
Mr. Zhang and many of the middle-aged people who crouched peacefully
around Zhongnanhai insisted that the demonstration was spontaneous.
"Nobody actually organized anything," he says.
But this isn't the first time Mr. Li's followers have exhibited their
activism and growing power. In early June last year, more than a
thousand believers gathered outside Beijing Television Station following
a broadcast in which a professor of China's Academy of Science
disparaged the group, calling it a "cult." Under pressure to resolve the
crisis before the June 4 anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square
massacre, the TV station's chief fired the 24-year-old reporter involved
and broadcast a favorable report about the group a few days later.
"Right now, no one dares to criticize them," says an official at the
China Wushu Research Institute. The institute is responsible for
overseeing the spiritualistic martial-arts groups that have mushroomed
in the two decades since paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's economic
reforms began opening a parallel corridor to freedom of thought.
Into that vacuum have rushed the five organized religions China
tolerates -- Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism and Islam --
and an assortment of spiritual leaders whose teachings are based on
Chinese beliefs. Many of these new spiritual leaders fashion themselves
as masters of qi gong, a centuries-old practice that attempts to direct
forces of energy from within and without the body to improve health,
heal others and -- at the extreme -- develop supernatural powers.
Among those studying qi gong in the late 1980s was Mr. Li, then a
bright, charismatic grain-bureau clerk in the northeastern industrial
city of Changchun. He says that when he first heard of qi gong, he
recognized it as identical to what he had called "cultivation" -- the
set of spiritual practices he had been developing privately since the
age of four.
While Playing Trumpet
He studied various schools of qi gong during his years as a trumpet
player with a song-and-dance troupe of the Jilin provincial forest
police. By the late 1980s, he says, he had moved to the provincial grain
bureau and moved beyond qi gong to something higher. "Qi gong teaches
healing and fitness," he says, "but I am teaching a universal
Sitting on a white upholstered armchair in a New York hotel suite
fragrant with lilies, Mr. Li explains that he came under pressure to
leave China once his teachings, known as Falun Dafa, took off.
The 48-year-old former clerk is careful not to call his discipline a
religion, though it has distinctly religious overtones. Based loosely on
Buddhism, Falun Dafa (translated as Law Wheel Great Way), is a system of
exercises and beliefs aimed at leading its practitioners to
enlightenment and winning them an eventual place in heaven. It
emphasizes moral uprightness -- followers are prohibited from smoking,
drinking or sexual relations outside of marriage. And a prominent
feature is the "law wheel," an object that Mr. Li says he can conjure at
will and that he describes as a ceaselessly spinning miniature of the
cosmos; he telekinetically "installs" one in the abdomens of followers
as they read his books, to protect them from illness or interference by
If Mr. Li were to call Falun Dafa a religion, it would be banned under
Chinese law and its followers prohibited from gathering in public parks
and squares to practice their balletic exercises. He even disputes that
his followers constitute a group, claiming that there is no organization
underlying the 100 million people that he says practice Falun Dafa
But denying that an organization exists is a semantic exercise that
belies the masses of Mr. Li's followers around the world. In the city of
Wuhan last October, tens of thousands of Falun Dafa practitioners held a
rally at which they formed a huge human image of the Law Wheel --
dominated by a gold swastika in a red field. Mr. Li insists that such
displays are organized spontaneously by local devotees and that there is
no staff or hierarchy among practitioners to coordinate such events.
There is no Falun Dafa office and no Falun Dafa bank accounts to finance
activities, he says.
Still, while followers are discouraged from donating money, and no fees
are charged for studying Falun Dafa, the discipline is nonetheless a
money spinner for Mr. Li. At a recent Falun Dafa convention in New York,
books, videotapes and compact disks sold briskly. The tab for such
conventions is picked up by devotees; in 1998, a single volunteer
covered the $35,000 bill for renting part of New York's Jacob Javits
The many Falun Dafa Web sites, meanwhile, are maintained and financed by
a handful of followers around the world. Indeed, proselytizing in
general is a "holy act," Mr. Li tells the 3,000 people gathered at a
recent convention at New York's Sheraton Towers ballroom. Many of the
more active devotees spend their free time giving seminars wherever they
can find an audience.
By the early 1990s, China's central government was alarmed at the spread
of groups like Mr. Li's. History provided a warning: New religions or
spiritual sects have triggered civil unrest in centuries past. At the
close of the 18th century, the White Lotus Movement, a millenarian sect,
led a violent uprising in northeastern China. And in the late 19th
century, a man claiming to be Jesus' brother built a huge following
across China and led a revolt, known as the Taiping Rebellion, against
the ruling Qing dynasty.
The leader, Hong Xiuquan, set up a government in Nanjing and controlled
a large swath of central China for more than a decade. Imperial troops
crushed his movement, but tens of millions died in the war.
Mr. Li's discipline spread no less rapidly. In 1992, he began giving
lectures in stadiums across China's northeast, attracting paying crowds
of several thousand and grossing as much as $20,000 a week. Later that
year, Mr. Li moved to Beijing, where he gave a series of lectures and
established a cadre of disciples who remain at the core of Falun Dafa in
China today. And in 1996, he published Zhuan Falun, the discipline's
bible, which quickly sold nearly a million copies. Mr. Li says that at a
national book fair that year, it overshadowed the biography of Deng
Xiaoping written by Mr. Deng's daughter.
Soon after that, the Communist Party's Propaganda Bureau issued a ban on
Mr. Li's book to all publishers. And in November 1996, the China Society
for Research of Qi Gong Science kicked Mr. Li and his school out of
their organization. "The Ministry of Public Security began stopping
meetings, and they put pressure on me in many ways," says Mr. Li. He
applied to move to the U.S. and arrived in early 1998.
Yet that hasn't stopped Falun Dafa from spreading. The book -- often in
crudely reproduced counterfeit copies -- is easily available in most
parts of China through Mr. Li's followers. Its message of salvation and
talk of heaven has found an eager audience among a population starved
for spiritual sustenance in the harshly materialistic post-Deng China.
Today, some government officials estimate that the number of followers
has reached 60 million or more.
Mr. Li now publishes the book in Hong Kong and lives "an ordinary life"
on the royalties. Dressed in a blue blazer, light chino slacks and a
bright-yellow polo shirt, Mr. Li looks more like a wealthy denizen of a
country club than a spiritual leader from China. He says he spends much
of his time practicing calligraphy at his home in New York City, where
he lives with his wife and teenage daughter.
In the U.S., distributor Sino United Publishing of Los Angeles has sold
more than 10,000 copies of Mr. Li's book in the past six months -- in
both English and Chinese -- earning Mr. Li about $35,000. The book also
has been translated into Spanish, French, German, Russian, Swedish,
Japanese and Korean.
Mr. Li says Zhuan Falun and his other books answer all questions anyone
has about Falun Dafa, and he encourages followers to read the books
again and again for a deeper understanding. And though many of Mr. Li's
closest disciples have advanced science degrees, the mystical elements
of his teachings don't seem to bother them. "We are like kindergartners
trying to talk with a university professor about advanced calculus,"
says Feng Yuan, Falun Dafa's New York coordinator, who studied physics
at China's prestigious Qinghua University and biophysics at Harvard
Mr. Li's writings devote much space to discussions of levitation,
possession by animal spirits, and seeing the future with the third eye,
located in the pineal gland behind the forehead. "Without a TV set,
people will have one in their foreheads, and they can watch anything
they want to see... . Without trains and planes, people will be able to
levitate in the air from where they sit without using an elevator," Mr.
Li says in Zhuan Falun.
Mr. Li defends these supernatural elements by pointing to similar
Christian beliefs. "Didn't Christ cast out demons?" he argues. As for
levitation, he says there are people in the U.S. with that ability, too.
"What's his name, David Copperfield, he can fly," says Mr. Li, becoming
animated for the first time in a three-hour interview. "Really, really!
He can fly!" he says. "We have tons of people like that in China."
In his lectures, he frequently waxes mystical. "I exist in many bodies,
in many dimensions and I can cross dimensions," he tells spellbound
devotees at the Falun Dafa convention in New York's Sheraton Towers
Ballroom. A massive gold-framed image of himself wearing a saffron robe
and sitting in the lotus position hangs high behind him against a
backdrop of azure drapes. "I am the oldest original spirit in the
In fact, Mr. Li says, Jesus and Buddha were teachers like himself,
leading people toward similar forms of enlightenment. But he says their
original teachings have been diluted and subverted over the course of
time, so that today, it is nearly impossible to reach enlightenment by
following those religions. "At the moment, I am the only person in the
world who is teaching orthodox [law] in public," he says in Zhuan Falun,
adding that his teaching is a unique opportunity for mankind in the
'A Political Threat'
Mr. Li isn't specific in his lectures about what the Dharma-ending time
means, but followers believe it is the final stage of human history,
when gradual moral and spiritual degradation pushes mankind beyond hope
of salvation. What happens next, followers say, won't be pretty. Mr. Li
says making Falun Dafa public is man's last hope "in this period of the
That kind of talk rattles many people in China. "Some of the
fastest-growing cults could develop into a political threat, as any cult
is set against the ideology of mainstream society," says Sinan Ma, a
television producer who spends much of his time speaking out against
what he calls "reactionary" emerging religions.
Mr. Sinan says he is wary of openly criticizing Falun Dafa. "I don't
want to offend disciples of Li Hongzhi, who are notoriously frenzied
about any criticisms of their teacher," he says.
Even as the government struggles with how to handle Mr. Li and his
followers, their influence is becoming increasingly pervasive. At China
Wushu Research Institute, a young man pouring tea for a reporter
whispers in English, "Did you read the book?" -- referring to Falun
When the reporter nods, the young man, 28-year-old Wang Kai, suggests
talking after the meeting.
Later, Mr. Wang produces reams of information on Falun Dafa from files
in his cramped office. As a researcher in the institute's qi gong
department, he is charged with writing the reports assessing Falun Dafa
and other groups under investigation. And Mr. Wang is a devoted follower
of Mr. Li.
Articles in this Issue:
- NATO bombing like a return to imperialism -China (Reuters)
- Middletown, CT, passes resolution on Tibet
- Revered by Millions, a Potent Mystic Rattles China's Communist
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