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China Special Report

Faith Becoming an Issue in Communist China

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 23, 1999; Page A24

BEIJING, July 22 One hundred years after cults preaching immortality and xenophobia helped bring China's last dynasty to its knees, sects, ancestor worship, fortunetellers and conventional religions are again blossoming in China, challenging the rule of the country's officially atheist Communist Party.

Manned by an army of the dispossessed and led by alienated government workers, scam artists and self-described visionaries, religious organizations have spread across China, popping up in almost every county, every town.

The massive nationwide crackdown that China launched this week against the Falun Gong sect, which combines aspects of martial arts with meditation and spiritual training, reflects the party's worry that its authority and stature can be challenged by organizations such as these.

Ten years ago, the government launched a bloody crackdown against students and intellectuals challenging the party's authority and clamoring for democratic changes. In 1999, the crackdown is targeting a tightly organized religious sect comprised of ordinary citizens who have embraced spirituality along with a dose of hocus-pocus as antidotes to their miserable lives.

Today, China's state-run television made a clear link between the 1989 crackdown and its move to ban Falun Gong, accusing the organization of creating the worst disturbance since the "political storms" of 1989 and "sabotaging social stability."

This blooming of religion which is both officially recognized and illegal, because the new groups are not approved religions illustrates a phenomenon central to understanding China at the turn of the century. Twenty years of breakneck economic growth and frantic materialism have killed communism's value system. Now people are desperate for something to replace it.

"Morality has perished," said Wang Meng, one of China's most famous writers, in a speech several years ago, "but everybody wants to have faith."

China's economic reforms have also created huge income gaps that have quickened many people's alienation and sense of hopelessness. Incomes of the working class and farmers have been flat for the past few years despite economic growth topping 8 percent annually. At the same time, the State Statistical Bureau recently reported that 17 percent of all bank deposits, or $121 billion, was public money hiding in private accounts pointing to massive theft by corrupt officials.

"I joined Falun because they offered me some hope," said Li Minghui, 54, a laid-off garment worker from the Manchurian rust belt. She came to Beijing today to protest the crackdown but said the imposing police presence scared her off. "They told me that I didn't need to take medicine anymore if I would only believe. Well, my factory's hospital has gone out of business, so I thought I'd try. I can't believe it's all illegal now."

In an unusually detailed article on religion in May, the influential Outlook magazine quoted Ye Xiaowen, the director of the State Bureau of Religious Affairs, as saying the 1990s were a "golden period" for religion in China. He said that more than 100 million Chinese follow the five approved religions Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism. The figure is startling considering that during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 all religious activity was banned.

Even more amazing is that the number of followers of illegal religions, sects, temples and cults is more than double that, according to Chinese sources. Evangelical Protestantism is booming in Zhejiang province, for example; village god temples are mushrooming around northern Shanxi; denizens of southern Guangdong and Fujian are reembracing ancestor worship; biblically inspired cults are popular again in dirt-poor Hunan. Falun Gong alone is believed to have tens of millions of followers.

Authorities have been trying to stamp out some of these groups since 1996, but the crackdown on Falun Gong is by far the broadest.

In China, "there has been a continual desire for order, not just social order, but order within individual lives," said Nancy Chen, a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz. "In a sense, Falun appears to deliver the sense of stability and order one needs in a market economy, particularly when socialism is in question."

Falun Gong is led by a Chinese-born resident of the United States, Li Hongzhi, who has told his followers that the end of the world is nigh and that only Falun Gong, which centers its training on an "orb" of energy in the belly, can save them.

One of Li's fierce critics, film director Sima Nan, said that he supports this week's campaign but that China must address the root causes of cults.

"The only way to solve the problem effectively is to address the spiritual, psychological and emotional problems and the specific difficulties of the common folk," he said. "A lot of difficult and detailed work needs to be done."

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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