I have always thought of my friend Xiao Li's mother as a rank-and-file retired cadre who sacrificed her youth and entire working life for the good of the country. "Everyone worked as hard as they could for the motherland. One's own personal life was of no importance," she once remarked, reminding me of how different peoples' attitudes were in the '60s and '70s in comparison with the '90s. She came of age believing wholeheartedly in Mao Zedong Thought, as did hundreds of millions of Chinese who grew up after the Communists took power in 1949.

Today Xiao Li's mother believes in personal salvation through Falun Gong, a murky blend of ancient breathing exercises mixed with elements of Buddhist and Taoist teachings. Although she is one of perhaps as many as 100 million Falun Gong followers, her 32-year-old son is aghast. He is convinced that Falun Gong is the reason that his mother--who until last year was a steadfast atheist--has become withdrawn and moody. He claims Falun Gong has already had a mentally destabilizing effect on his cousin, a college graduate, who refuses to embark upon a promising career in the government and instead wants to pursue "truth, compassion and forbearance" in accordance with the teachings of Falun Gong.

"This is probably the first time in my life that I totally agree with a decision made by the Communist Party," Xiao Li said on the telephone from Beijing last week. "Falun Gong should be forbidden. It makes people go nuts. They lose their ability to think rationally."

My friend's words caught me by surprise. Xiao Li is an independent thinker, certainly not prone to accept government propaganda. ("Xiao Li," or "Young Li," is what I customarily call him. In view of the crackdown, I prefer not to use his or his mother's full names.) He is one of a very few among my Chinese friends who were not swayed by the vehemently anti-American mood after the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, and he has persistently condemned growing nationalistic sentiments among his compatriots. And he is no supporter of the Beijing leadership. Like just about every other Chinese I know, he is usually quick to crack a cynical joke about its policies.

Xiao Li belongs to the class of successful self-employed entrepreneurs who have benefited enormously from the rapid changes in China. He drives his own car and recently bought an apartment. He can easily spend the equivalent of his mother's monthly pension on an evening out with friends. He says his philosophy is blatantly straightforward: Money matters. Nothing could be more alien to him than the supernatural healing powers that devout Falun Gong followers believe they can obtain.

The opposite mindsets of Xiao Li and his mother are just one example of the innumerable contradictions in Chinese society today. The majority of Chinese have not been as fortunate as Xiao Li. They have come to realize that they have no chance of ever attaining the standard of living enjoyed by China's new rich, and they are increasingly bitter about the growing income gaps, rampant corruption and gross inequalities in society. Having lost their faith in the Communist Party and without the right to criticize the party publicly for its failings, they look elsewhere for moral support. Since the 1980s, pre-Communist era religions such as Buddhism, Taoism, Islam and Christianity have blossomed. But so have quasi-religious sects that embrace traditional folk beliefs, superstition and meditation exercises.

Middle-aged and elderly Chinese, especially, mourn the loss of an ideology. They were brought up believing that they had a mission in life. "The Communists have not stuck to their principles in a single matter," is a common remark among Chinese who experienced the ideological fervor of the early Mao era, before the chaos of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. Writer Liang Xiaosheng, who like many other "educated youths" of his generation was sent to the countryside in his teens to "learn from the peasants" and study Mao Zedong Thought, has expressed it more poignantly: Millions of ordinary Chinese have been "raped by the reforms."

Another writer I know, Bei Ye, compares the Chinese nation to a boatload of passengers adrift at sea, with neither rudder nor compass. Each time the wind shifts it thrusts them in a new direction. "It's easy to manipulate people who feel that they have nothing to lose," he pointed out.

That is, of course, exactly what the Communist Party is afraid of. Though Falun Gong followers claim to be apolitical, their sheer numbers and their web-like organization of general offices, teaching stations and practice areas are a potential breeding ground for political opposition. Spiritual movements have been transformed into political ones before--the Taiping (Great Peace) Rebellion, for example, which convulsed China in a violent conflict in the mid-19th century. The ranks of Falun Gong, which means Wheel of Law Movement, include intellectuals and party officials.

The Communist Party's frantic attempt to instill enthusiasm for Marxist studies and scientific socialism is doomed to fail. In Beijing this June I was once again reminded of a Russian writer's observation in the Soviet Union during the early 1980s: "The young neither fight against communism, argue against it, nor curse it; something much worse has happened to communism; they laugh at it." So they do in China as well. Not only the young, but Chinese of all ages poke fun at the Communist Party and its attempts to justify its actions with ideology. "Fry the old rice, soak the old tea," is a Chinese expression my friends have used in shrugging off the party's attempts to carry out campaigns in "socialist education" in the '90s. Party members and government officials are just as cynical. They have no other choice than to pay lip service at political study sessions, but all the ones I came to know during my decade in China feel just as alienated from the party's rhetoric as ordinary people are.

Communism is dead in China, but the Chinese Communist Party is not. It clings to authoritarian rule, aware that political reform is necessary, yet fearful that opening up the political process to mass participation might lead to its demise.

China's leaders know that their survival does not merely depend on their ability to keep the economy from faltering further--a momentous task in itself because it entails overhauling the state sector and creating jobs for the huge numbers of unemployed. Disgruntled citizens seek more than economic security. They want to live in a society free of corruption and the arbitrary use of power. The party realizes this and over the past two decades has set about restructuring the legal system. Legions of new laws have been passed. Newspapers publicize them and give information about telephone help lines that provide legal counseling. As a result, Chinese in both urban and rural areas are more aware of their legal and civil rights than ever before. It is hard to overstate how profoundly revolutionary this is for China, which has lived under arbitrary rule not just during 50 years of the Communist era but throughout its thousands of years of history.

Since enforcement of the Administrative Litigation Law in 1990, citizens from all walks of life have seized the opportunity to bring suit against government officials for legal violations and grossly unfair procedures. The media regularly carry reports about ordinary people who file legal complaints and seek protection against despotism and arbitrary practices. The cautious attempts by the party to establish a rule of law, coupled with the flow of information streaming in from abroad, have created a nation of "rightful resisters"--a term coined by Kevin O'Brien of Ohio State University. Against all odds, a growing number of Chinese dare to confront the authorities with the words, "According to the law, I have the right to . . . ."

In view of the fact that illegal demonstrations and riots have become commonplace, the government took a grave risk by cracking down on the Falun Gong movement. During my month-long visit earlier this summer, few friends even mentioned Falun Gong. But in the past week, word of the mystical movement has reached hundreds of millions of hitherto unknowing Chinese. "We had never even heard of Falun Gong before the authorities started publicizing the ban," a close friend in Beijing remarked by e-mail. One can only wonder how many Chinese will be drawn to Falun Gong merely because the unpopular government has declared it taboo.

Though the government's massive propaganda blitz condemning Falun Gong is sure to scare off a portion of its members, others might well become more determined than ever to follow its teachings. Regardless of whether the movement survives official persecution or not, new ones will spring up. The Communist Party will yet be haunted by Mao's words: "The people, and the people alone, are the motive force in the making of world history."

Linda Jakobson is the author of "A Million Truths: A Decade in China" (M. Evans & Co.), a book drawn from her experiences while living in China from 1987 to 1997. She is a researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in Helsinki.