One hundred years after cults preaching immortality and xenophobia helped bring China's last ruling dynasty to its knees, inspirational sects, ancestor worship, fortunetellers and conventional religions are again blossoming in China, challenging the rule of the country's officially atheistic Communist Party.
Swelled by armies 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 the government launched this week against the Falun Gong movement, 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 such organizations.
Ten years ago, the government launched a bloody campaign against students and intellectuals challenging the party's authority and clamoring for democratic change. Now it is targeting a tightly organized self-awareness group composed of millions of citizens who have embraced spirituality along with a dose of hocus-pocus as antidotes to the misery in their 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 greatest public disturbance since the "political storms" of 1989 and of "sabotaging social stability."
The rapid growth of Falun Gong and, in general, the popular quest for some sort of doctrinal bedrock illustrates a phenomenon central to understanding China at the turn of the century. Twenty years of breakneck economic growth and frantic materialism have gutted 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 also have created huge income gaps that have fostered a sense of alienation and hopelessness in many sectors of the population. Incomes of blue-collar workers and farmers have been flat for the past few years despite national economic growth topping 8 percent annually. At the same time, the State Statistical Bureau reported recently 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 Manchuria. She came to Beijing today to protest the crackdown but said the imposing police presence scared her off. Falun Gong members "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, China's influential Outlook magazine quoted Ye Xiaowen, director of the State Bureau of Religious Affairs, as describing the 1990s as a "golden period" for religion in China. He said that more than 100 million Chinese follow the five government-sanctioned 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; people in southern Guangdong and Fujian are reembracing ancestor worship; biblically inspired cults are popular again in dirt-poor Hunan. Falun Gong alone may 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 was founded just seven years ago by Li Hongzhi, a former Chinese soldier who lives in exile in the United States. Li 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 critics here, film director Sima Nan, said he supports the government ban but that China must address the reasons that give rise to such groups. "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."