When Richard was 19, he joined the Communist Party, a traditional rite of passage for children of promise and privilege in China. But he says his life didn't really change until five years later, when a friend gave him a book by the founder of the Falun Gong spiritual sect.

"Before I read that book, I really had no world view," he said. "I never asked the question, What's the purpose of life? After I read it, everything changed for me."

When Beijing launched a nationwide crackdown against Falun Gong and its estimated 10 million members last week, officials were not confronting an organization only on the fringe of Chinese society.

Thousands of Falun faithful are believed to be drawn from party members like Richard, who took an English first name when he started working for an American company, a popular practice here. He was briefly detained by police last Thursday.

That a group espousing arcane spiritual practices could challenge China's political orthodoxy is a sign of the trouble the Communist Party is having in maintaining an encompassing, central role in a rapidly changing society. The grand socialist principles that the party once stood for -- and imposed on everyday life -- have been diluted by 20 years of liberalizing economic reforms.

Into the void comes Falun Gong, whose membership unites workers dispossessed by the vagaries of the free market, elderly party members seeking a new faith to replace passe communist doctrine and young elites searching for meaning in their lives.

Richard, 26, said his decision to explore Falun Gong was not rooted in any party failure to fill his spiritual needs -- the party has never claimed that as part of its mission. "The party was all practicalities, goals, simple things," he said. "Its idea of self-cultivation was hard work."

Richard's last name has been withheld because identifying him could result in his prosecution for talking to a foreign reporter about last week's crackdown. Of medium height, with a sturdy frame built up through years of soccer and gymnastics, he has been practicing Falun Gong seriously for a year, since reading the book by the sect's leader, Li Hongzhi.

What drew him to Falun Gong was the promise that it could answer basic questions: What's the purpose of life? What should you do with your desire? What should you believe in?

"I didn't want to live my life vaguely for a few decades, get married, have children and then die," Richard said. "I wanted to overcome my desires and treasure this short time I have on this world."

Falun teaches that a person should live a clean life and cultivate an "orb" of energy rotating in the belly. It promises that those who master the technique can accomplish great feats of strength and prowess, a belief system far different from what remains of the party's.

"It was machine-like, my decision to join the party," Richard said. "It had nothing to do with communism. It had more to do with wanting to help society. Anyway, it was like this: join the party in my sophomore year, find a girlfriend in my junior year.

"Joining Falun Gong was much different. I did that despite my parents' strong opposition. I did that because I wanted something new."

Richard's motivation for joining Falun Gong was different from that of Wang, a 64-year-old retired Beijing city official. But it led in the same direction.

Like Richard, Wang joined the party in his teens -- but in the 1950s, when communist idealism coursed through the veins of young Chinese. Over the years, as China passed through one political campaign after another, the security services accused Wang of being a rightist, a "capitalist roader" and petit bourgeois. Whereas Richard never believed in communism, Wang's belief evaporated over time.

"I guess you could say I wanted something else to trust," Wang said, speaking over a glass of iced green tea on a scalding afternoon. "Now the party tells me I'm misguided. But after all they've done to me, I have to say my faith is with Falun Gong."

Despite their differences, Richard and Wang share one thing the party taught them -- the ability to organize. Party members were central to Falun's tight-knit association.

Party members, for example, played a central role on the negotiating committee that met with senior government officials on April 25, when 10,000 Falun followers surrounded Communist Party headquarters in Beijing demanding legal status for their sect, and party members have led most of the other 20 major demonstrations held by Falun followers since last year.

Last week, at the height of the campaign, the government said Communist Party members participating in Falun Gong "have tarnished the image of the party and made a very bad impression in society." (The State Department -- citing reports of numerous detainees, including government officials -- expressed concern yesterday about what a spokesman in Washington called "heavy-handed tactics.")

He Zuoxiu, a physicist and one of China's leading critics of Falun Gong, said the delay between the April 25 demonstration and the crackdown this month occurred precisely because the party was concerned about Falun Gong followers in its midst.

"If there weren't any [party members in Falun Gong], this problem would be easy to solve. It is for that very reason that this situation is extremely important," said He. "What if the Communist Party split into two factions, one that supported Falun Gong, and one that opposed Falun Gong? That would be a big problem. Now . . . everyone's opinions are in agreement."

Richard, however, doesn't think things will end so simply.

"Their belief system was to have no beliefs," he said of the party leaders. "The gap between what we studied at party meetings and real society was huge. Most of us slept."

Until now, life as a party member has been confined to studying documents. Richard has never read Karl Marx's "Das Kapital" or many essays by China's longtime leader, Mao Zedong. In the past few years, he has been contacted only to pay party dues. There's been no theoretical discussion, no talk about communism, no one pushing him to remake himself as the vanguard of the proletarian revolution.

Richard's experience is typical of millions of party members. The party long ago dropped its demands for any type of ideological allegiance.

Richard said he expects the party to find him and interrogate him about practicing Falun Gong teachings. If he has to choose between leaving the party and leaving Falun Gong, he'll stick with Falun Gong.

In fact, the choice for party members is more difficult: It's between dropping Falun Gong or going to jail.

When he heard that, Richard said: "I would go to jail, but I have my parents. They'd be crushed if I was locked up."

Falun Gong

Falun Gong is a Chinese exercise for body and mind that follows "the supreme characteristic of the cosmos: truthfulness, benevolence, forbearance," according to Li Hongzhi, who published his ideas in 1992.

* The exercises are said to promote health and self-healing and relieve stress. Followers say, however, that Falun Gong does not reject modern medicine.

* The teachings are supposed to guide the practitioner toward higher spiritual levels.

* Falun Gong has a set of five exercises whose movements are slow and fluid; four of the exercises are practiced while standing; one while sitting.

* Li says Falun Gong has no particular organization and no political objectives. It has about 60 million followers in China and about 100 million worldwide, including many at colleges and universities in the West.

SOURCE: Li Hongzhi as published on Web sites of Caltech, Stanford, Ultranet