Two weeks into China's biggest political crackdown in 10 years, fewer than 100 people have been formally arrested in connection with the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, sources said today.
Although authorities have called the group the greatest threat to state security since the Tiananmen Square democracy demonstrations of 1989, the virulent propaganda campaign against Falun Gong has focused primarily on Li Hongzhi, its New York-based founder, while suggesting that most of his followers are merely misguided. No arrests have been announced, and the one arrest warrant issued so far has been for Li.
Instead, the government has opted to deal gingerly with the group, detaining thousands of adherents for brief periods in guest houses, schools and gymnasiums. This approach reflects the government's desire to not antagonize the millions of Communist Party members who embrace Falun Gong, as well as the trouble authorities are having in dealing with the movement's otherworldly philosophy.
The government's behavior contrasts strikingly with the 1989 crackdown on student-led demonstrations in Beijing and other cities. Then, deadly force was used throughout the day and night of June 3-4, and a nationwide dragnet for protest organizers was set up. Hundreds of student leaders, workers and intellectuals were arrested, and many were immediately jailed for long terms that were trumpeted in state media.
"This campaign is very different," said a Chinese source with close ties to the security services. "Here we must be very careful. Then, it was a clear political struggle, and the idea was to smash the democratic opposition on the streets and root out the democratic reformers in the party. Here we are trying to dismantle Li's organization without alienating millions of people."
In a speech to the party faithful on Falun Gong last week, Vice President Hu Jintao said that the movement has 2.1 million followers in China, one-third of whom are party members, sources said. The actual number of adherents, the security source said, is at least 10 million, of whom several million are party members. China's Communist Party boasts about 60 million members; Falun Gong practitioners in the West say that more than 60 million people practice the movement's mixture of exercise and meditation in China.
The government has called Falun Gong "evil" and accused Li of "spreading superstitions and fallacious ideas to deceive the public, causing deaths of practitioners." It has offered a $6,000 reward for information leading to his capture.
So far, detained Falun Gong practitioners have said that police generally have not mistreated them. One complaint came from a 63-year-old retired government official who held for two days in the Beijing suburb of Changping and complained that the room was too hot.
"They said, 'You believe in magic, so make the room cool,' " the man said. "Other than that, it was crowded but painless."
But there are also echoes of the Tiananmen crackdown in the anti-Falun Gong campaign. The government decided to suppress the movement after 10,000 followers engaged in a peaceful sit-in on April 25 outside the leadership compound of the Communist Party near Tiananmen Square.
This crackdown, like the one in 1989, has mobilized the entire government control apparatus--from neighborhood committees to the ruling party Politburo--in an effort to crush the group. As in 1989, it shows that the party must rely on political campaigns--rather than a legal framework--to accomplish its goals. And the crackdown demonstrates once again that the party, for all its Marxist principles, is neglecting China's deeper problems--its moral vacuum, the yawning gap between rich and poor, the social vertigo caused by 20 years of nonstop economic reforms--that created the environment for a movement such as Falun Gong to flourish.
Each night, China Central Television carries lengthy interviews with former Falun Gong practitioners who have seen the light--with the help of a few Communist Party thought-control sessions. Among those whose stories have been highlighted have been hospital directors, Korean War veterans, county managers and model workers. The most prominent has been a Chinese army general, Li Qihua, 81, who retired in 1987 as chief of the army's central hospital in Beijing and deputy director of the health department of the army's general logistics agency.
In a report on Gen. Li's statement, the Nanfang Daily said the he acknowledged writing a "promotional article for Falun Gong, which created a bad influence." But "once he heard about the public denouncement of Falun Gong, he immediately contacted the party to show his strong support for the center's decision."
The fact that China's leadership is treading lightly on Falun practitioners does not mean that the highest ranks of the party are not involved in the fight. One story making the rounds in Beijing is that on the night after the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was mistakenly bombed by NATO planes, President Jiang Zemin was involved late into the night not with that issue, but with drafting a response to the article written by Gen. Li outlining the health benefits of Falun Gong.
The nature of the threat to authority presented by Falun Gong is in marked contrast to that of 1989. While deeply influenced by Western concepts of democracy and freedom, the student-led demonstrators still spoke a language that China's security services and party could ultimately understand.
Falun Gong's challenge is that it seems to have arisen spontaneously on Chinese soil and that it is steeped in ancient Chinese beliefs--not in Western concepts, such as democracy.
"It's the 'I don't care what you are going to do about it, I'm going to sit here and think about the cosmos' type of challenge," said one Western diplomat. "It's very hard for a party which is possessed of such cynicism to deal with these people."
A decade ago, most people in Beijing and in other cities where demonstrations occurred were furious with the government for killing students as it smashed the protests. The sympathy for Falun Gong is not as strong, partly because Chinese society is much more fragmented than it was 10 years ago.
"I wish they would take those anti-Falun Gong shows off the television so I can see my favorite program," said Xue Bing, the 14-year-old son of a government official, who complained that several cartoon programs have been pulled because of the propaganda campaign.