In one Chinese province, at least 500 people have been sent without trial to labor camps for being members of the banned spiritual sect Falun Gong. More than 3,000 other adherents have been detained in Beijing for protesting the ban, 111 core members have been indicted nationwide for serious crimes tied to the group and a half-dozen have died in police custody, according to Chinese government officials and a Hong-Kong based human rights organization.
The stark numbers illustrate that the crackdown against Falun Gong is by far China's biggest since soldiers crushed student-led democracy demonstrations at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in June 1989. The government has branded Falun Gong "dangerous" and "evil" and has mobilized thousands of security personnel and the state-run press to smash the group. Officials have called the movement the gravest threat to Chinese stability in the 50 years of Communist history.
The crackdown was undertaken to demonstrate--and solidify--the power of the Chinese leadership. But the longer the campaign goes on, and the more difficulty China's authorities have in corralling Falun Gong practitioners, the more the episode is exposing China's rulers' weaknesses, insecurities and internal divisions to audiences at home and abroad.
The campaign has revealed dissent at the top echelons of power, undermining the image of China's leadership as united and pragmatic. Communist Party sources said that the Standing Committee of the Politburo did not unanimously endorse the crackdown and that President Jiang Zemin alone decided that Falun Gong must be eliminated.
Some observers believe Jiang picked what he thought was an easy target--Falun Gong and its U.S.-based leader, Li Hongzhi--and his resolve was only strengthened when he learned people close to him were followers of the group. Falun Gong members practice exercises and meditation derived from Buddhist and Taoist disciplines.
It was Jiang who ordered that Falun Gong be labeled a "cult," and then demanded that a law be passed banning cults, a party source said. "This obviously is very personal for Jiang," said one party official. "He wants this organization crushed."
Even before the Falun Gong crackdown, Jiang has been subject to intense criticism for weak leadership. In China's Internet chat rooms and on the streets, he is viewed as being soft on Taiwan and the United States.
Jiang's concern over Falun Gong runs so deep that during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in New Zealand in September, he handed out a book attacking the group to many of the participants at the meeting, including President Clinton. The move stunned diplomats, reinforcing concerns that party leaders have become fundamentally divorced from everyday reality and that Jiang is either unwilling or unable to engage in substantive discussions with Western leaders.
"This guy actually thought we needed to know about this stuff," said one Western diplomat.
The crackdown has also revealed splits within China's security services. On April 25, more than 10,000 Falun Gong followers surrounded Communist Party headquarters in Beijing to demand that their organization be granted legal status. Many of the protesters came from Tianjin, 90 miles to the southeast, where they had demonstrated against a magazine that had published an article critical of Falun Gong.
The Beijing demonstration, initially portrayed as a major lapse in China's security web, has been used by the party as a primary justification for its crackdown.
But in recent interviews, Falun Gong participants have said that police in Tianjin actively encouraged the group to take its protest to Beijing. "They didn't go so far as to provide buses, but they advised us that Beijing was the place to make our voices heard," said one organizer who asked not to be identified.
The government's initial response to the April protest was measured, but in July, the group was banned and its materials confiscated and burned. The Communist Party is using Falun Gong as a target to reinforce one of its basic ideas, that China is surrounded by enemies. In order to support this sense of unending crisis, the party needs to keep China in a "constant fire drill," according to one Western diplomat.
The problem is that Falun Gong, which has little political program, doesn't fit the model of an enemy of the state. Also, the crackdown has "succeeded in elevating [sect leader] Li Hongzhi to a very high position," said Sima Nan, a documentary filmmaker and longtime critic of China's varied religious sects. "Average people look at him now and say, 'Wow, this guy must really be important.' This is not the right way to get rid of this problem."
The campaign has also hastened the sense among ordinary citizens that the party is increasingly alienated from mainstream China. The country's most liberal newspaper, Southern Weekend, has recently published several veiled attacks on the campaign; one was an analysis of Nazi Germany's treatment of Jews and how average Germans allowed it to escalate from discrimination to genocide.
"What are these people doing?" said a Chinese reporter who has been forced to cover the crackdown for another mainstream newspaper. "It just shows you that the main source of instability in China is the Communist Party."
Western scholars and Chinese analysts have speculated that Falun Gong grew to a membership thought to be 10 million because people saw it as an antidote to the moral vacuum that many Chinese--including Communist Party members--feel they're living in. The party decided to crush Falun Gong because it cannot tolerate an organization separate from its control, many analysts say.
But these explanations do not capture the sense of overkill surrounding the crackdown. The Communist Party has mobilized thousands of security personnel to go after a spiritual organization whose members are mostly laid-off workers and retired Communists. It has staked its prestige on its ability to cart elderly women off in police vans.
"It is events like 1989 and Falun Gong which should remind us that this is not a consultative authoritarian, or corporatist, regime or a regime in which there is a nascent civil society," said Andrew Nathan, a professor of political science at Columbia University. "When the rubber hits the road, it's a system built on monopoly of power and this is something essential, which can't be compromised."