One of the things that makes China so fascinating is its endless capacity to surprise. Just when you think you have at last grasped everything the Middle Kingdom has to offer, it manages to come up with something unexpected and preposterous.
Who would have thought six months ago that the biggest political demonstrations in a restive China in 1999 would come not from unhappy workers, not from nationalistic students, not from political dissidents, but from an obscure quasi-religious sect devoted to the breathing exercises the Chinese call qigong.
Who would have believed, after this sect called Falun Gong surfaced with mammoth demonstrations in April outside the compound in Beijing where Chinese leaders live, that the Communist Party would feel threatened enough to mount a nationwide campaign of repression against its adherents?
Yet all this has happened--and more. Over the last few days, the Chinese security apparatus has been arresting, jailing and raiding the homes of Falun Gong members, many of them ordinary poor or middle-class Chinese, including little old ladies, retirees and laid-off factory hands. And China's state propaganda Wurlitzer has been playing a symphony of denunciation of the sect.
"Facts have demonstrated that Li Hongzhi, the founder of the Falun Gong, is in fact an evil figure who, by deceiving, has been seriously disrupting social order and sabotaging the hard-earned social stability," began one People's Daily news story a few days ago.
You might think the Chinese leadership would feel more secure. Here it is about to celebrate, on Oct. 1, the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.
Fortune magazine has conveniently scheduled a Global Forum in Shanghai in late September, timed perfectly so that American CEOs can make it to Beijing in time for the anniversary festivities. "The magnates will discuss business opportunities in China," reported the newspaper China Daily.
So what makes the Chinese Communist Party so desperately afraid that it feels a need to carry out such a draconian crackdown?
The Chinese leaders cannot blame America or the West, as they tried with the Chinese democracy movements of 1979 and 1989. The sect's roots are in Chinese culture and in Buddhism and Taoism. There are no statues of liberty in this movement, and no goddesses of democracy.
Sure, Li Hongzhi, the sect's leader, had lived in the United States for a few years. But so did Jiang's own son and the children of countless other senior Chinese leaders.
The Chinese leadership may be afraid that Falun Gong will turn into a political movement.
On the surface, that does not appear likely. The sect seems utterly apolitical. But over the last 50 years, because the Communist Party has banned all overt political activity, Chinese protest movements have taken shape in unusual ways.
One favorite approach is the death of a Chinese leader. Gatherings to mourn the death of Chou En-lai in 1976 and Hu Yaobang in 1989 burst into protests against the regime. Over the years, anti-foreign sentiments also have provided unassailable cover for political protest. No Chinese regime is eager to crack down on anti-Japanese demonstrations.
One hint of a political message underlying Falun Gong comes from the explanation, offered by Chinese both inside and outside the country, that many of its adherents turned to qigong because they are poor and no longer can afford medical care once provided by the government.
If that is true, the movement could serve as a vehicle for protest against the erosion of socialism in China and the seeming orientation of the Communist Party leadership toward the pursuit of wealth and privilege. The sect may represent a rejection of capitalist excesses and a desire for a return to the communal spirit of the 1950s.
But is this really the main grievance of Falun Gong members themselves, or is it an explanation being offered to foreigners by disgruntled Communist Party members unhappy with the economic reforms of Jiang and Premier Zhu Rongji?
Perhaps it is wrong to search for politics behind Falun Gong. The Communist Party is threatened by any large Chinese organization it cannot control. The regime operates with what American political scientist Lucian Pye once aptly called the "illusion of omnipotence."
"Chinese nationalism is not one of singing the praises of a richly diverse culture but one of insisting that all should 'march to the baton' of a single political authority," wrote Pye.
In the broadest sense, the crackdown on Falun Gong demonstrates how fragile is the Chinese regime's control over the disillusioned country it rules. What the Chinese Communist Party fears is ultimately quite simple: It is afraid of the Chinese people.