Beijing, Falun Gong Engage in a Game of Brinkmanship


As the Chinese government and the Falun Gong spiritual group step up their rhetorical attacks on each other, each side seems increasingly braced for a war over that most basic of aims: survival.

An 18-month-long standoff between the two sides has apparently produced opposing groups of die-hards--one of government hard-liners bent on smashing a movement they see as a threat to the very existence of the Communist regime, the other of dedicated zealots who appear more willing to take extreme measures to preserve their beliefs.

The polarization has been growing over the past few months, with deadly results. The most grisly of these came two weeks ago, when several purported Falun Gong adherents set themselves on fire, apparently to protest the often brutal campaign of repression against them. One woman died in the incident.


The government, which sees Falun Gong as the most serious threat to its monopoly on power in a decade, has responded with a vitriolic nationwide propaganda offensive, organizing forums and petition drives condemning Falun Gong, from Liaoning province in the northeast to Sichuan province in the southwest.

Yet while the drama plays out in varying degrees across the country, in many ways this remains a very local conflict, with the main staging ground here in the Chinese capital.

Ever since thousands of Falun Gong followers mounted a surprise sit-in around the central government compound in April 1999, the big battle has been over Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, long the symbolic heart of China and seat of state power.

Protesters have poked through the square’s tight security almost daily to unfurl banners and assume meditation poses in defiance of the 1 1/2-year-old ban on their group. On Oct. 1, China’s National Day, hundreds of demonstrators from around the country converged on Tiananmen, slipping through a massive security cordon and embarrassing the authorities, who carted them off to detention centers by the busload.

The recent self-immolations in the square seemed to mark a new, potentially dangerous phase in resistance, analysts say, although Falun Gong spokesmen overseas have disavowed those involved, alleging that they are not disciples but, possibly, dupes of the government.

The group insists that it has no political agenda, that it only wants to go on peacefully practicing its beliefs, an eclectic blend of Buddhist and Taoist elements, strict morals, slow-motion breathing exercises and apocalyptic prophecies.


But the more protests that take place in the politically charged square, the more leaders such as President Jiang Zemin interpret their struggle as a political one, a battle against a group intent on overthrowing the Communist Party. Tiananmen Square has been the site of politically motivated uprisings throughout Chinese history, most recently the pro-democracy protests of 1989.

In the Communist regime’s eyes, the question is therefore not one of individual freedom and civil liberties, as many outside China see it, but one of political supremacy and survival.

“My instinct is that the government views it in a totally different cognitive frame in which it has nothing to do with human rights,” said Andrew Nathan, a Columbia University scholar on China. “We have to assume the Chinese leadership doesn’t think this is an issue of religious freedom and doesn’t see how any decent, honest, clear-thinking person could think so.”

That the government cannot control Tiananmen Square--its own backyard--especially unnerves the leadership.

“The uncanny way in which the movement is able to carry out organized, albeit peaceful, actions is what the party finds so frustrating,” said Merle Goldman, a professor of Chinese history at Boston University. “Clearly, the party has not been able to gain access to the Falun Gong’s Internet connections [through which many protests are organized], no matter how hard it has tried. Nor has it been able to infiltrate its ranks.”

Instead, the regime has resorted to some of the old weapons it honed during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and the 1989 pro-democracy protests: mass denunciations, widespread arrests and a propaganda blitz.


Part of the propaganda includes familiar claims that “hostile anti-China forces” from outside have helped whip up the crisis. The fact that Falun Gong members pay allegiance to a man who lives abroad--much the same way that members of China’s underground Roman Catholic churches look to the pope or Tibetan Buddhists revere the Dalai Lama--feeds the regime’s xenophobia and paranoia.

Chinese newspapers have even accused some Western media, such as CNN and the Associated Press, of knowing in advance of last month’s self-immolations and doing nothing to stop them. The news organizations deny the charge.

So far, hundreds of practitioners have been shipped to labor camps, and dozens are said to have died in custody. Human rights groups and governments around the world, including the U.S., have called on China to end the harassment.

At the same time, Falun Gong has turned up the volume on its own rhetoric, contained in teachings by the group’s founder, Li Hongzhi, who lives in exile in New York and commands incredible devotion among his followers.

In a series of pronouncements released since last summer, “Master Li,” as his disciples call him, has appeared to encourage or at least obliquely condone more direct action against the government.

An oft-quoted essay by Li last month advised that “forbearance,” one of the group’s principal tenets, “does not mean tolerating evil beings that no longer have human nature or righteous thoughts.” Another Internet posting in August spoke assuredly of the elimination of the “wicked ones who . . . will soon have to pay for all of their sins.”


Although the vast majority of Falun Gong practitioners have not taken this as a license to create havoc, some analysts fear that a fringe of true believers might well be driven to more drastic measures. Many adherents, ejected from their homes, stripped of their jobs and hounded by police, already feel that they have nothing left to lose.

The result is an increasingly intractable situation, with extremists on either side less and less willing to compromise or back down.

“Both the oppositional tactics adopted by the Falun Gong and the government’s repressive countermeasures have escalated significantly and in tandem, like a well-choreographed pas de deux,” said Richard Baum, a China specialist at UCLA. “Voices of moderation and restraint have been drowned out by increasingly shrill accusations and counter-accusations.”

Dai Qing, one of China’s most prominent dissident intellectuals, who was jailed for her role in the 1989 pro-democracy protests, lays blame on both sides for the crisis.

In a lecture at Harvard University in November 1999, Dai criticized Li as “capable yet immoral, ambitious yet irresponsible,” but she also condemned the government’s obsession with viewing “every civil organization that is not within its control as an enemy.”

Arguably, the regime created its own predicament by unleashing such great force against the group when it first outlawed Falun Gong in July 1999, provoking the aggressive response by followers.


At the time, many Chinese were put off by the government’s overreaction against a relatively pacific group whose teachings they considered odd but harmless. But the recent escalation of rhetoric and acts by both sides is proving to be a turning point in public opinion--in the government’s favor.

Since the self-immolations, official propagandists have effectively used footage of the incident to sway public attitudes. Viewers have been horrified at the sight of victims such as 12-year-old Liu Siying, who moaned, “Mama, mama,” as she writhed in flames in the square. Her mother was reportedly the only protester to have died.

“People were quite sympathetic to Falun Gong [members] because they were peaceful and friendly and wouldn’t disturb anybody,” said Li Gang, 29, who works in a Beijing hotel. “But now it seems like they’ve become people’s enemies, which makes us hate them. . . . These people are really crazy.”

How China’s harsh crackdown might affect international opinion of Beijing is another question--and probably an irrelevant one in the view of a government that believes its existence is at stake.

“In such circumstances, national leaders, whether in China or other major countries, do not tend to put foreign views as their top priority,” said Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago.

This helps explain why the Communist regime has renewed its assault on Falun Gong in spite of what would seem to be bad diplomatic timing. It comes as President Bush takes office in the U.S., under pressure to adopt a tougher line on China; as the United Nations begins a debate on whether to pass a resolution condemning China’s human rights abuses; and as Olympics inspectors prepare to descend on Beijing, which desperately wants to host the 2008 Games.


The question now is what will happen next in China. The volatility of the situation makes it hard to predict.

“As long as the Communist Party unreasonably insists that it is the only organization to be respected and Falun Gong followers blindly worship and unconditionally follow their master,” said Dai, the dissident, “many frightful scenarios can still occur.”