An Opiate of the Masses?
Millions of Chinese embrace a mystical exercise movement
BEIJING--Every Sunday, thousands of people line up in neat rows on a plaza in a western corner of the city. At precisely 7 a.m., the tape-recorded voice of Grand Master Li Hongzhi echoes through loudspeakers, and the assembled masses raise their arms together. With their eyes closed, yet in perfect unison, their hands sweep slowly in a circle and come to rest in a prayer position.
With an estimated 60 million followers, Master Li's flock--which critics call a cult--is the largest voluntary organization in China, larger even than the Communist Party. Chinese authorities are now trying to decide what to do about the group, known as Falun Gong. Is it a political threat or a wellspring of civic responsibility? A dangerous opiate of the masses, or a very useful one in a time of economic transformation and rising unemployment?
Master Li, a baby-faced 47-year-old Manchurian, has an amazing hold on his followers, especially considering that he left China in 1995, just three years after founding Falun Gong. He now lives in America and has a "green card" granting him permanent residency, according to Yi Rong, organizer of the New York branch of the international Falun Gong Association. Using New York as a base, Li travels around the world to teach his spiritual exercise techniques. But his itinerary is a tightly held secret. Even his closest disciples say they seldom know where he is and usually get no more than two days' notice before he appears at a conference in China or the United States. "If word got out that he would be at a certain event, people would fight to get there from all over the world, just to catch a glimpse of him," says Yi. "It would also make the Chinese government nervous if he had too many followers amassing in one place."
Curing cancer. Through a close associate--Li Chang, head of the Falun Gong Research Society in Beijing--Master Li declined to be interviewed for this article. So it is unclear what he thinks of claims made by followers about his power to work miracles. Adherents in China say the Falun Gong master can cure cancer, heal the blind, and make white hair turn black. Even from afar, Li is said to bestow on each of his followers a mystical "law wheel" that perpetually rotates in the lower abdomen, curing disease and physical decay. Believers hang posters of him in their houses, and some say they have seen these pictures emitting light. They study his book Zhuan Falun ("Rotating the Law Wheel") and perform outdoor exercises with religious devotion.
Falun Gong (literal translation: the power of the law wheel) is a modern variant of the ancient practice of qi gong, the use of breathing exercises to regulate the qi (also spelled chi), an energy or life force circulating within the body. Such exercises often are blended with spiritual elements of Taoism or Buddhism. And throughout Chinese history, qi gong masters have bedazzled and befuddled the public with miracle cures, soothsaying, and other tricks ranging from levitating objects to communicating with aliens and changing the odor of cigarettes.