A quasi-Buddhist millennial religion is spreading rapidly throughout China, leading the government to fear its influence.
The Wall Street Journal (April 26 and 30) reports that 10,000 devotees of a mystical religious philosophy known as Falun Dafa recently filled the sidewalks of Beijing to demand recognition by the government and the lifting of a ban of the writings of their leader Li Hongzhi. It was the largest gathering of protesters since the Tienenman Square protest and massacre in 1989. Although there have been attempts to label the group a dangerous cult, the government is mainly taking a hands-off policy because of the group’s strength.
Observers were also caught off guard that the followers were mainly middle-aged and elderly men and women rather than the youthful protesters of decade ago, writes Benoit Vermander, a veteran China watcher. He adds that the older generations are resentful of being forsaken by the state — and sometimes by their own families — in the midst of economic change.
It is estimated the Li is the spiritual leader of millions of Chinese, as well as overseas supporters. Falun Dafa consists of healing and breathing techniques that aim to lead followers to enlightenment. Besides teaching strict moral standards, Li emphasizes something called a “law wheel,” a ceaselessly spinning miniature of the cosmos which is telekinetically “installed” in his followers’ abdomen, which protects them from illness and evil spirits.
Li denies that his teachings form an organized religion (which would mean that the group would be banned), but the mass gatherings are orchestrated by leaders and proselytism is held through seminars. Last year, tens of thousands of Falun Dafa practitioners held a rally in the city of Wuhan in which they formed a huge human image of the law wheel. Even as Beijing fears the political power of Li and his followers, Falun Dafa practitioners’ influence has even become pervasive in the government.