It was one of those beautiful nights in the hills west of Beijing. On September 23, 1993, a small crowd had gathered outside the Jietai Temple to celebrate the Festival of the Moon. Joining the few foreigners in attendance were several highranking army officers and party officials who lived in the ritzy neighborhood. All of them hoped to catch a glimpse of the full moon.
One man seemed strangely out of place. His business card identified him as "Master Li Hongzhi" from the "Falun Gong" movement. A flier he distributed referred to Falun Gong as "the path to perfection."
The character "Fa" means "law" and "Lun" stands for "wheel." These teachings, Li said, had already attracted tens of thousands of followers. When one of the men in uniform called him a "crackpot," the wiry, medium-sized man with a burred northern Chinese accent silently turned and vanished into the temple. The officers burst into scornful laughter.
A few years later, they - like many other top Chinese mandarins - were no longer laughing; the mysterious Li had drawn a following that rivaled the Communist Party of China in size. Since then, the party has branded Li as a serious threat to its rule, claiming that the CIA is financing his organization in a bid to topple the Chinese government.
Falun Gong owes its existence largely to the spiritual vacuum created by the communists in the early 1990s. With the launch of the economic reforms, the party stopped caring for the masses, subjecting them instead to the short sharp shock of turbo-capitalism. That was too much for many Chinese, who yearned for spiritual stability, which they found by rediscovering their own cultural roots and traditions. Many Chinese began frequenting parks again in the mornings, meditating and performing ancient exercises that the state had long prohibited.
Qigong, an old Chinese exercise derived from Taoism and Buddhism, was especially popular, and Falun Gong proved most expert at teaching it. Li Hongzhi, the quirky master of meditation and former waiter, became the movement's leading light. His recipe for spiritual bliss is enticingly simple, based as it is on ingredients from well-known religious teachings. People need to be "cultivated, merciful and good," he wrote, introducing a dash of Taoism. He also added a pinch of Buddhism, calling the regular breathing exercises learned by all Buddhists the "wheel of law" that turns within the human body. In truth, Falun Gong is little more than a new age philosophy. But it made the people of China feel good. Li helped them cope with stress, reducing the time they took off sick from work.
Soon Li was rallying tens of thousands of people who, seated in the lotus position, filled entire stadiums in northern China, his home region. No longer was Lei Feng - Mao's good soldier, a product of the communist propaganda machine - inspiring the masses to perform good deeds. Master Li had stepped into his boots.
During the mid-1990s, Shanghai television reported that the Qigong guru could boast 70 million supporters. Soon afterward, Li emigrated to the United States, likely suspecting that the party wouldn't tolerate a popular challenger - as indeed proved to be the case.
In April 1999, the party launched a bitter attack on Falun Gong in a university newspaper published in the port city of Tianjin. The article condemned Li's exercises as dangerous, arguing that they encouraged insanity and suicidal tendencies among the young.
At that point, Falun Gong supporters laid siege to the newspaper's offices, demanding that it publish their response. When the party refused, thousands surrounded the politburo's headquarters in Beijing on April 25, 1999. It was an eerily quiet gathering of mostly elderly women and men - people who otherwise form the silent majority in the 1.3 billion strong nation. As though heeding a clandestine call, they had converged on Beijing to challenge the communists.
Jiang Zemin, the general secretary at the time, spoke of a "second Tiananmen," a reference to the student revolt of June 1989, and a foreign "conspiracy aimed at toppling the party." On July 22, 1999, Falun Gong was outlawed. Subsequently, Amnesty International reported a surge in arrests among Li's supporters.
Anyone found meditating in a park in the morning ended up behind bars. Resistance became a ticket to the labor camp. Many of Li's supporters, including numerous elderly women, were beaten so severely in prison that they collapsed and died.
The party's initial hostility to the group has sparked a bizarre religious war. A special secret service unit created in 2004 (Department 610) persecutes Falun Gong members in China and even targets Chinese nationals living abroad.
But the movement has refused to fold. A constant thorn in the party's side, it has responded to repression with a series of unusual protests. In 2002, Li's disciples manipulated the signals of a Chinese TV satellite and briefly aired the movement's insignia on state television. Two years later, foreign adherents staged a demonstration at Tiananmen Square. The once peaceful meditation group has gone underground.
Outside China, supporters launched the daily newspaper The Epoch Times, which is published in Chinese and numerous other languages. Its online edition urges communist party members to resign.
The paper states that millions have already done so, a claim that is impossible to verify. It is clear, though, that the ranks of Falun Gong supporters outside China are swelling fast. From Canada to Indonesia, from New Zealand to Chile, millions subscribe to Li's teachings.
Falun Gong disciples have also become a nightmare for those responsible for protocol whenever Chinese politicians venture abroad. They sneak into press pools and brandish banners along the visitors' routes, infuriating the Beijing leaders who suppress any other opposition.
Master Li never shows his own face at these demonstrations. Fearing Chinese hit squads, he is only ever seen at meditation seminars attended by loyal disciples; even here his appearances are few and far between. Via intermediaries, he urges disciples to study his book: if possible, every single day.