If you stand in Tiananmen Square and keep your eyes open on a normal day, you will see the tour groups with their "keep together" flags, and the long line waiting to see the mummified Mao in his mausoleum, and the crowd around the entrance to the Forbidden City. Souvenir salesmen ply their trade where once the students massed around the Goddess of Democracy. And then you notice the militia vans endlessly circling, and the buses parked off to one side. It’s a big space to police, and its vast openness makes it impossible to close off. Every few days, a group of supporters of the Falun Gong movement will suddenly unfurl their banners and wave them until the forces of order arrive, sweep them up and carry them away. In early October, during the celebrations of the anniversary of the People’s Republic, several thousand people suddenly manifested themselves in this way, to the intense irritation of the authorities. On less spectacular and predictable days, it’s more like a dozen or so.

The Communist Party takes this challenge extremely seriously. It refers to the cult’s leader, Li Hongzhi, in the terms it used to reserve for running dogs, revisionists and the Gang of Four. A recent denunciation proclaimed: "Li Hongzhi and his group fully abandoned national pride, threw themselves into the arms of overseas anti-China forces and were willingly used by international hostile forces as tools to interfere in China’s internal affairs."

At first sight, it might seem odd that so much vituperation should be directed at a fringe sect that babbles about "higher consciousness" and the supernatural. But Chinese history is full of moments, like the Taiping Rebellion and the Boxer Rising (one hundred years ago this year), when the rise of superstitious cults presaged a fin de régime. The Communists, now fully committed to market Stalinism and an "open door" trade policy, are consciously risking the eclipse of their own ideology. Nonhistorical materialism is now the rule, with capitalist logos on almost every prominent building in Beijing. In these circumstances, as Jiang Zemin recently told a Politburo Standing Committee that was convened to discuss the fall of Milosevic: "We must preserve stability above all else. A single spark could set the whole plain ablaze."

I couldn’t tell whether he was deliberately and pessimistically echoing Lenin’s optimistic slogan (which led the Bolsheviks to call their first newspaper Iskra–The Spark), but the import was clear. News from Serbia was kept to a bare minimum in the official press, and the deportation of Marko Milosevic, gangster son of the old man, who arrived on an unannounced flight from Moscow on October 10, was not reported at all. Still, many people were able to find out about it on the Internet and via other unofficial sources. And it is by these same means that Falun Gong devotees keep abreast of the sayings of their leader, Li Hongzhi, now in exile in the United States. (His website shows him sitting alone on a high mountain peak, contemplating the infinite.)

The party’s dogmatically phrased denunciations of Falun Gongery are probably counterproductive, and clumsy measures have also been taken against other Quigong groups, which practice the more innocuous forms of traditional Chinese breathing and exercise. But the choice is not limited to Stalinism versus the paranormal. I spent several fascinating hours in the company of Sima Nan, a one-man cultbuster who has taken upon himself the task of exposing Li Hongzhi. This ought to be easy. A reading of Li’s texts discloses an almost pathetic hucksterism: "The Falun is a turning body substance with wisdom and high energy. Falun planted by me in the lower abdomen of the practitioner keeps revolving 24 hours a day (Falun can also be obtained when one reads the books written by me for true cultivation, or watches my videotape of Law preaching, or listens to my audiotape of teaching the Law…)."

Furthermore, and somewhat off-puttingly, the Falun in your lower abdomen turns out to be in the shape of a swastika (though a left-handed one rather than a Nazi right-handed version). However, says Sima Nan, a large number of people have fallen prey to this practice and believe that their internal swastikas give them immunity as well as enlightenment. Hence their willingness to court certain arrest in Tiananmen Square, followed by equally certain imprisonment.

In a number of books, CDs, public lectures and demonstrations, Sima Nan confronts Falun Gong’s claims of conjury and levitation. He has offered a huge reward to anyone who can produce a "paranormal" effect that he cannot duplicate or expose. During our meetings, he did some impressive spoon-bending and other prestidigitation, unmasking the tricks with which Li Hongzhi has induced the credulous to part with their money. Originally a peasant and later a construction worker, Sima Nan now works as a journalist and, though still a party member, was banned from writing for three years as a consequence of his support for the 1989 democracy movement. "I was exposing the fake ‘masters’ before the party leadership cared about them," he told me. "Until 1999 they were harassing me but not them." For his pains, he has also been denounced by Li, who has predicted that he will be punished by lameness and blindness and who claims to have secretly inserted a swastika in his abdomen that revolves in the wrong direction. No ill effects so far.

When he is not burbling about stages of enlightenment and his own "awakening through innumerable ages in the past," Li Hongzhi also preaches about the natural superiority of the Chinese and the dangers of homosexuality. His movement therefore appeals to the ancient and inward-looking China, as well as to those looking for an avenue of protest. The authorities may be handling this charismatic challenge with a two-track approach. On October 6 the People’s Daily published a centennial article on the Boxers, praising their patriotism and, to the surprise of many readers, omitting the usual criticism of their chauvinism and quasi-religious zealotry. If the party cannot beat cultism and superstition, it may decide that it’s worthwhile to try conscripting a little of it for an insurance policy.