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.)