JIANG ZEMIN may succeed in suppressing the Falun Gong [spiritual group] for now, but the president's prestige could suffer considerable damage. So could China's program of reforms. Jiang has mobilized a Mao-era mass movement against the quasi-Buddhist group, which is characterized as part of an "anti-China international movement."
Not since the anti-American crusade in the wake of the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 have so many Chinese hit the streets in a government-orchestrated campaign.
In terms of size and reach, the "struggle against the devilish cult" has surpassed many previous mass movements.
The official media has in the past week reported anti-Falun Gong gatherings of hundreds of thousands of people in provinces and cities including Henan, Sichuan, Shandong, Jiangsu, Ningxia, Shenyang, Shanghai and Beijing.
Meetings denouncing the [group] have been held even in the remote western provinces -- and by apparently irrelevant government units such as the weather bureau and the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources.
In a throw-back to the Cultural Revolution, there were hints the People's Liberation Army (PLA) might enter the fray.
Vow to defend leadership
The Xinhua news-agency quoted officers from the PLA and the para-military People's Armed Police as asserting that the [group] was "an effort by hostile Western forces to subvert China."
Officers from all divisions of the military forces have vowed to do their utmost to defend the central leadership and to "maintain national security and social stability."
Sources close to security departments in Beijing said Jiang was poised to take more drastic steps to reach his goal of eradicating the sect before the forthcoming 80th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party.
For example, the state security apparatus has identified about 40,000 Falun Gong practitioners among staff in Communist Party and government units, state enterprises and colleges.
These "cultists" have been told if they do not sign papers denouncing the [group], they will be fired -- and their pensions confiscated.
Surveillance and harassment of [group] members, who apparently do nothing more than practice their brand of slow breathing exercise at home, have been stepped up.
There are reports that understaffed police authorities have recruited unemployed workers in the battle against the Falun Gong.
While the Jiang leadership may have genuine reasons to feel threatened by [Falun Gong], the quasi-Maoist tactics it has employed have raised serious questions.
Whipped up the masses
"Even assuming the Falun Gong is spreading dangerous ideas, the way the leadership has whipped up the masses to fight a 'global anti-China conspiracy' is disturbing," says a Beijing academic who wants to remain anonymous.
"The Jiang leadership has yet to show proof of the Falun Gong's links to anti-China elements in the United States and the West."
The anti-U.S. and anti-NATO riots in May 1999 should have taught Beijing the lesson that Cultural Revolution-vintage campaigns could backfire.
A few days after the demonstrations took place, Beijing had to rein them in because many protesters were taking advantage of the melee to vent their grievances against the central government.
Moreover, draconian steps such as cutting off the pay and pension of unrepentant Falun Gong affiliates in government departments and enterprises risk further radicalizing the [group].
In the long run, social unrest may be exacerbated if underground Falun Gong activists were to wage a kind of protracted guerrilla warfare against Beijing.
Yet the most severe criticism leveled at Jiang's handling of the Falun Gong is that he seems to be using the mass movement to promote allegiance to himself.
As with campaigns dating from the 1960s, the standard ritual of ideological sessions held in party units, factories, and colleges the past few years is that participants make public declarations of support for the Beijing line -- and for the top leader.
For example, the theme of the anti-American crusade in 1999 was not just beating back the "anti-China conspiracy of the United States-led NATO" but professing unreserved support for the "central leadership with comrade Jiang Zemin as its core."
According to a party veteran, Jiang might want a public show of support for himself if only because the Politburo had divergent views on what to do with the Falun Gong.
It is no secret that several Politburo members thought the president had used the wrong tactics. They ranged from moderates such as Premier Zhu Rongji, Vice President Hu Jintao, and head of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference Li Ruihuan to conservatives such as National People's Congress Chairman Li Peng.
For example, both Li Ruihuan and Zhu -- who met Falun Gong representatives shortly after they had staged the now-famous demonstration outside party headquarters in April 1999 -- were said to favor a conciliatory approach.
"By unleashing a Mao-style movement, Jiang is forcing senior cadres to pledge allegiance to his line," said the party veteran. "This will boost Jiang's authority -- and may give him enough momentum to enable him to dictate events at the pivotal 16th Communist Party congress next year."
So far, however, Jiang has only been moderately successful in the loyalty game. Among top-level officials, Zhu and Hu have publicly supported the harsh measures.
However, Li Ruihuan, whose best known motto is "seeking harmony and reconciliation,'' has kept quiet on the anti-Falun Gong struggle.
Political analysts said Jiang ran a big risk by staking his reputation on the early extermination of [Falun Gong].
"Jiang wants the Falun Gong rooted out when he makes his big speech at the Great Hall of the People on July 1 to mark the 80th anniversary of the party's founding," said a Western diplomat.
"But what if [Falun Gong] refuses to disappear? Many Falun Gong members are known for their dare-to-die fanaticism. If anti-Beijing protests either in the capital or the provinces continue throughout the year, Jiang's prestige will suffer tremendously."
Moderate cadres and academics in Beijing also think the return of Mao-style political campaigns will deal a blow to economic and political reforms.
For example, this will send Western governments and investors the wrong message about Beijing's commitment to burying the xenophobia -- and mass hysteria -- of bygone eras.
Since late last year, liberal members of official think tanks have dropped hints about the leadership's readiness to resume political reform in the run-up to the 16th party congress.
However, the revival of Maoist norms -- including using para-military forces against an apparently non-violent religious group, and promoting unthinking loyalty to the president -- would seem to indicate Jiang and company are putting their vested interests before the reforms.