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HONG KONG — Former Indian Chief Justice P.N. Bhagwati perfectly illustrated the enormous gulf between the political cultures of India and China when he arrived in Hong Kong recently as part of a United Nations human-rights inspection team.

Bhagwati was immediately badgered by the press to comment on the big issue right now — the Falun Gong organization. Falun Gong was banned in China in July 1999 but has remained a legal association here in Hong Kong, much to China’s discomfort.

All that Bhagwati said was, “I really don’t know why it (Falun Gong) should be so controversial. In my country there are so many cults, we never bother about them. The best way of dealing with cults is to ignore them.”

This is, of course, an obvious truth, not only for India but for any liberal democracy wherein offbeat sects can usually be ignored, at least until they go haywire by promoting mass suicides or releasing sarin gas on the Tokyo subway.

China, to the contrary, can never be as relaxed as Bhagwati suggested. Political power within China is equated with control. Any group that is thought to possibly challenge that control must be crushed.

So when Falun Gong, out of the blue in April 1999, suddenly surrounded the Chinese leadership compound Zhongnanhai with 10,000 silent demonstrators, the gloves quickly came off and have stayed off ever since.

A small dose of Bhagwati’s wisdom at that time might have saved the Chinese Communist Party from a permanent headache. Falun Gong, ostensibly dedicated to “qigong” breathing exercises, said that it merely wanted a greater degree of official recognition. But it had committed the unpardonable sin of mounting a sizable demonstration outside Zhongnanhai without the pervasive Chinese security services knowing about it in advance.

So, instead of being treated with Hong Kong-style tolerance, Falun Gong was quickly banned in July 1999, but has nonetheless remained a constant thorn in the Chinese Communist Party’s side ever since.

In what amounts to a civil-disobedience campaign in all but name, the Falun Gong faithful have been coming forward in Tiananmen Square ever since the banning, presenting themselves for arrest, detention and in many cases harsh imprisonment. Their visible treatment in Tiananmen has been bad enough, with police kicking and clubbing the peaceful demonstrators. Their invisible treatment has almost certainly been worse, with many reportedly dying in confinement.

Now it looks as if the CCP is becoming even more hot and bothered about the “evil Falun Gong cult.” The Cultural Revolution-style denunciations of the Falun Gong are reaching a new peak of verbal vitriol, following what China officially maintains was an attempt by five Falun Gong adherents to immolate themselves in Tiananmen Square.

One woman died, her child is badly burned, and the Chinese (who had earlier confiscated CNN tapes of the incident) have shown the attempted suicides on television. Falun Gong spokesmen deny that their members did do or would do any such thing. Independent verification of which side speaks the truth is impossible to obtain.

Now the official tirades against Falun Gong, endlessly echoed in the tightly controlled media, are beginning to look like one more Chinese anti-foreign campaign. The “evil cult” is said to be aligned with the anti-Chinese conspiracy that is always alleged to be lurking outside the Middle Kingdom.

China’s complete inability to shrewdly ignore the Falun Gong has long been obvious. Given the dynamics of vituperative denunciation, plus the presence of Falun Gong’s guru Li Hongzhi in New York, a tendency toward xenophobia in the CCP’s anti-Falun Gong campaign was probably to be expected.

This tendency was illustrated by a recent front-page editorial in the “Liberation Army Daily,” the official newspaper of the Peoples Liberation Army: “Western anti-Chinese forces have spared no effort to engage in ideological infiltration to achieve their goal of overturning our socialist system and subverting our state. How closely this chimes with Li’s political ambitions. We can say that whatever these Western anti-Chinese forces think is also in the minds of Li and Falun Gong. What Li and Falun Gong are attempting is precisely what the Western anti-Chinese forces scheme at.”

This lurch toward traditional xenophobia was also illustrated by the “Legal Daily” when it condemned Falun Gong practitioners as “running dogs of foreign anti-Chinese forces.”

Apart from the havoc it created, China’s Cultural Revolution of the mid-1960s developed a synthetic style of mass politics, the antithesis of the political pluralism that a huge nation like China really needs. That style, it would seem, is still in vogue.

Just as they did during the Cultural Revolution, the controlled media are currently reporting that all kinds of organizations all over China are avidly denouncing Falun Gong.

In a situation in which everyone is sycophantically trying to please Beijing with the shrillness of their invective, an anti-foreign tilt is virtually inevitable. It will be interesting to see how far it will be allowed to go.

But the emerging anti-foreign content in the anti-Falun Gong campaign is the more surprising, given Beijing’s concurrent desire to be chosen as the host for the 2008 Olympic Games, plus its continued negotiation for World Trade Organization membership.

So the suspicion is growing that, as in the Cultural Revolution, so today, an increasingly vitriolic political campaign masks an intensifying power struggle within the highest levels of the Chinese Communist Party.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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