China's capital probably has more Mercedes than any other city in the world. Yet if you drive just 30 minutes away, you'll see poor farmers pulling plows with wooden yokes on their shoulders, and not a draft animal in sight.
In many Chinese cities, workers' wages are stagnant, and yet the Communist government recently admitted that 17 percent of all bank deposits are public money stashed away in private accounts, a sign of massive official graft.
A gap between rich and poor is nothing new in China, nor is corruption. Yet, after 20 years of embracing market reforms and Western-style consumerism, many Chinese know something is amiss in their nation's rush to riches. Wealth disparity and social ills are expanding too fast.
Communist leaders keep preaching Marxist-Leninist political principles, yet few Chinese buy into it anymore. When incidents such as the errant US bombing of Beijing's embassy in Belgrade occur, the Communist Party tries to fan nationalist outrage in hopes of reviving its "mandate from heaven."
Even the public fervor to introduce democracy, which erupted 10 years ago in Tiananmen Square, has cooled off. Instead, many Chinese are looking for a new moral order.
No wonder, then, that the 1990s have been called a "golden period" for religion in China, as one state religion official recently stated. More than 100 million people are members of the officially approved faiths - Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, Catholics, and Protestants. And many millions more are seeking hope in the unapproved spiritual sects, many of them offering a mix of beliefs.
One of them, Falun Gong (or Falun Dafa), has grown rapidly since its founding in 1992. Last April, 10,000 members boldly and silently surrounded Communist headquarters in Beijing in protest against repression and to ask for official recognition.
Last week, after three months of infiltrating Falun Gong, the government banned the group, arrested thousands of followers, and began a "political struggle" to end this challenge to the Communist Party's supreme authority. In response, tens of thousands of Falun Gong faithful besieged government offices in 30 cites.
Like other persecuted sects in China's past, Falun Gong may rise up in violence. Or it may fade away. Either way, the confrontation serves to highlight a spiritual void in China.
After promising material enrichment and then suppressing a widespread desire for higher spiritual meaning, the Communists are at odds with the people. History has shown that that is no way to run China.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society