In July 1995, I was ordered by the Public Security Bureau in Beijing, the government's secret police, to leave China because I had attempted to enter Tibet on a journalistic assignment for an American newspaper. Before my departure, I paid a hurried visit to my mother in a large city in central China.
She was in terrible health, and mumbled to me during our tearful train-station farewell, "I wonder if I can live to see you again."
In June, we had a reunion in Hong Kong. I was surprised by what I saw when she stepped through the train station immigration entrance. She looked radiant and energetic. Her new short, stylish hairdo made her look much younger.
She attributed her well-being to the practices of Falun Gong, the Chinese group that practices a mix of Buddhist, Taoist, and Chinese meditative exercise principles. Its spreading popularity has rattled the Chinese government, especially after members demonstrated near Tiananmen Square in April, challenging the Communist Party's advocacy of atheism.
Party leaders did not want to encourage other groups to join in the threat to its monopoly rule. So police have burned millions of Falun Gong books and rounded up activists.
My mother's attraction to the movement must be typical of many Chinese. She joined last December when she heard about it from a neighborhood friend, who happens to be a retired Party official. She told me that followers of Falun Gong achieve good health through daily meditation and breathing techniques.
According to my mother, followers read the book of Li Hongzhi, the founder of Falun Gong, every day. And they meditate and perform tai-chi-type exercises to pleasant traditional Chinese music and Li's taped instructions. Apart from the book and audio tapes, which cost about $4, my mother said everything else is free. This is significant for a retiree who lost her medical insurance when the state-run company she'd worked for for 27 years went bankrupt. (Since the government started to restructure its ailing state sector in 1997, 26 million state workers have been laid off and there is no social safety net to protect them.)
My mother never completed college, so I could tell her esoteric explanations of Falun Gong were from Li's book. Also, she constantly used phrases like "Master Li teaches us this or that ...."
In a way, it reminded me of the days when every Chinese had to quote from Chairman Mao's "little red book."
But while my mother's remarkable recovery of health did amaze me, her devotion to this movement worried me.
When the Chinese government declared Falun Gong illegal in July and started a furious, concentrated campaign to discredit the group, I called my mother.
"We have to go through many meetings to denounce Falun Gong. The neighbors are encouraged to report to the police if they find out that other people are practicing. We have to stop," she fumed.
What is it about Falun Gong that's so appealing to my mother and millions of others, and yet so repellent to the government?
The sheer number of followers - millions, by most counts - says something about the problems brought about by China's market reforms and the collapse of faith in Communism.
Followers aren't just retirees or the uneducated. Many are Party officials, intellectuals, and university students. So Falun Gong has the potential to be a strong force.
"Society is deteriorating - rampant corruption among the Communist Party, rising crime rates, drug abuse among young people. People don't have a goal in life, except to earn more money," my mother told me.
As more and more people like my mother become disillusioned, they search for something to fill the ideological and spiritual void. Several years ago, my mother was one of millions of Chinese who converted to Christianity. However, to most Chinese, the concept of Jesus and the resurrection is foreign; even the name 'Jesus' is too hard for my mother to remember.
Falun Gong meets the spiritual needs of ordinary Chinese because it has familiar Buddhist and Taoist roots.
Since the Communist takeover in 1949, my parents' generation was attracted to the spiritual side of the Communist movement. The Communist ideal was to overcome human weaknesses such as greed and selfishness, and establish a society "from each according to his ability, and to each according to his needs." But their faith in Communism was diluted by various disastrous political campaigns that lead to the deaths of millions of innocent people. The new free market practices in China have not brought spiritual values to fill that void. Li's teachings of truthfulness, benevolence, and forbearance appeal in this era.
Still, much that the Falun Gong leader preaches is hard for nonmembers to accept. For example, in an interview with Time magazine in New York, where he lives, Li claimed that aliens have begun to invade the human mind and culture.
Whether it's a cult or not, Falun Gong is not criminal in nature. So the government crackdown will only alienate people like my mother, who have supported the government for the past 50 years.
If the Chinese leadership continues its heavy-handed approach, they're ensuring the possibility that millions of Chinese from all walks of life - not just restless students - could show up on Tiananmen Square demanding change.
* W. Huang, a former staff member of The New York Times Beijing bureau, is a freelance writer in Chicago.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society