Beijing's ongoing crackdown against the Falun Gong movement is just the latest campaign the Communist Party has waged since the 1949 revolution to mold the belief systems of the Chinese masses.
Yet the current round of book burnings and arrests illustrates the party's fear that rival creeds to Marxism could quickly gain ground in an era when many Chinese have given up faith in a political savior and are instead seeking a new spiritual foundation.
Chinese and Western analysts say Beijing launched the crackdown in part because it knows communism as an official creed has long been in decline - but the party wants to prevent the rise of an alternative value system it can't control.
"The harshness of the Falun Gong crackdown reflects [party chief] Jiang Zemin's fear of competing with different political or religious ideas," says a high-ranking party official, who asked not to be identified.
While some Falun Gong practitioners have been silenced with beatings or imprisonment in China, graduate student Ma Junshui speaks out because he now resides in the US: "My father's generation was educated to believe in Marxism," says Mr. Ma. "But in our generation we generally don't believe in anything except for money and materialism. There is a spiritual vacuum in China, morals are declining, and many people are now beginning to search for ways to reverse the trend," Ma adds. "More and more people are practicing Falun Gong because their spirits are empty."
Anyone in China who publicly practices Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa - a mix of Buddhist, Taoist, and Chinese martial art principles - has faced arrest since the group was banned 12 days ago.
State television newscasts are showing tank-like steamrollers crushing small mountains of Falun Gong videotapes, police feeding furnaces copies of Falun Gong books, and party officials calling for the capture of Li Hongzhi, the movement's exiled leader. In placing Mr. Li on its most-wanted list, the Chinese Public Security Ministry said that he used Falun Gong "to spread superstition and malicious fallacies ... Li plotted organized gatherings, demonstrations and other activities to disturb public order."
"Falun Gong practitioners are peaceful ... figures who believe in truth and compassion, so it's hard to understand the intensity of the government's attack," says Erroll Wilson, a graduate student who became interested in Falun Gong at Pennsylvania State University. Mr. Wilson says he keeps in touch with other followers through e-mail and the group's Web site.
The crackdown on Falun Gong in many ways parallels the attack on the pro-democracy movement in 1989. The government's gunning down of student protesters in Beijing "probably dealt the death blow to popular faith in the Communist Party," says a Western official.
Yet the party's prestige began its decline in the last decade of Mao Zedong's reign, from 1966 to '76, a period of radical, totalitarian rule known as the Cultural Revolution. Mao called on millions of young followers "to turn the heavens and earth upside down" in a quest to wipe out China's past. As Buddhist monks were defrocked, Confucian scholars jailed, and Christian churches razed, citizens were required to carry Mao's Little Red Book of Quotations, recite his revolutionary proverbs, and bow before his portrait.
Yet like countless generations of subjects who had engaged in emperor worship during China's imperial past, the masses lost their "savior" and belief system on Mao's passing in 1976.
The Chinese leadership's attempt to mold or control ethics, values, and beliefs got its start not with the communist revolution, but with the rise of autocratic rule here 3,000 years ago.
The rulers of the Shang dynasty (1750 to 1040 BC) were not only master warriors, but also often shaman-priests who acted as mediators between the people and the heavens. Later dynasties claimed that their rule was based on superior moral and cultural standards and sanctioned by a "Mandate of Heaven."
The rise of new religious movements and sects has often coincided with or impelled the fall of a dynasty. "The Chinese leadership has got to be worried about the rapid growth of Protestant churches, Catholicism, Buddhism and now Falun Gong," says the Western official.
"There can be no more eloquent testament that the party has lost its moral authority," he says, "than the fact that a pudgy ex-clerk from northern China with a weird mixture of Buddhism, Taoism and qigong has gained perhaps tens of millions of followers in the last seven years," he says.
"Roughing up elderly ladies who do breathing exercises and burn joss sticks [during the Falun Gong crackdown] shows how much the party itself fears efforts to fill the moral vacuum," he adds.
Although the close of Mao's era ended a blanket ban on religious practices, China's officially atheistic leaders still impose strict controls on all religions.
Roman Catholic believers and priests are forbidden to have contact with the pope, just as Tibetan Buddhists are banned from reading the teachings of their exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
Followers of any faith are subject to arrest if they worship outside state-sanctioned churches, and the party often manipulates the selection of religious leaders to cement its hold.
Human rights groups say the attack on Falun Gong is part of a long pattern of religious repression here that violates international law.
Last year, "China signed the [UN's] Covenant on Civil and Political Rights," which requires member states to protect freedom of belief, says Frank Lu, who heads the Hong Kong-based Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China.
"With this crackdown, the Chinese government is breaking its obligations, and the international community should pressure China to end the arrests," he adds.
Falun Gong follower Ma agrees.
"The Chinese constitution clearly says the people have the right to believe what they want to," Ma says.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society