Since the Chinese Communist Party leaders will not allow themselves to be criticized in the press or on television, critics have had to find other means to express their political grievances. Historically speaking, one of the most telling ways to make a protest known has been to bring it to Tiananmen Square, long the epicenter of political power in China. Indeed, there is an almost religious belief among Chinese that if the advocates of a cause can only gain entrance to this sanctum sanctorum of political rule, or come close to it, quasi-mystical political legitimacy will be conferred on them. Again and again, from the May Fourth Movement in 1919 to the present, Chinese protesters have been drawn to the square, sometimes suicidally.
As if momentous historic events could be put out of mind simply by putting the place where they happened out of sight, Tiananmen Square was closed for renovations this spring, ostensibly in preparation for the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. On October 1 the Party hopes to further erase memories of the anti-Party events—above all the massacre of the night of June 3, 1989—that have taken place in the square with a grand official spectacle, two weeks after President Clinton’s scheduled visit to a regional summit meeting in New Zealand in mid-September, which Chinese Communist Party Secretary General and President Jiang Zemin will also attend.
But the authorities were embarrassed once more on April 25, when, with the square itself closed off, ten thousand members of the crypto-Buddhist-Taoist sect known as Falun Gong, or the Wheel of Law, silently surrounded Zhongnanhai, the Party leadership compound, which is adjacent to the square and to the Forbidden City, where they simply sat down in front of the main gate. They were, they said, protesting the arrest of fellow believers who had been demonstrating against a magazine in nearby Tianjin that had attacked the sect. After staying for several hours, they quietly left. But their rally was the largest public protest movement in China since 1989.
The sect followers had unexpectedly eluded the radar of Public Security Bureau scrutiny, showing a remarkable capacity for underground organization that no commentator I know of anticipated. That they were able to do so was deeply unnerving to China’s leaders. Jiang Zemin was reported to be enraged by the sect’s effrontery and to have ordered a vendetta against it. In July, the authorities detained thousands of followers and indicted the sect’s New York-based leader Li Hongzhi as “inciting and creating disturbances and jeopardizing social stability.” Indictments of other leaders are now expected.
What was particularly infuriating to Jiang was that the protest was successfully carried off just as the Party leaders were emphasizing the need for “stability” and were seeking to reconsecrate the square as a place where only dignified state ceremonies could be carried out. For the Chinese leaders the quiet challenge of the Falun Gong members cast a shadow …