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When China's Communist government banned the falun gong religious group, it was trying to demonstrate its strength. Instead, it has underlined its weakness.

Since the ban was issued in July, 1999, falun gong has kept up an underground campaign of resistance. Some followers have used the Internet to distribute messages protesting against the ban and trumpeting the virtues of their movement, which preaches ethical living and good health through meditation and breathing exercises. Thousands of others have infiltrated a security cordon to stage protest demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, the heart of Beijing and the centre stage of Chinese politics. The protesters are quickly hustled away by police, but others invariably pop up in their place.

This week the Tiananmen demonstrations took a shocking new turn when five falun gong followers doused themselves with gasoline and set themselves on fire. One died. It was the most dramatic proof yet of the group's determination and the authorities' helplessness.

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China's leaders have tried everything to stamp out the "evil cult." They have ringed Tiananmen with thousands of police. They have jailed hundreds of followers and sent thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, to labour camps. They have even stooped to torture. One Chinese Canadian follower released this month from a Chinese labour camp said police repeatedly subjected him to electric shocks.

Such tactics have only radicalized falun gong, turning what was an apolitical if eccentric religious movement into a disciplined and well-organized opposition force -- far more disciplined and well-organized than China's small and scattered pro-democracy movement. Millions strong, and now implacably opposed to the regime, falun gong has managed to put together the most serious challenge to the Communist regime in half a century.

By now quite terrified, China's leaders and their propagandists have been painting falun gong in ever more lurid colours. When the United States criticized Beijing this week for suppressing the movement, a government spokesman called it an "anti-human, anti-society and anti-science evil cult." Other diatribes against the movement have accused it of colluding with Western powers in a "sinister political scheme" to overthrow the Chinese Communist Party and do away with Chinese socialism.

That was not the intent of falun gong, but it could be the result. By reacting so hysterically to what was at first a harmless religious movement, China's regime has exposed two unpleasant things about itself.

The first is that, despite all the economic progress of the past generation -- despite the deliberate opening to the world and the gradual loosening of control over everyday life -- it is still by instinct a totalitarian regime, incapable of tolerating any competing loyalty. In a totalitarian society, every group, from chess club to army command, must come under the control of the Party, and any group that does not is a threat.

The second is that this regime is deeply insecure. Ever since their near-death experience at Tiananmen Square in 1989, its leaders have lived in mortal fear of the Chinese people. Only a deeply fearful regime would go into such a panic over a bunch of middle-aged people doing strange exercises in the park.

Falun gong is still not a direct threat to the regime. It has no clear political aims and no means of overthrowing the government, even if it wanted to. But its ability to endure despite vigorous repression shows how the regime's grip over the world's most populous country is weakening.

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