n China, where history matters and anniversaries are remembered, 1999 bade fair to be an important year in the evolution of Chinese political culture. The government had good reason to fear that the eightieth anniversary of the May Fourth Movement of 1919 might instigate an intense discussion of the standing of the various Western ideas at the heart of that intellectual transformation-science, democracy, socialism, and even modernism in the arts. June 4th would mark the tenth anniversary of the massacre of democracy advocates in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, a more recent trauma and one that created a long list of martyrs still fresh in many memories. In anticipation of what might happen, the regime, even last year, had begun its preemptive preparations. The pattern was already well established. Some distinguished foreign statesman would arrive in China, new understandings would be signed, and progress would be heralded. At the same time, activists would be arrested or harassed and foreign observers would wonder, as they had become accustomed to wondering, whether there had been real advancement or more discouraging backsliding.
But neither interested foreigners nor China's own government fully anticipated that the outpourings of Chinese popular sentiment would, in the spring of 1999, take on a cast that was both traditionally Chinese and anti-modern in one case and directed against the United States and "imperialism" in general in the other. "Modernization and its discontents" in China continued to be a more variegated, less predictable, business than we had supposed.
In late April, approximately 10,000 members of a Chinese meditation sect called Falun Gong staged a silent sit-in around the central Beijing compound where the most important officials reside. No one knew exactly where the demonstrators had come from, only that they had somehow made their way to Beijing, showed up unexpectedly, and were requesting that the government leave them alone and release some of their comrades who had been taken into custody in nearby Tianjin.
The demonstrators assured the authorities that they were not interested in politics as such but rather in a traditional Chinese contemplative cum exercise regimen based on a melange of exotic Buddhist and Taoist teachings. The sect claimed to have millions of members in China and around the world. Enterprising foreign reporters soon discovered Falun Gong's website and then the group's founder and leader, a certain Li Hongzhi. Li, who lives in New York City, was tracked down on his way to a gathering of his followers in Sydney, Australia. He is a former factory clerk, and his followers seem to regard him more as a teacher than as a quasi-religious figure. But the people who run China, as we too often forget, are Chinese, and they know how obscure sects can create serious trouble, sometimes even portending the end of a ruling dynasty. The tradition goes back for centuries, and in modern times, obscurantist creeds fueled the destructive passions of the famous Taiping Rebellion and, later, the Boxer Uprising.
In the event, the Falun Gong demonstrators were allowed to disperse peacefully, and their complaints were politely received, but the goverment has since cracked down heavily on the group. The Chinese internal security apparatus, which had been caught flat-footed and unprepared, probably had a lot of explaining to do before the Politburo.
A month later, amid expectations that university students and others similarly modern-minded would somehow rattle the regime with public recollections of the pro-Western, pro-democratic, and pro-American upheaval of 1989, quite the opposite happened. During a bungled air raid over Belgrade, American airplanes operating as part of the NATO campaign against Yugoslavia destroyed the Chinese embassy and killed three Chinese journalists based there. This led to a seri