Stifled By Beijing

China's Communist Party heaped scorn on the leader of the banned Falun Gong sect on Wednesday, accusing him of attempting to replace the government by portraying himself to the masses as a god.

Sect leader Â"Li Hongzhi deceives the people to deify himself and he deifies himself in a scheme to take the place of the government and rule the world,Â" the official People's Daily newspaper said.

Â"His motives are crystal clear,Â" it said.

Analysts saw the language as another sign of stiff prison sentences to come for leaders of the group. On Tuesday, the Communist Party accused Falun Gong of engaging in Â"anti-governmentÂ" activities.

CBS News In-Depth

Falun Gong's Leader Speaks
CBS News Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson Interviews Li Hongzhi

July, 1999

Falun Gong Has U.S. Voice
CBS News Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson Reports

July, 1999

CBS News Correspondent Barry Petersen reports that the groupÂ's leader claims Falun Gong is a way to a better life, a religious mix of Buddhism, Taoism and faith healing that is a haven for the people of China looking for meaning in their lives.

China's leaders see it as something far more sinister: A potential threat to Communist rule and, in China, it doesn't get worse than that.

CBS News Correspondent Barry
Fulan GongÂ's charismatic founder, Li Hongzhi, who lives in New York City, told CBS News that BeijingÂ's crackdown was prompted, in part, by the group's size.

"Some 100 million followers...maybe they (the Communist Party) are threatened because of the large number of followers."

However, it i even more likely that China's leaders are threatened by the secret nature of the group, which organized a protest last April outside the Chinese leadership compound down the street from Tiananmen Square.

One morning, without warning and to the apparent surprise of security police (who get paid to know these things in advance), some 10,000 followers quietly surrounded the compound in a silent protest against what they saw as persecution of their leader and their religion.

China's leaders jealously guard their control of the state. But in their eyes, the danger is far more than one religious group.

Just as happened 10 years ago in the run-up to protests at Tiananmen Square, China's economy is taking hits. Its sizzling growth rate has cooled. The land of full employment is now a land of massive unemployment. Glittering cities are stuffed with spanking new skyscrapers that sit empty. State-run banks are sinking in a sea of red ink.

Falun Gong represents a source of discontent, a group taking on the government, openly protesting. It is, in the eyes of China's security police, a very short step from open protest by a single group to the rallying cry for all the disenchanted and disaffected.

That is how Tiananmen Square started and grew and almost toppled China's Communist a decade ago.

But adding to the sensitivity, this year, China will "celebrate" 50 years of Communist rule. The battle for the hearts, minds, and loyalty of the Chinese people is in full swing. And if the leadership can't have loyalty, it will, at the very least, demand obedience.

Falun Gong is not alone in being targeted. A fledgling Chinese Democratic Party is all but leaderless because its people are being rounded up and shipped off to prison for terms of 10 years or more.

Falun Gong seemingly represents no stated political threat. It represents something China's leaders are far more afraid of: A group that can speak with the voice of ordinary people, a people increasingly dissatisfied, and a people who may agitate for change at the top.

That is something that China's aging, nervous leaders have not tolerated for 50 years. They aren't about to start tolerating it now.

©1999 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Reuters contributed to this report