China is facing more than enough crises at present. From the economy to tensions with Taiwan, these are the problems on which the Beijing leadership should be focusing. Instead it has chosen to launch a massive crackdown against a group which has never done anything more harmful than organise peaceful protests. Like it or not, the Falun Gong is a by-product of today's more materialistic China. The collapse of the ideological basis for communist rule in the rush towards a free-market economy has left a spiritual void. It is inevitable that those thrown out of work or otherwise unsettled by the sweeping changes on the mainland should seek solace in some form of religious-like activity. Had it not been this group then some other would have emerged. In fact, Beijing should consider itself fortunate that the popular desire for spiritual inspiration took such a benign form as the Falun Gong. Like all such groups, it may have its warts. Even if some of the charges yesterday hurled at its leaders turn out to be true, this would only put its behaviour on a par with other cults of this size. But few will put much faith in the full extent of the accusations now being used to blacken its name. Xinhua may claim the Falun Gong has made some people mentally-ill and turned others into cold-blooded killers. Instead the abiding image in most people's minds will be of harmless middle-aged women being dragged away by police. Such pictures harm China's international image and are at odds with the tolerance of such activities in Taiwan. That contrast will hardly make it easier to persuade US politicians to understand Beijing's stance in the cross-strait crisis. Falun Gong members have committed no real crimes. Their only sin was to build a mass organisation independently of the Communist Party. This is something the leadership is still not prepared to tolerate. For all the changes that have taken place in recent years, yesterday's arrests were a reminder of how far freedom of expression remains curtailed on the mainland. By arresting members of a harmless cult, Beijing is making a tactical mistake. This harsh treatment of such a remote threat to its rule reveals an insecurity that may prove counter-productive. China's spiritual void remains. By banning the Falun Gong, the party has simply created a vacuum which other less benign groups may now try to exploit.