GURU or charlatan? That is the burning question facing the claimed 100 million disciples who follow a man they call 'Master Li'. Until last week, Li Hongzhi was known to followers as the tall, charismatic, robed teacher of Falun Gong, a meditation technique which has proved spectacularly successful on the mainland while attracting a considerable following in Hong Kong and around the world. That was until Beijing outlawed his teachings and orchestrated a smear campaign of Mr Li in the wake of the silent protest conducted by 10,000 of his followers outside Communist Party headquarters in April, the biggest since the 1989 student demonstrations. As part of the hatchet job, the mainland's state-run newspapers on Friday reviled Mr Li as a greedy, evil leader of a dangerous cult. They carried horrifying accounts of disciples who had killed or maimed themselves, blaming the Falun Gong for their deaths and injuries. There was the retired oil worker in Hubei who spent much of his time in a trance, insisting he had a wheel of law (part of Mr Li's teachings) in his stomach and who died when he cut himself open with scissors to take a look at it. And the clerk in Jiangsu province who was convinced he was a Buddha and chopped his wife to death when she tried to stop him from practising. The vicious official denunciation of Mr Li begs the question: who is this mysterious man who has attracted such a huge following and drawn Beijing's wrath? The recluse has been emerging since the April protest from his new headquarters in New York and on the Internet - which he has used masterfully to help build his following - to defend his teachings. Perhaps sensing the storm to come, Mr Li emigrated to the United States with his wife and daughter in 1994, saying he wanted to give his child a good education. His most dire warning yet on the situation in China came on Friday: 'I am deeply worried that another June 4 bloodshed will take place,' referring to the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy students in Tiananmen Square. Mr Li has recently appeared in a sober grey suit and tie rather than the flowing yellow or orange robes with shrouds reminiscent of the Buddha in which he is displayed in internal Falun Gong materials. These images illustrate the dichotomy of Falun Gong: it presents a rational, non-threatening image to outsiders (helped in no small part by its eloquent and reasonable-sounding practitioners who have been acting as the movement's spokesmen in recent days) while a closer examination of the cult throws up weird and wacky theories and prophecies. Contrast Mr Li's recent seemingly logical statements posted on the cult's official Web site (www. falundafa.org) - in which he sought to parry the mainland authorities' attacks on 'superstition' by claiming it is a concept cooked up by politicians to use as a weapon to label movements such as his own as unscientific - with his own belief in aliens. There was little science to be found in Mr Li's claims in a bizarre interview with Time magazine. 'You can think of me as a human being,' he said, weeks before the April protest in Beijing. Asked if he came from Earth, Mr Li responded: 'I don't wish to talk about myself at a higher level. People wouldn't understand it.' Then he broached a strange topic publicly for the first - and seemingly last - time: aliens. 'One type of alien looks like a human but has a nose made of bone,' he declared, adding that others looked like ghosts and they had all arrived on Earth at the start of this century. 'Everyone thinks scientists invent on their own, when in fact their inspiration is manipulated by the aliens.' The extraterrestrial beings wanted to replace all humans with clones, he said. 'In terms of culture and spirit, they already control men.' Mr Li has not spoken to the media about his belief in aliens since that interview. Another example of Mr Li's contradictions involves his date of birth. The official Chinese media accuse Mr Li, 48 by his reckoning, of faking his birth date to make it the same day as that of Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism, in order to pretend he is a reincarnation of the Buddha. It even printed his identity documents showing the changed dates. Mr Li, in a statement, said the authorities misprinted his birth date as July 7, 1952, during the Cultural Revolution and he had 'simply' changed the wrong date to the correct one (May 13, 1951). 'As for the fact that Sakyamuni was also born on this day, what does that have to do with me? Many other people were also born on this day. In addition, I have never claimed that I am Sakyamuni.' However, in a message to his followers, Mr Li claims ambiguously: 'At present I have once again come to this world to teach the Fa [his form of qi gong], and directly teach the fundamental law of the universe.' Whatever his date of birth, the accusations in the official mainland media have provided a wealth of information about the background of the master which has, until now, been vague. Apart from disputing the allegations about his date of birth, he has not challenged other details of his life revealed during the past week. Mr Li had claimed he started studying qi gong at the age of four with masters 'in the mountains'. At the age of eight, according to a biography in one of his books, he was awakened when he felt something emerge at the corner of his eyes which he gradually realised were the three Chinese characters symbolising 'truthfulness, benevolence and forbearance'. At this early age, he claimed to have been able to summon the power to vanish. A succession of Taoist and Buddhist mas- ters trained him in kung fu and qi gong. 'Every time he reached a new level, a teacher would come to teach him more. At each new level he would go through suffering unimaginable to ordinary people,' claims his book, Zhuan Falun. Mr Li then realised he must teach others and had a responsibility to promote health and help people find their beautiful inner paradise. But, according to Xinhua, his grounding in the martial arts of meditation and breathing exercises was far less mysterious. He did not begin until he was in his 30s and actually went to school in Changchun, the capital of Jilin province, it said. 'His only talent in childhood, many said, was the ability to play the trumpet,' Xinhua said in its tartly worded profile. Rather than meditating in the mountains, he was working on a People's Liberation Army stud farm between 1970 and 1978 and then worked as a military guesthouse attendant for the following four years, according to the official accounts. After being discharged from the army in 1982, Mr Li worked in the security department of a company selling cereals and oil in Changchun. Colleagues described him as taciturn, difficult to understand and strange. He is said to have quit that job in 1991 to take up the full-time study of qi gong. His movement quickly spread from its humble beginnings in Changchun in 1992. According to an account published by veteran disciples, Mr Li began teaching in local parks. He initially lacked the official contacts to have his classes registered with authorities supervising the practice of qi gong classes, which are closely monitored on the mainland in a bid to control the crackpots and charlatans who may pose as masters. Some of Mr Li's students from those lessons in the parks recognised his gifts and helped him with the formalities of registering the classes. He dispatched those early followers to spread the word about Falun Gong to other parts of China, where it quickly gained popularity. The movement also started out penniless. Mr Li and his followers had to borrow 40,000 yuan (HK$37,000) to publish the first Falun Dafa books, according to the veteran disciples' account. It was in those early days that seeds were sown for a split in the movement which Mr Li and senior members of the cult believe led to the official crackdown. An account by Mr Li's supporters and entitled 'Reveal The Scheme Of The Very Few People From Changchun', was released in response to heightened political pressure that the movement experienced after the April protests. It says three disciples had been scheming since 1994 against the master. It names them as Changchun residents Song Binchen, Zhao Jiemin and a Mr Liu who worked in the early days to spread the word of the cult. The document claimed that, after being trained by Mr Li in 'supernormal capabilities' and able to cure diseases, they wanted to open a qi gong clinic to make money but Mr Li disapproved as it was against Falun Gong principles and stopped their venture. After failing to develop their own movement, the dissidents launched a conspiracy against Falun Gong and Mr Li, at first publishing poems, then three books in 1994 containing accusations against the sect distributed to 13 departments of the central Government, says the account. Mr Li and senior disciples successfully explained the movement to officials who reacted positively, according to the disciples' account. 'Actually Falun Gong is so good. Why didn't you contact us? We have never got to know you. We hope to keep in touch with you often in the future,' said the officials, according to the Falun Gong document. It said the three former Changchun disciples dug up the allegations about his date of birth and created 'files' claiming he had forecast the end of the world as well as alleging he failed to pay taxes and kept class fees. They were joined later in their attacks by some members of the official China Qi Gong Research Society who had met with resistance from Mr Li over their plans to open Falun Gong hospitals to cure the ill, said the account. Falun Gong was expelled from the society after it resisted Beijing's demands to establish branches of the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese Youth League within its organisation. The disciples said such a move was 'totally non-practical'. The 'conspirators' managed to have a Wuhan television station criticise Falun Gong as an 'evil religion' which led to the increased attacks on it from the authorities. In its reports published over the past three days, the official mainland media appear to have drawn extensively from the allegations and files that Mr Li's followers say were dreamed up by the dissidents. Xinhua alleged Mr Li grew rich from running training classes. It said he was 'reported' to have earned 428,300 yuan in Changchun from 1993 to 1994 teaching exercises and selling books. The information apparently comes from the dissident disciples' files. It also claimed he had a 'donation box' at his home in China, where every patient was expected to pay at least 100 yuan for every visit. Investigators had uncovered several luxury homes and limousines in Beijing and Changchun in the names of Mr Li's relatives, the official media said. Mr Li has denied profiting from his followers. During a conference in Sydney just after the protests, he told a reporter: 'There is nothing to hide. If I want to make a profit, if everyone gave me one dollar I would be a millionaire. And nobody will give me one. But I am not asking for a penny from them.'