BEIJING -- MS. LU, a 40-year-old owner of a small beauty parlor, had a typical response to the gruesome television special last Wednesday night. [...] When the Chinese government tried to make propaganda from attempted self-immolations by apparent Falun Gong believers, which left one person dead and four severely burned, its plan was as wooden and anachronistic as ever: First, suppress the news. Then, days later, orchestrate a crescendo of extreme television, radio and newspaper reports and editorials. Finally, marshall relatives of the duped victims to utter condemnations [...], then ask major groups -- from leaders of Catholic, Buddhist and Muslim churches to the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce -- to issue shrill denunciations. This time, though, the message seemed to resonate. While it is always perilous to assess public opinion in a country where everyone wears political antennae, there is a sense here that, after a year and a half of flailing, the government finally scored a propaganda coup last week against the outlawed spiritual group. If so, it was not the stale delivery but the raw material: a deluded mother leading her 12-year-old daughter to self-immolation, graphic footage of the charred girl writhing on the ground, interviews with former practitioners who saw the light and with unrepentant believers who to many Chinese, in light of events, came across as loony. What the government did not report to its people was the increasingly fierce methods it has used to fight an organization that has proved far more tenacious than, say, the China Democracy Party -- not only because of Falun Gong's vastly larger membership but also the inexplicable willingness of so many followers to ruin their lives. The controlled media have recently started acknowledging that die-hard believers demonstrate illegally on Tiananmen Square, and have announced that small numbers of key organizers have been imprisoned. But they have never mentioned what human rights monitors believe are the widespread beatings and torture of detained practitioners by frustrated policemen, resulting in perhaps a hundred confirmed deaths. They have not mentioned the thousands who appear to have been shipped to labor camps without trial, or simply to have been expelled from jobs and homes. Nor have editorials raised basic questions about the appropriateness or efficacy of the government's heavy-handed eradication campaign, questions that many Chinese have asked in private. Opinions here vary about how much the society should worry, if at all, about this exercise and spiritual group. It had attracted millions including, obviously, some who became entranced. By mobilizing more than 10,000 people for an unauthorized demonstration in April 1999, it seemed to the leaders of this one-party state a potential political threat. Still, the unending campaign to outlaw and demonize the group appears to have been counterproductive in some ways. Late last week, a university professor who dislikes Falun Gong and who was appalled by the attempted suicides, asked, "Are the foreign papers reporting what ours can't, how the severe persecution of believers may have driven these people to this act?" When they mounted that first surprising demonstration in Beijing in response to criticisms that seemed obscure, Falun Gong's leaders seemed a bit prone to paranoia. Now, those who continue to practice Falun Gong have every right to fear the worst, and it appears that tens of thousands of Chinese have been left with nothing to lose. The old generation that runs China was shocked and angered when these nobodies pulled off a giant unauthorized demonstration right outside the executive offices two years ago. Equally, the leaders appear to have been stunned since then by the group's ability to keep springing back after being banned. Chinese leaders have been forced to acknowledge that they face a long war of attrition. It is testimony to how open the country has become, compared with recent decades, that a group like Falun Gong could organize on a large scale in the first place, and then persist under such duress. Among other things, for this group as for the struggling democracy movement, electronic mail has proved an even more potent and elusive weapon than the fax machine was for the last generation of dissidents. The authorities can block access to known hostile Web sites, but cannot control or even monitor the e-mail zipping to millions of Chinese, carrying everything from suppressed news to the latest pronouncements of Master Li.