Surrounded by forests and guarded by armed security, Dragon Springs is a refuge for persecuted Falun Gong practitioners. Few outsiders are permitted inside.
About 100 people are said to be living in a 400-acre property in upstate New York, in the shadow of the Shawangunk Mountains. It's meant to be a mecca for the estimated tens of millions of Falun Gong followers, members of a religious and political group persecuted in China, which calls the group a "cult."
Inside Dragon Springs, according to sources who spoke to NBC News, internet access is restricted, medicine is barely used, and relationships are often arranged. David Ownby, a history professor at the University of Montreal who studied Falun Gong, also calls it a cult and says it exists because of China's efforts to keep traditional religions weak.
For years, nearby towns like Deer Park have been trying to rein in the compound. But Falun Gong leaders want to expand it even more. It wants to build a 920-seat music hall, a new parking garage, a wastewater treatment plant, and turn a meditation hall into a residence hall. If allowed, the compound would go from housing 100 people to 500.
Here's everything we know about Dragon Springs.
Hidden by forest below the Shawangunk Mountains, about 100 Falun Gong practitioners live on a closed-off, 400-acre compound in upstate New York.
If you take the train from Otisville to Port Jervis, you can see the buildings through the trees. According to Dragon Springs president Jonathon Lee, the lakes and mountains provide good Feng shui.
People can't just wander in for a look, though.
Fences run along the borders of the property and a security team monitors the gate. Two lion statues also stand guard.
Falun Gong is a system that combines Buddhism, mysticism, and exercise, but it also touches on aliens and ethnic separation.
n 1999, China's Communist Party officially classed it as an illegal cult. Since then, its followers have been persecuted, and there have been reports the followers' organs are being harvested. But in Dragon Springs, they can live safely.
According to the Dragon Springs website, many of those living in the compound escaped from China.
Some were tortured and imprisoned, others were orphaned by the authorities. Because of this, the intense security is highly necessary, Falun Gong says.
The 400-acre chunk of land was purchased in 2000.
Since Falun Gong is classified as a religion, it's a tax-exempt site.
Since 2001, the compound has slowly added more buildings.
On the right, there's a temple in the style of the Tang Dynasty, which ruled China between the seventh and 10th century, with a 75-foot pagoda.
On the Dragon Springs website, it describes the temple as a blend of man and nature: "There's barely a screw, nail, or metal joint to be found in the buildings' all-timber structures."
There are also more modern buildings within the compound.
Two schools are inside the compound — Fei Tian Academy of the Arts and Fei Tian College.
The academy of arts acts as a " feeder school" to Shen Yun, which is a type of theatrical dance performance. Or, according to the New Yorker's Jia Tolentino, it's "essentially religious-political propaganda." Shen Yun is a non-profit organization, and in 2016 had about $75 million worth of assets and brought in $22 million in revenue.
Shen Yun rehearses at the compound when it isn't touring cities including London, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington.
Chinese politics experts view Shen Yun as part of Falun Gong's elaborate and well-put together public relations plan. The act has anti-communist messages and China's ruling party sees it as a propaganda tool meant to subvert their authority.
Not all of the Falun Gong practitioners live on the compound.
Some also live near in towns like Deer Park. In nice weather, practitioners can be seen in the area practicing the movements.
But Li Hongzhi, the founder of Falun Gong, lives on the compound.
But he doesn't publicize the fact. In 2016, when a process server went looking for him he was turned away at the gate, and told Li did not live there. However, in 2019, NBC was told by four former residents that he does. And he's in firm control of what goes on.
Inside the compound, reports suggest internet is limited. Medicine is barely used. Relationships are arranged.
According to NBC News, Li maintains tight control of what goes on within the compound and is involved in his adherents' personal lives. Since Falun Gong is a persecuted group within China, a relationship between an adherent in the United States and one still living in China could help secure visas with practitioners abroad.
One Falun Gong member told NBC News that Dragon Springs officials told her that her visa expired when they learned she was dating someone outside the group. Only later did she learn that her visa was, in fact, still secure.
Li teaches that practicing Falun Dafa will transform bodies into high energy matter, and even lets some people to fly to heaven.
Li also believes in aliens. In a Time interview in 1999, he said, "If aliens are not to replace human beings, society will destroy itself on its own."
In 1999, he told the Washington Post he was not some sinister mastermind, but more of "an accidental prophet."
One of his teachings was that people should never get involved in politics. "We have never interfered in government and never done anything wrong. We are all law-abiding citizens," he said.
But a newspaper controlled by Falun Gong members has cozied up to Trump as he takes a hardline stance against China.
In September 2018, Epoch Times photojournalist Samira Bouaou entered a restricted area of the White house and handed President Trump a folder.
Trump opened the folder and then quickly closed it. Bouaou would not say what was in the folder, or why she gave it to the president. But according to a former Epoch Times reporter, Falun Gong practitioners believe Trump was sent by heaven to destroy China's Communist Party.
Epoch Times has published three stories with direct links to Dragon Springs.
All three are letters from readers. One explains why it's so secretive, another asks for understanding from locals, and another attempts to straight some misunderstandings. In the letter regarding secrecy, it says the compound's gate is no different to what you'd find at the entrance to New York's YMCA camp.
In the Time interview, Li also said he was concerned about industry polluting the atmosphere and water.
" The drinking water is polluted. No matter how we try to purify it, it cannot return to its original purity," he said.
Despite his focus on the environment, locals are concerned Dragon Springs is ruining the neighboring land.
Things are coming to a head in 2019, as Dragon Springs seeks further expansion. It wants to build a 100,000-gallon-per-day wastewater plant, which neighbors fear will ruin surrounding waterways, since once the water is treated it will be discharged into local rivers, like Basher Kill and Neversink River.
The compound wants to build a 72,800-square-foot music hall, a new parking garage with almost 1,100 car spaces and 42 bus spaces, and modify a meditation hall to a residence hall.
The changes would mean that 500 people could live in the compound.
But a lot of locals aren't happy with the expansion.
They reportedly say the compound has a "build now, apologize later" policy that disrespects their neighbors' preferences.
"It's like a small city — little by little, through segmentation with one plan and then another plan," Grace Woodard, a neighbor, told US News.
Some locals think the group is intimidating.
In April 2019, a concrete layer told the local planning board and 600 attendees that he was terrified when he met security at the compound's gate in 2012 — because they were armed with AK 47 machine guns.
"That is nothing we need in our community," he said.
Woodward said when she and her friend were admiring trees near the entrance to Dragon Springs, two security cars appeared with flashing lights, and did not stop until they left the area.
Woodward also said she's found Falun Gong members on her property taking photos and asking to buy her home.
The steady growth of Falun Gong’s Dragon Springs complex has been causing friction for years.
In the last decade, issues have flared over the construction of a driveway far larger than what the building code allows. There's been clashes over a proposed 23-acre solar farm, and ten of the compound's residents sued a town supervisor over voter intimidation.
And there's also the fact the compound refused to disclose information around the death of a construction worker in 2008.
While working on one of their buildings, a 54-year-old Canadian man fell to his death. No more information was released. A man inside the compound told the local newspaper, "We are a religious community. We do not give information to the public." An autopsy was never performed.
The compound has also requested permission to build walls 8 feet high, rather than between four and six feet.
One of the residents, a teacher named Thun Lin, said it was necessary because Chinese persecutors had broken into the compound and tapped their phones.
And while Dragon Springs says it looks forward to the day it can welcome people at their gates, "we hope this day will come soon," it says on its website, it's likely most people will never know what goes on behind its walls.
The compound blames this on China. It says the need for safety is high due to China's continuing persecution of the Falun Gong, and until the Falun Gong is accepted and safe, the gates won't open. But according to practitioners in China, while the government might seem calm on the surface, it won't relax its stance against the Falun Gong anytime soon.
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