WASHINGTON -- The U.S.-based leader of the Chinese spiritual group that staged a huge and daring rally in Beijing last weekend was not involved in planning the demonstration, a close associate said Tuesday.
Zhang Erping, who describes himself as a contact person for Fa Lun Gong founder and leader Li Hongzhi, said Li has not been in touch with any of the rally organizers and played no role in organizing it.
Another associate, contacted by telephone in New York, said Li had already left New York City, where he has lived for the last year, to attend a Fa Lun Gong conference in Australia and could not be reached.
Asked about Li's reaction to the rally in Beijing, Zhang said he had "none whatsoever so far. He leads a very private life and had nothing to do with it. I don't think he's been in touch with anyone in China."
"They were there not to have a confrontation but to present the facts, to clarify the truth and the facts to the government," Zhang said of the rally, insisting the group is neither religious nor political.
Li, a former office clerk who was born in Jilin Province in 1951, taught his Fa Lun Gong practice in China from 1992-94, Zhang said, but was pressured to leave the country once he began to acquire a massive following.
"He just did the teaching because people benefited from it and heard about it through word of mouth," Zhang said.
Zhang calls Fa Lun Gong "a high-level cultivation practice rooted in mind and body, but it's not a religion." And, he added, "this is not about politics."
He declined to give any personal information about Li, except to say that he is married with one teenage daughter and enjoys calligraphy.
Fa Lun Gong combines Qi Gong, a martial art based on meditation and breathing techniques, and the twin notions of reincarnation and predetermination. Daily group exercises form the group's organizational bond.
Many of Li Hongzhi's teachings -- which are said to be widely available in China despite an official ban -- are also available on the World Wide Web.
More than 10,000 of Li's tens of millions of followers gathered outside China's seats of power in Beijing on Sunday in the biggest protest there since the Chinese army crushed the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations.
The rally broke up peacefully late Sunday after talks with the government began and after officials provided Fa Lun Gong adherents transportation to the Beijing railway station.
The aim of the rally -- Zhang refused to call it a protest and rejects the terms "sect" or "cult" to describe the group's practices -- was to call on the government to recognize Fa Lun Gong and lift a ban on Li's writings.
Some 50 followers were arrested in the eastern city of Tianjin after protesting local media reports that criticized the practice, as the local authority banned Fa Lun Gong teachings and books, followers said.
But a spokesman with the Tianjin city government said he had not heard of any local crackdown on the sect and would neither confirm or deny the arrests or the ban.