SYDNEY - Chinese guru Li Hongzhi, whose followers last week staged the most daring protest in Beijing for 10 years, spent a peaceful weekend here preaching to Australian devotees and avoiding media questions.
"Master Li", as he is known to the 100 million members claimed by the Falungong sect he founded in 1992, was flanked by a retinue in business suits from the time he arrived from New York where he now lives.
Almost 2,000 Falungong practioners attended a two-day Australian conference and seminar in Sydney's Convention Centre to see and hear Li, who published his ideas in 1994.
Journalists seeking interviews were told he would be more inclined to speak to someone who had read his book or at least sat through the two-day seminar to learn about Falangong, and only then if the questions were about his teachings and not about politics.
"He is not interested in politics and nor are we," said one of then Australian organisers, a Mr. Lam.
Falungong is essentially a morning exercise routine which mixes elements of Buddhism, Taoism and qigong, a Chinese martial art based on meditation and breathing techniques.
It aims to raise consciousness, improve health and help practitioners lead a better life. Daily group exercises form the organisational bond for the group, whose goal is to raise consciousness and morality.
An Australian devotee, who identified himself as Simon, aged 21, told the seminar he had been practising Falungong for 14 months and it was the first time he had ever known that his life "truly has meaning."
He told how he had taken a wrong turning in his teens, became a sinner and drug-taker, then tried to find the true path to righteousnous and clarity through various forms of Christianity, new age spirituality, massage therapy, sexual liberation and native Indian spiritual studies.
But when he started practising Falungong, "my whole body changed, I had real energy and my mind became clearer," he said.
After the first lecture his body became itchy for four days, he said. "I realised that Master Li was purifying my whole body."
Chinese government officials last week stepped up surveillance of sect members in China and warned strict measures would be taken against them if they threaten "social stability" again.
The warning followed a a silent 13-hour sit-in by more than 10,000 sect members outside the Chinese Communist Party and government offices in Beijing last Sunday.
The protest, sparked by the arrests of sect leaders in Tianjin, southeast of Beijing, was the biggest since the 1989 Tiananmen democracy protests ended in a massacre of demonstrators by the Chinese army.
The protesters demanded the release of the sect members and the right to practise Falungong.
After an initially low-key reaction the Chinese authorities appeared later in the week to have raised the level of their concern. Sources said state officials around the capital had begun efforts to identify sect members and register them.
"Section chiefs in our work unit are going around asking people who is in the Falungong, and those who are known Buddhists are under suspicion and being questioned," said an employee in a state-run media office.