BEIJING (AP) -- Legs crossed, the Falun Gong followers silently broke the law, performing yoga-like meditation exercises that these days warrant arrest.
They listened, eyes shut, to a tape recording of Falun Gong leader Li Hongzhi -- a man Beijing views as a criminal. As the taped voice instructed them to "relax," the nine followers continued their subversion. They raised their arms as if cradling beach balls. The sweet scent of incense burning before a photo of Li filled the room. Banned and vilified by China's government for nearly seven months, Falun Gong is far from crushed. The multimillion-member spiritual movement is withstanding the fiercest crackdown since the Tiananmen Square democracy protests were crushed in 1989.
Practitioners from all parts of China still gravitate to Beijing to protest, despite police dragnets set up to capture them. Forbidden to practice in parks as they once did, followers congregate in homes to meditate -- an act that is also banned. Many have continued their defiance despite abusive treatment in police detention.
While "Master Li" lives half a world away in New York, the nine followers who gathered and meditated last week in a Beijing suburb said they would sacrifice their freedom for his "Great Law," as they call his theories. "No matter what pressure the government puts me under, I will keep practicing, practicing forever," said Jiang Jingfang, a 64-year-old retired school teacher.
"If you are going to lock us up, so be it. If you are going to arrest us, so be it. If we have to do prison time, so be it. For the Great Law, you can give up your life."
Such defiance poses a dilemma for Chinese leaders. Having vilified the sect as a threat to communist rule and a public menace responsible for 1,400 deaths, the government would look weak if it backed down. But as it fills China's prisons and labor camps with sect followers, the Beijing leadership faces international criticism. The United States plans to seek censure of China at next month's meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, in part because of the suppression of Falun Gong.
Key Falun Gong organizers have been sentenced to up to 18 years imprisonment. A Hong Kong-based rights group estimates that 5,000 practitioners have been sent without trial to labor camps and that 300 have been tried and imprisoned.
Nor has the crackdown stopped with jail terms. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of practitioners have endured "education" sessions to compel them to renounce the group. Some say the authorities' tactics smack of the Cultural Revolution, the 1966-1967 radical political movement in which millions were persecuted.
Wang Xuihui, whose husband, a tractor-driver, also practices Falun Gong, said police told them their children, aged 14 and 17, would be barred from university or from joining the army. Zhang Wenlong, 37, said he lost his job as a deputy manager in a construction firm. Jiang, the retired teacher, said police told her she could lose her pension.
All but two of the nine practitioners were taken in December to a psychiatric hospital outside Beijing to stop them from protesting during the Dec. 20 handover of Macau from Portuguese to Chinese rule. In all, 54 people were held at the Zhoukoudian Psychiatric Hospital for up to 48 days, they said. Although they weren't treated as psychiatric patients, Jiang said they were kept in rooms with barred windows and locked doors, weren't allowed to shower, and slept on filthy mattresses without sheets or pillows.
The practitioners said they refused to eat for the last two days of their detention to try to force authorities to explain why they had been held. "We asked them, 'What have we done that's illegal? Which law have we broken?' They didn't know how to reply," said Su Xiurong, a farmer. In citing reasons for continuing to practice Falun Gong, the practitioners said it made them healthy, made them better citizens, helped improve their relationships and, in Wang's case, rescued her marriage. To an outsider, their devotion at times appeared fanatical.
Su recounted proudly how her 12-year-old son, when asked on a school test to make a sentence with the verb "to hope," had written: "I hope Chinese leaders, the Chinese government, will soon rescind the arrest warrant for our Master Li."
Jiang said she has come under huge pressure at home. Her husband, a Communist Party member, watches her constantly, shouts and swears at her, and barred her from leaving the house after her release from the psychiatric hospital, she said.
They used to practice Falun Gong together. But after it was banned on July 22, he "switched over in an instant," she said. He burnt Falun Gong books she had hidden from two police searches of their home. She found replacements and told her husband "if you burn my books again and stop me from practicing at home, then the next time I go out I will never come back."
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