Banned China 'cult' alive and well here

Internet helps unite Falun Gong faithful

Chicago Tribune, June 19, 2000
By Evan Osnos


The official demons of China booked the banquet hall at the Congress Plaza Hotel for the weekend.

Nearly a year after the Chinese government turned the full weight of authoritarianism on their obscure spiritual movement, the followers of Falun Gong had spread word on the Internet to convene in Chicago.

"You will see" said Warren Tai, a banker and Chicago-area practitioner of the movement that claims millions of adherents worldwide. "People feel more devotion than ever."

By 9 a.m. Saturday, their devotion was spread all over the sidewalk near the hotel on South Michigan Avenue-some 600 followers from Arkansas and Minnesota, Canada and Sweden, most performing their tai-chi-like exercises beside honking traffic.

It was a potent image not lost on the members of a movement that has grown increasingly bold and media-savvy over its first year in the international spotlight.

Since being branded a "cult" and banned last July by Chinese authorities, Falun Gong has waged a steady campaign for international acceptance. It has grown fiercer in its own defense, developed a robust community on-line and staged dozens of protests at Chinese government buildings around the world while cameras rolled.

As hundreds of followers showcased their exercises on the sidewalk this weekend, others erected a small sign and called a press conference a few feet away.

"[W]e call on all people of goodwill in the world to join us in asking the Chinese government to lift its ban," said John Nania, a technology consultant from Minnesota.

In an era of rapid change and government uneasiness, the crackdown on Falun Gong has become among China's broadest and most sustained campaigns since the suppression of the democracy movement in 1989. Thousands of people have been detained for defying the ban, many of them tortured, and many sent for re-education, Amnesty International says.

Although some practitioners continue to flout the ban in China, followers here suggest the publicity may have won them new supporters.

But Thomas Raffill, a Santa Cruz, Calif.-based researcher and co-author of a forthcoming book on Falun Gong, is less optimistic.

"Certainly Falun Gong is worse off today than it was a year ago because the crackdown in China has hurt the main source of support," Raffill said. "My sense is that people have not taken it very seriously."

Practitioners of Falun Gong, also called Falun Dafa, maintain they have no interest in politics. Yet they have successfully mobilized congressional support in this country and maintained a drumbeat of opposition in China. In a modest gesture, they have established a permanent picket line outside the Chinese Embassy in Washington.

"Of course we are very annoyed," said Zhan Yuanyuan, an embassy spokesman. "They have become a politically driven force in opposing the Chinese government."

But politics was not the main topic in the Chicago banquet hall, where professors, students, laborers and retirees swapped self-cultivation tips and snatched up books and videos featuring their elusive master-a former grain clerk named Li Hongzhi, last known to be living in Queens, N.Y. Li, or Master Li as he is lovingly called by followers, got his start in China by promising physical improvements at virtually no cost, a catchy formula in an era of rising unemployment and shrinking state health benefits.

Under pressure from Chinese authorities, Li came to the U.S. in 1997, and continued to spread his New Age-like system of self-realization through philosophy and exercise.

Then, after a Chicago lecture last summer, Li vanished from public view. Even Falun Gong's spokesmen in New York say they have no idea where he is. But absence has hardly dampened Li's appeal.

Jerry Feng and his wife, Yang, took turns over the weekend excitedly photographing each other beside a grainy blown-up photograph of their master.

"Of course I hope I can see him," said Feng, a Chicago-based immigration consultant, before adding that, like many followers, he believes Li may have withdrawn from public view to protect himself.

After months of defending themselves against charges they are a cult, many followers are quick to volunteer how little they need their leader at all. "He's not a deity," said Stephen Gregory, an administrator at the University of Chicago, who credits Falun Gong with clearing up his allergies and transforming his life. "He is deeply loved and we are obedient to his teachings, but he is not a god."

Without their teacher to lecture, and under scrutiny, the practitioners struck an odd mix for their conference: half self-help testimonials and half public-relations strategy.

Liam, a blond student from Minneapolis, stood in front of the crowd and confessed how he hated football practice as a kid and how Falun Gong had helped him triumph over feelings of inadequacy.

Wes, a teamaker and former pagan from Colorado, urged fellow followers to make sure they get Falun Gong books accepted at libraries.

Over two days of meetings and "experience sharing," they debated other issues, like the merits of wearing their signature yellow outfits when practicing in public. Likewise, they agreed, one should probably steer clear of discussing some of Li's less accessible lessons, like how to levitate or become invisible.

"They are a bit exotic, I know," said Nania.

Caught between a Chinese state that has pledged to extinguish them and an American mainstream that may not be prepared to embrace them, the Falun Gong can seem overwhelmed by obstacles.

But those will break down with time, Tai said, through steady and friendly promotion efforts.

"We are totally open," said Tai, standing surrounded by fellow practitioners moving through their routines.

"If people learn about us, they will be better off for it."

Yet, even as Tai touted Falun Gong's transparency, there were secrets to be kept.

Asked how he obtained a new statement from their reclusive master that was read before the group this weekend, conference organizer Sen Yang of Schaumburg shook his head.

"I can't tell you that," he said.


To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.