Martyrs with a cause

Boston Phoenix/May 17, 2001
By Nina Willdorf

Falun Gong, the Chinese spiritual practice banned in its mother country, is now making its presence known on these shores - particularly in New England. Is it simply a series of meditative physical exercises, as practitioners claim? Or is it a politicized cult that has gained sympathy and popularity only through its persecution?

Christine Moon, a senior at Tufts University, spent two weeks of the past month in Geneva, Switzerland, hovering around UN headquarters.

To purchase plane tickets, she eagerly cashed out her small getting-started savings account. And like every day before and since, her time overseas was spent passing out fliers, collecting signatures, and dutifully poring over the same non-school-related book. With only one month to go before graduation, she'll tell you it was all worth the money and time; in fact, she'd like to do it again.

That's because Moon, a slim, pretty, ponytailed 22-year-old, says she's discovered "the meaning of life." That is, she has been welcomed into a warm community and initiated into her first political cause: Falun Gong. What's more, Moon says she's upped her hip quotient in the process. "Most of my friends will tell you they think I'm much cooler now," admits the Long Island native, who's been practicing the group's meditative techniques for a little over two years. "People like me better. They say I've become more understanding. Maybe I've become more mature."

Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa (or "The Practice of the Wheel of Dharma"), is a spiritual practice that melds meditative physical exercises with a mixture of traditional Eastern beliefs. Practitioners perform qi gong (pronounced chee gong), a slow set of movements said to circulate energy, and study a primary text, Zhuan Falun, written by the group's leader, Li Hongzhi.

These days, though, Falun Gong is better known as the beating block of the Chinese government, which banned the nine-year-old group in July 1999. The Communist regime has taken a hard - and, some say, inhumane - line against Falun Gong, and has been accused of imprisoning, beating, and killing people who continue to practice their beliefs in spite of the ban.

To date, according to the Falun Dafa Information Center's Web site (, 197 people have been murdered, around 50,000 have been taken into police custody, and 10,000 have been sent to labor camps. The Chinese government has also been accused of placing Falun Gong practitioners in mental facilities and using mind-control techniques to force them to give up the practice.

Last month, the Geneva Initiative of Psychiatry, an international foundation working to end the politicization of psychiatry, publicly condemned the People's Republic of China for "using psychiatry as a means of repression against its citizens." And efforts to flee persecution have led to harrowing deaths: in a well-publicized case last January, three Falun Gong practitioners were found dead in a Seattle port, locked in a ship's cargo crate with dozens of others who survived the perilous overseas journey without light, water, or food.

At first glance, a peaceful-looking assembly of Falun Gong practitioners, breathing deeply, moving slowly, and smiling sweetly, might seem harmless. But even some of those who fault the Chinese government for violating human rights believe that practitioners are participating in a cult - irresponsibly disseminating false information and blindly padding the pockets of an increasingly wealthy leader who holds the copyright to the required text, Zhuan Falun, as well as to the accompanying videos, tapes, and CDs.

Now that it's the target of persecution, however, the religion has taken on the trappings of a sexy, self-sacrificial cause, especially in cities like Boston that are teeming with young people searching for answers, community, and purpose - people like Christine Moon. "The fact that the government has taken such strong action against [Falun Gong] has, in part, politicized them," explains Merle Goldman, a professor of Chinese history at Boston University and the author of the forthcoming An Intellectual History of Modern China (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

"The reason we've paid so much attention is because of how the regime has reacted." And if China incubated the movement - unintentionally turning what was essentially a quiet spiritual practice into a human-rights crusade - Boston has become a petri dish of Falun Gong culture.

On any given day, in all the major universities, in the Arnold Arboretum, on Boston Common, or even in front of Malden City Hall, practitioners of all ages, races, and economic levels can be seen doing the same movements, to the same tape, with similar claims of renewed faith, healing, and long-sought-after answers. If not for China's crackdown, how many of them would even have heard of Falun Gong?

Since its inception in 1992, Falun Gong has grown with lightning speed, and it has done so across generational, geographical, professional, and class lines - a first for a spiritual or political movement in China, according to Goldman. Though Falun Gong leaders have been accused of amping up their membership numbers with claims of up to 100 million practitioners worldwide, even the most conservative independent estimates put membership at 30 to 40 million. Goldman believes the movement's popularity is a byproduct of the Communist regime's instability, greatly facilitated by strides in Internet and cell-phone technology. High-tech communications explain the speed with which such a tight community has been able to form.

In Beijing on April 25, 1999, as many as 10,000 Falun Gong members came out of the woodwork - cascading down from mountain villages, emerging from laboratories, and stepping out of government offices - to assemble for a peaceful demonstration in front of the Communist Party compound. Three months later, the government - shocked by the sudden appearance of what it saw as a cultish threat - declared the group illegal and put out an arrest warrant for the man members call "Master" or "Teacher" Li. (These days, Li is rumored to be sequestered somewhere in Queens.)

In a statement issued by the Chinese embassy in Washington, DC, the government explained its actions: "The Falun Dafa, or Falun Gong, a cult headed by Li Hongzhi, has deceived and harmed a lot of people and been involved in many illegal activities that have seriously disrupted public order, misguided people, and confused right and wrong."

Yet the movement has continued to grow, and not just in China. The New England coordinator of Falun Dafa, Michael Tsang, boasts a New England membership of about 150 people. One of their assorted meeting spots is Room 110 at the Harvard Science Center, a room the university lends out to practitioners on Friday and Sunday evenings. On days when sessions are not held at Tufts, Christine Moon heads there for her weekly group-practice and study sessions, on either Friday or Sunday nights.

On a recent Friday evening, a little before seven, Moon is joined in Room 110 by six familiar faces. She sits down on a small exercise mat, peels off her sneakers, and begins swirling her arms slowly around her torso and legs as Master Li - via audio tape - guides the group through the exercises and hashes out the finer points of Zhuan Falun. Whites and Asians, professionals and artists, middle-aged and senior citizens, the wrinkled and the smooth-skinned - all have devoted Friday night's prime time to the spiritual effort to, in the words of one, "become a better person."

With the air of friends getting together to discuss the new Tom Wolfe, they form a circle and chitchat about topics ranging from Moon's recent trip to Geneva (where she joined 600 others speaking out in support of the UN Human Rights Commission's resolution to condemn China) to one woman's stiff neck and the exercises that could work magic on the pain.

They all agree that they've been looking forward to this moment all day. After flipping off the light switch and pushing back desks, they arrange their limbs carefully on their rolled-out mats. Someone punches "Play" on a scratchy boom box, and they embark on what has become a daily ritual for a growing number of Bostonians. For an hour, they move their arms fluidly and slowly, swishing down to the ground and then up around head level, always returning back to swirl around the belly with languid circular flourishes.

The five exercises that make up the total qi gong set are accompanied by Master Li's lulling monotone, heard over the nostalgic musical strains of old-school Orientalist purrs, twangs, and chimes.

The faithful claim that Falun Gong - whose motto is "Truthfulness, Compassion, and Forbearance" - has cured disease, saved lives, and increased moral tolerance among its members. Asked to explain what keeps her coming back to Room 110 every Friday and Sunday for three hours a crack, Linda DeHart, a 62-year-old silk-screen artist in Cambridge, lets out an overwhelmed sigh. "Whoa," she laughs. "It's been a varied experience.

Most importantly, though, I have peace of mind, and I've been able to let go of material attachments." DeHart, however, is unable to pinpoint exactly what "material attachments" she has in mind. "I'll have to get back to you," she says with a smile.

Followers of Falun Gong exude serenity; in some instances it may be studied, but it is always pronounced. Sitting quietly in the MIT student center before an interview to discuss his imprisonment in China, Zhiyuan Wang, a cardiologist from Beijing who began working at Mass General when he emigrated three years ago, sits quietly with eyes closed and hands neatly folded in his lap, listening intently to a CD of Master Li while students flurry about, grabbing cups of coffee and heading to the library.

When the interview begins, Wang again sits with closed eyes, his face and body absolutely still, a soft expression painted on his lips. When it is his turn to speak, he contributes slow, warm, carefully worded sentences, while closely watching an interpreter to make sure everything is just so.

"Without Falun Gong," he says, forming the words precisely, "I would have died." After peeking around for the effect of this pronouncement, he again closes his eyes.

Dramatic claims like Wang's have given rise to missionary fervor in the movement. Candlelight vigils, photographic dioramas on Copley Square, and publications strategically distributed around town are continual reminders of Falun Gong's growing presence. "Our intention is to let the public know the situation in China," said Tsang last month, monitoring a crew of 10 or so people who had assembled on Copley Square to collect signatures endorsing the UN resolution condemning China's human-rights violations. (The resolution, which the US supported, was shelved April 18, by a vote of 23 to 17, after China motioned to take "no action.") He added: "The more people are aware of what's going on, they will support it more, and maybe clear up the persecution."

The words "persecution" and "crackdown" are used frequently, often as a way of marking time in the movement's history (i.e., "before the crackdown," "after the crackdown"). The Falun Dafa Information Center has prominently posted a page devoted to "Crackdown Facts & Figures." For some, the compulsion to publicize both the horrors of the crackdown and the tales of healing and redemption is so strong that it's worth sacrificing personal safety.

Wang, who emigrated here from China three years ago, was introduced to Falun Gong when a co-worker took him to a nine-day seminar in Cambridge. After only several months of regular practice, he says, he was wholly cured of a debilitating degenerative muscular disease that had had him hospitalized in China.

"I felt the need to go back to China because I felt that Falun Dafa gave me a second life," says Wang, speaking through an interpreter. "I couldn't understand why the Chinese government wanted to persecute Falun Gong. I thought it must be a mistake." After simply saying the words "Falun Dafa," he says, he was cuffed, slammed into a cell, and left there without food or water for days. It was only when he was passed to a policeman from his hometown, who allowed him to go free, that Wang jumped a plane back to Boston. "I was very lucky," he says, nodding seriously.

Looking at this healthy, robust man, it's hard to imagine him as he describes himself four years ago - angry, ill, and weak. People like Wang truly feel that this movement - these simple five exercises and a book - have been a godsend. And what could be wrong with that? It's stories like these, seemingly endless in number, that help lend the movement an attractive sense of purpose - notwithstanding its leaders' claims that the group is not political.

And for people like Moon, who came to the group before it was even banned, its politicization has been an added bonus. "I've gotten so much from it, especially now with the persecution," says Moon, almost all of whose friends at Tufts are involved in rallying the troops in some way or another.

Talk to several local practitioners, and certain patterns emerge. No one knows much about Master Li's past or present, and followers are reluctant to discuss even what little they do know about him. Moon responds quickly to a question about his whereabouts: "I'd rather not talk about him," she says. "His life is his own ... I just don't try to find out. I don't need to know his life story.

I'm just appreciative that he wrote this book." That no one knows where he is, where he came from, or what makes him a Master (for example, who was his Master?) does not seem to trouble his followers. Instead, many defensively change the subject after noting that, after all, he has nothing to gain from the movement. All Falun Gong activities are free, and the book, which costs around $12 depending where you buy it, can be downloaded free from the Internet. (No one interviewed for this article used this free technology, choosing instead to purchase the books, tapes, and videos.)

Practitioners' stories of how they were led to the movement are almost identical: they say they were introduced by a friend, family member, or co-worker after a long and unfruitful search for answers either to spiritual questions (like Moon's) or to health woes (like Wang's). Among practitioners, this grassroots quality is a matter of special pride, further testament to the movement's truth. See, we're just sharing information and helping each other. After Moon was introduced to Falun Gong in her sophomore year of college by a teaching assistant in one of her science labs, she headed to the Tufts bookstore to buy the book.

A few months later, she put in an order at to purchase it for several of her friends. "It's a very special book," she says. "It's important to me to get the true message across. And now, a lot of my friends are doing really helpful things." Within the context of modern Chinese history, this movement makes perfect sense, says professor Goldman from her second office, at Harvard's John K. Fairbank Center for East Asian Research. "With economic reforms, workers have lost health care in China and medical treatment has become expensive," she explains.

"They look upon the fact that they do these exercises as a form of health care, and that's a positive aspect." In addition, Goldman adds, "there's a vacuum of values and beliefs. People are looking for something to believe in. There is a hunger for something to fill the vacuum." At the same time, an eerie - almost creepy - fervor emerges when you talk to followers like Harvard Medical School researcher Haiying He.

All five of He's family members are being persecuted in China right now. His mother has been detained in a drug-rehabilitation center for the past six months, his father was carted away for a couple of weeks to an unknown location, and his brother and his sister-in-law - both physicians - are being held indefinitely in a secret spot for "transforming class."

Unless they agree to give up practicing Falun Gong, He says, they may be permanently imprisoned. "No one can see them," he says. "Every day they are forced to watch brainwashing TV - something like 'Falun is bad, Falun is bad' - and they were told if they didn't give up they would be discharged from the hospital.

They were let out at one point and they were told by the authorities in the hospital, 'Either give up Falun Gong or you give up the job,' and they said, 'We didn't do anything wrong. We talk with you about why it's so good.'" To date, He has no idea where his brother and sister-in-law are being detained or, for that matter, if they're still alive. Still, to He and all of his family members, it's worth it. Asked whether he thinks they should give it up, or consider practicing it privately in exchange for their freedom, He momentarily looses his cool. "No!

Because I know Falun Dafa is good, and I think what they are doing is right.... A lot of young educated people are doing it because they know the principle. It's really right. It's really good."

These moralistic words - "right," "wrong," "good," "bad" - are repeated ad nauseam throughout his story. It's dizzying and somewhat Pavlovian - he sounds like a kid who had his hand slapped enough times to know Bad from Good, but not exactly why. This type of language is precisely what concerns Steven Hassan, the director of the Resource Center for the Freedom of Mind, a cult-watchdog organization.

"This is a very questionable group," says Hassan, a former Moonie who wrested himself away from the Unification Church in the late '70s. "There's a real hunger for spirituality, but one of the problems is that people haven't been educated about how to be a good consumer. They'll hear a story: 'I went to 20 doctors and no one could help me and then I started to do this and I went off my medication. I haven't been sick in five years.' And people say, 'Wow, I need to try that.' They don't know to ask questions like when was the group formed, who's the leader, what is his background, is there deception?"

Not only are Master Li's whereabouts unknown, but a simple search for the publisher of Zhuan Falun - Universe Publishing Company - led to disconnected phone numbers and untraceable records. The Falun Dafa Web site ( lists the company in Gillette, New Jersey. But the only Universe Publishing Company in New Jersey is a tiny Hungarian publisher, the head of which says he fields calls all the time about the elusive other Universe Publishing company, which he knows nothing about. Stuart Weinberg, the owner of the Seven Star Bookstore in Cambridge, which stocks Zhuan Falun, says he gets the books from a distributor in New York.

But the phone number he supplied, which others corroborated, led to a Chinese woman who said it was an accounting firm, and she provided the same disconnected 888 number as the next link in the chain. Falun Dafa's New England coordinator, Michael Tsang, had a ready - if unsatisfying - answer to questions about the publishing labyrinth: "There has been a lot of changing over of the publishing companies.

It was the bestseller in China in 1996, and there were many counterfeit books on the market. There have been many different distributors - in China, in Hong Kong, in the US." Later, he called back with the same 888 number. "I just called it. It works," he said. Try it yourself: (888) 353-2288.

Also questionable is members' insistence that the movement's growth and structure is organic. Elizabeth Wang, who is married to Haiying He and serves as the informal public-relations person for the New England chapter of Falun Gong, boasts that groups gather without phone lists, e-mail reminders, or prodding of any sort. Her husband adds: "If you want to come, you come. If you want to go, you go. We don't have a phone book. Everybody would like to share with you because they know this is really good.

We want to share good news, good things with people." Sounds good. But how was it that news of a call placed on Thursday afternoon to the point person for the Falun Gong session in Room 110 managed to make its way around to every person who wandered into the room on Friday evening? "Oh, you're the reporter." Without a phone or e-mail list, disseminating the message that quickly would have been impossible.

For Hassan, these are all signs of cult-like behavior. "If a group is legitimate, it will stand up to scrutiny," he says. But for many, criticizing a movement that is already being persecuted is distasteful. As much as people may question Falun Gong - or call it, as Hassan does, a "mind-altering cult" - the fact remains that its practices are less questionable than those of most other extremist groups - and certainly those of the Chinese government.

The bottom line is that it is not harming anyone, and for Goldman, that's the only criterion by which a movement's danger level should be judged. "There's no evidence that [Master Li] has exploited his followers, either for money or for sex," says Goldman. "The other aspect of it is when you talk about a cult, it's usually associated with destructive acts, and I have yet to find clear acts of destructive activities."

There was the matter of the five members who set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square in January, but the motives of these self-immolators - one of whom died - were unclear, and movement leaders are now disputing whether they were even Falun Gong practitioners. In fact, Falun Gong leaders argue that the only destructive acts associated with the group have been committed against members, not by them.

Human-rights organizations are quick to underscore the point. "You can buy it or not," says Joshua Rubenstein, the Northeast regional director of Amnesty International, "but we feel that people have the right to pursue their own religious or spiritual needs. It's one thing to supervise them. It's another to make mass arrests."

Even mass arrests haven't merited censure from the international community, if the UN's recent vote for non-action is any measure. "The US supports the resolution but it doesn't really push for it," says Rubenstein, explaining that diplomatic and economic ties often prove stronger than human-rights concerns. Sure enough, James Murdoch (Rupert's son), the chairman and chief executive of Star TV, is one media mogul who's publicly endorsed the persecution of Falun Gong, explaining at a California business conference that the movement "clearly does not have the success of China at heart."

And Dad's of the same mind. According to the New Republic, Murdoch booted the BBC off his Hong Kong-based satellite TV service and barred his publishing house from taking on a book project critical of China, actions surely meant to curry favor with a country poised to put a great deal of cash in his pocket.

Yet for the local Falun Gong faithful, the crackdown has created a rallying point - a cause that's an end in itself, transcending even the question of the Chinese movement's survival. The fight has won these followers popularity and visibility. Even after losing the UN-resolution vote, for which local practitioners lobbied hard, Falun Gong members claim they came out on top. "We were able to hold a lot of meetings and press conferences," says Tsang, who flew to Geneva to participate in a candlelight vigil across the street from UN headquarters.

"We raised enough awareness in terms of the persecution." Whether Falun Gong is a cult or not - and whether or not it wins its battle with the Chinese government - this sense of underdog urgency has sent people like Christine Moon on the social, spiritual, and political ride of their lives.

More than $600 poorer, Moon is happy with her decision to forgo a trip to Jamaica or Palm Beach and to instead spend her spring break in wintry Geneva. "We had to go show support for Falun Gong," she says, "and stand up and say, 'Okay China, you have to stop persecuting people.'"

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