"They are the leaders of the world's two superpowers," the reporter was intoning, with the solemnity appropriate to the dawning of a new geo-political era in which China is set to overtake the United States as the leading global economy. Suddenly the decorum of the White House lawn was shattered by a banshee shriek. From among the television camera crews a woman began shouting at President Hu Jintao of China. Panic filled the eyes of security staff. Hemmed in as she was by ladders and equipment no one could get to her for a full two minutes.
She unfurled a red and yellow banner with Chinese lettering the symbols of the Falun Gong. "Evil people die early," she screamed in Chinese. " Hu, your days are numbered." Then, in English, she addressed the leader of the US: "President Bush, stop him from persecuting the Falun Gong! Stop him from killing! Stop the torture and killings! Falun Dafa is good."
As the two presidents looked on stunned, and the Chinese leader tried falteringly, to continue his speech, she railed on. It was almost three full minutes before she was bundled away by embarrassed US officials who began an immediate inquiry as to how she had got so close to the world leaders.
Members of Falun Gong pop up wherever Chinese leaders travel, but they are usually kept well away, outside the concentric security cordons. But the woman, Wang Wenyi, had been granted an official pass as a reporter for The Epoch Times, a Chinese newspaper which denies it is a front for the Falun Gong but tends to be remarkably sympathetic to it. If anyone had checked they would have found that Dr Wang, then a pathologist, had heckled Hu's predecessor, Jiang Zemin, in Malta five years ago. She was charged yesterday by the American authorities for willfully intimidating, coercing threatening and harassing a foreign official.
So why exactly is this? After all Falun Gong, to most of us, is nothing more than a version of the early morning, slow-motion callisthenics, which can be seen being practised in parks in cities across the planet in which groups of people glide in unison through a set of tranquil ritualised movements known as qigong a form of exercise which, like yoga, can be both physical and spiritual. It is an exercise technique that involves controlled breathing and five sets of meditation exercises (four standing, and one sitting) which only a few years after its public introduction in 1992 quickly grew to become one of the most popular forms of qigong in Chinese and indeed world history. Why then, is it perceived by the government in Beijing to be the most subversive threat to the Chinese state in the six decades since the Communist Revolution?
Disinformation abounds from all sides about Falun Gong. Chinese medicine and religion overlaps in a way which the Western mind finds hard to understand, particularly since the same breathing techniques are the foundation of the disciplines of martial arts which is why some of its best practitioners have been Taoist and Buddhist monks adept in the advanced techniques known as the nei chia.
Falun Gong was developed out of this tradition, and registered only in 1992, by a former army musician and clerical worker, Li Hongzhi, in Manchuria in the north-east of China. Amid the physical exercises developed the unshakeable belief that Li was a "Living Buddha" who had supernatural powers and had rediscovered the basic law (fa) of the universe. Officially, the movement is known as Falun Dafa but it is more usually known as the Falun Gong or "Wheel of Law" after its practitioners' belief that they have a large wheel inside their bodies which they can use to elevate their mind nature (xinxing) and gradually let go of attachments such as selfishness, jealousy, pursuit, lust, zealotry and greed.
In his writings, Li Hongzhi made use of many concepts from Buddhism, Taoism and even Christianity which gave Falun Gong the feel of a fully fledged religion to outsiders.
The movement found easy converts among ordinary Chinese because of its focus on improving health in a country where years of underinvestment have put the Chinese health system under severe strain, and resulted in a return to traditional methods of healing. A craze for Falun Gong swept the country in the early 1990s, attracting up to 70 million adherents. In those early years Chinese governmental organisations granted several awards to Li to encourage him to continue promoting what they then considered a wholesome practice. He lectured regularly all over the country in front of large audiences.
Things changed in 1999, after a magazine printed an article by a Chinese physicist which was critical of Falun Gong. Practitioners went to protest outside the publishers and several were arrested and, apparently, beaten by the police. Two weeks, later 10,000 of Li's followers suddenly assembled on 25 April around Zhongnanhai, the high-security complex that houses China's leaders. They held no signs and chanted no slogans but sat in a two-kilometre line in meditative postures on the pavements. The demonstration was peaceful and ended quietly, after 12 hours, with the protesters picking up their litter and dispersing of their own accord, but only after an audience with Premier Zhu Rongji and a government promise that the group's grievances would be addressed within three days.
The demonstration had materialised entirely out of the blue, in the largest organised show of opposition since the Tiananmen democracy movement a decade earlier. Such a large and devastatingly disciplined demonstration struck fear into the hearts of the Chinese Communist Party and its leader Jiang Zemin. If Falun Gong really had 70 million members as was thought (the government later said it was only three million) then it was bigger than the Chinese Communist Party, which had 66 million. He resolved to smash the organisation. Two months later the practice of Falun Gong was outlawed.
Its adherents were bewildered. The government announced that Falun Gong was an "evil cult" that encourages suicide, makes people neglect severe medical conditions, and fleeced them of their money. It issued reports claiming that 1,404 people had died in China from failing to seek conventional medical help because of Falun Gong beliefs. Some 500 others had committed suicide, it said, brainwashed by Li's mind control techniques.
Some backing to these claims is given by anti-cult experts in the US, where the practice has gained a sizeable foothold. They talk of manipulative fear tactics to indoctrinate and control disciples who are made to feel that failure to follow Li results in serious physical health problems. Parents of Falun Gong members complain their children begin talking to them in jargon memorised from the words of Li.
There is no doubt that some of Li's claims are, to Western eyes, pretty wacky. He says he can levitate and become invisible simply by thinking the phrase "nobody can see me". He can control people's movements by just thinking, he says, and can move himself anywhere by thought alone. He claims to have averted a global comet catastrophe and the Third World War and says that the Nostradamus's prophecies are coming true today in China. In the real world his impact is mixed. Falun Gong inculcates an "us and them" feeling among its followers, and has unattractive beliefs about homosexuals and children of inter-racial marriages. But it has health benefits for millions, with studies showing that its exercises reduce stress and may boost the immune system.
Nor does Li seem to have milked its enthusiasts. The worst financial scandals critics have uncovered are that between 1992 and 1994 in China he collected modest fees for treating patients. And, according to the Wall Street Journal, he purchased a house in New York for $293,500 in 1998 shortly after immigrating to the US, and acquired another for $580,000 in New Jersey in 1999. Hardly big bucks. And Falun Gong has no church buildings, rented spaces, priests or administrators. Other indications are of benign intent and Li has been nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize.
The crackdown in China began roughly. Companies were ordered to dismiss Falun Gong members. Many were taken into police custody, beaten and told to give up the practice. Of those who refused around 100,000 were sentenced to " re-education through labour" programmes. At least 500 have been sentenced to up to 18 years in prison, 100 of whom are believed to be in Jinlin Jail. Uncounted numbers were forcibly admitted into mental hospitals.Falun Gong claim there are 2,840 cases of practitioners dying in custody.
All of this is hard to document, not least because the Chinese government itself probably has not kept any records. The "problem" has been dealt with by the bao jia technique of social control practised by the central government in China for more than 3,000 years. Huge pressure is placed on local officials to comply with central edicts but without being told how to implement them. Not only do they face no scrutiny for the methods they use to eliminate the Falun Dafa but local officials are now personally fined by Beijing for every protester from their district who arrives in the capital. The result has been remarkably thorough and brutal. It is out of this culture that has grown the practice, claimed in a report by Falun Gong supporters outside China this week, whereby Falun Gong detainees have had their internal organs harvested while they were still alive for sale on the black market for heart, kidney, liver and cornea transplants.
External support for these claims has come in the form of the US State Department's annual human rights report which says that since the introduction of the ban on Falun Gong, "the mere belief in the discipline ... has been sufficient grounds for practitioners to receive punishment ranging from loss of employment to imprisonment". Some practitioners in custody have suffered torture and death, it says, and hundreds have been punished without trial.
The extraordinary thing is that, in the face of this, Falun Gong members who have no legal recourse as the Chinese Supreme Court has forbidden courts or lawyers to accept cases brought by Falun Gong have persisted in their protests. Supporters have hijacked Chinese television stations to broadcast protests. They have demonstrated regularly outside Government House in Hong Kong. And they have continued the exercises out of sight of the authorities.
China's leaders have not lost their fear. It was the late Zhou Enlai who once famously said, when asked what were the effects of the French Revolution, "it's too soon to tell". History is a present reality, to the men at the top of the Chinese Communist Party for all their embrace of the free market. Many of the Falun Gong adherents, they believe, are disillusioned members of the Communist Party from its Maoist days who need an outlet for the zeal which has not featured in political life since the end of the Cultural Revolution. Worst of all, China's leaders remember that religious sects can grow in power and turn into national rebellions.
In the 19th century the Taiping Rebellion sprang from a religious cult which provoked perhaps the bloodiest civil war in human history when the forces of the Qing Empire clashed with those of a mystic named Hong Xiuquan who said he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ and claimed to be the new Messiah. At least 20 million people and perhaps as many as 100 million perished.
Not long after that came the Boxer Rebellion in which rebels also saw the world in more metaphysical terms, claiming that movement exercises influence the fundamental forces of the universe. They even went so far as to insist that their breathing exercises would allow them to ward off bullets. Nor wonder the normally inscrutable President Hu looked taken aback when the Falun Gong woman screamed.