On the bustling thoroughfare of Chinese immigrants that is Main Street in Flushing, Queens, countless people hand out fliers for massage parlors, calling cards, English classes, money-wiring stores and other services.
But one group of regulars that offers fliers from its daily spot is not commercially minded. Its message is an ideological one: to disparage Falun Gong, the spiritual and meditation movement founded in China. It's a movement, Falun Gong organizers say, that has found its largest following outside Asia in Flushing.
The group denounces Falun Gong as a cult, and it incorporates this charge into its name: the Chinese Anti-Cult World Alliance. The alliance set up a small folding table in the summer of 2008 on Main Street near Sanford Avenue, not far from the numerous tables staffed by Falun Gong volunteers who hand out literature lambasting the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government, which has banned and persecuted Falun Gong, also called Falun Dafa.
For two years, the two factions have staked out their turf on Main Street like rival gangs, and they have waged a bitter ideological battle nearly daily for hearts and minds. They have created a scaled-down version of the tension between Falun Gong and the Chinese government.
Falun Gong members are convinced that this opposition group is an arm of the Chinese government and that its members are working as political operatives to oppress Falun Gong here.
"They are secret agents for the Chinese Communist Party," said Rong Yi, 45, a Falun Gong organizer in Flushing. "They are puppets for the Chinese government. The Chinese Communist Party is paying them to suppress Falun Gong."
Ms. Yi's nemesis on Main Street is Huahong Li, 49, chairwoman of the anti-Falun Gong group, who has become a well-known and polarizing figure in Flushing. Ms. Yi said Ms. Li's group was trying to keep Falun Gong from publicizing the mistreatment of many of its members in China by the government.
Ms. Li calls the spy accusation laughable and says she is simply motivated by the need to warn the public that Falun Gong is an "evil cult" that has "severely damaged the image and reputation of the Chinese people."
Ms. Li has gotten into countless confrontations with Falun Gong members. She has been arrested, sued and vilified constantly in The Epoch Times, the free daily newspaper that supports Falun Gong. She keeps scores of clippings from the paper on display at her booth, along with a poster-size collage of snapshots of Falun Gong followers she has argued with. She claims the members have come to her table to harass her, seize her camera and strike her with objects.
Ms. Yi said, however, that these members were approached by Ms. Li. She also accused Ms. Li of orchestrating the distribution of "hate material" against Falun Gong, instigating attacks on members and routinely gathering up and destroying copies of The Epoch Times in sidewalk boxes. Ms. Yi claims Ms. Li has been seen - videotaped, in fact - entering the Chinese Consulate in Manhattan.
Ms. Yi is president of a group called the Global Service Center for Quitting the Chinese Communist Party, whose mission is to find immigrants who were party members in China and persuade them to swear off their membership. The center's headquarters are above a Chinese bakery on Main Street, two blocks from where Ms. Li sets up her table, and they double as the main offices for Falun Gong in Flushing.
Ms. Yi said that despite Ms. Li's efforts to thwart her group, about 80 people a day shed their party affiliations with the group's help. These people sign a list and agree to have their identities entered into a database on a private page on The Epoch Times Web site, she said.
Ms. Yi said she told immigrants that even if they planned never to return to China, it was crucial to quit the party officially in protest of its oppressive actions. To remain a member is to essentially condone all this, she says, but to quit is to obtain freedom from the bottom of their hearts.
"We tell them that God or Buddha will punish you in this life or the future if you still follow them," Ms. Yi said. "It will be bad luck for you and your family. We tell them that if they quit, their future will be secured and God will bless them."
Several blocks away, Ms. Li, urges immigrants to quit the "Quitting" party.
"Departing from cult resuscitates oneself," one of her signs reads.
The two sides have been feuding since the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province that killed more than 60,000 people. Groups of Flushing residents accused Falun Gong of disrupting fund-raising efforts on Main Street for victims by demonstrating with lively music and attacks on the Chinese government.
Ms. Li calls Falun Gong disingenuous and insulting to Chinese immigrants. Her literature charges that Falun Gong practices "anti-human and anti-society practices" and irresponsibly advises members to eschew conventional medicine for daily exercise and meditation for health.
Her main charge is that Falun Gong paints itself as a peaceful, persecuted group, but behind the scenes it is highly disciplined and ruthless, and burnishes its image with its media outlets, political alliances, ubiquitous demonstrations and lobbying tables.
Ms. Li said she lacked the political, strategic and English-language skills to defend herself against Falun Gong's attacks on her. She said her anti-Falun Gong group had grown in two years to more than 100 people, though its numbers are dwarfed by the thousands of Falun Gong members in Flushing. Last month, for the first time, her group gained a spot in the annual Chinese New Year parade on Main Street, marching near Falun Gong members.
Ms. Li's most prominent run-in was with a well-known Falun Gong member named Wenyi Wang. In June 2009, Ms. Wang accused Ms. Li of destroying copies of The Epoch Times and approached her with a camera. Ms. Wang said Ms. Li seized the camera, and Ms. Li was arrested and charged with fourth-degree grand larceny. She is now under an order of protection forbidding her to approach Ms. Wang.
All this was reported extensively in The Epoch Times, where Ms. Wang is a contributor and somewhat of a celebrity among Falun Gong adherents for her actions at the White House in 2006 when she gained admittance with Epoch Times press credentials and shouted against Chinese President Hu Jintao while he spoke. She was quickly escorted away, and President Bush later apologized to Mr. Hu.
Ms. Li and her supporters roll their eyes at the idea that their sidewalk spot is a front for cloak-and-dagger espionage.
"Who knew it was that easy to become a government agent?" said one of her colleagues, Zhu Zhirou.