NEW YORK, July 22, 1999 (AFP) - The mystical Falungong meditation and exercise group, now the target of China's toughest crackdown in a decade, has rattled authorities because of the sheer number of its followers, founder Li Hongzhi says.
"I know quite clearly why the Chinese government considers us a threat," Li, a young-looking 48 who could pass in a suit for a Hong Kong banker, said in a recent interview. "It's because we have too many people practicing it."
Falungong practitioners, who claim to eschew politics, agree. And they are mindful of China's bloody experience with mystical sects that came to exert mass political power at times of national uncertainty in the past.
Though the figure is impossible to confirm, Li claims 100 million followers in China, including some well-connected current and former government officials. The Chinese Communist Party claims 60 million members.
A former soldier and native of mountainous Jilin province, Li immigrated to New York last year after Chinese authorities banned his books, first published in 1992, and signaled that they would welcome his departure.
He now maintains a home in Queens, New York, with his wife and teenage daughter, along with a very private life that keeps even his handful of close aides guessing as to his whereabouts at any given moment.
As Chinese authorities banned Falungong and launched a massive propaganda offensive against Li this week, associates in New York said they weren't sure where to find him or even if he was in the city.
Speaking through an interpreter in mid-June, Li voiced concern about new government warnings at the time that Falungong practitioners must not upset social stability or spread rumors.
Some public security officials, he said, "want to cause confrontation between Falungong practitioners and the government. But I will not be taken in or be deceived by that -- I will not take Falungong practitioners to confront, to be on the opposing side of the government."
"I am not against the government. I do not have any views with regard to government or politics," he said, describing those who follow his teachings as "law-abiding" citizens.
Li also said he believed Chinese officials would honor a pledge not to crack down on the group, which alarmed authorities in April by quietly assembling the largest protest gathering in Beijing since the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations.
"I trust that the Chinese government will not do anything to violate its assurances," he said, in a prediction that turned out to be spectacularly wrong. "I think the government will not suddenly change its face again."
Falungong combines ancient Chinese exercises and meditation with Li's own morality and mysticism, which exhort patience, tolerance, and rectitude as the path to good health and psychological well-being.
He and his family left China, he said, partly to minimize friction with Chinese authorities and partly because his daughter wanted to study in the United States.
His daughter now attends a public high school in New York City and keeps her father's celebrity to herself, he said, adding that if she ever let on what he does for a living, "her studies would be affected."
The crackdown this week, including the toughest security measures taken in China since the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising, clearly unnerved those close to Li as well as other Falungong practitioners in the United States.
US-based followers, who communicate primarily through the internet, traded worried e-mail messages and electronic news updates.
They also organized a protest outside the Chinese embassy here that drew roughly 150 people from all over the East Coast and planned another weekend demonstration in San Jose, California.
The Hong Kong-based Information Centre of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China reported the detention of 200 Falungong leaders since Tuesday, with about 50 already released. Some 30,000 Falungong members protested in 30 cities in 12 provinces Wednesday, it said in a statement, adding that about 10,000 were briefly detained and about 100 were injured in scuffles.
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