SAN FRANCISCO--Hundreds of neatly dressed, nearly silent followers of Falun Gong, the spiritual movement banned Thursday by the Chinese government, gathered across the street from the Chinese Consulate here Friday to protest Beijing's crackdown on their movement.
There were no slogans, no banners and none of the chanting or stridence that routinely accompany demonstrations here. Instead, about 350 mostly middle-aged, mostly Chinese followers stood facing the consulate, chatting quietly among themselves or reading "Zhuan Falun," a book written by the movement's founder, Li Hongzhi, a Chinese exile who lives in New York.
Two members of the group tried to deliver to consulate officials a copy of a statement to the Chinese government that Li posted on his Web site Thursday night. (The Web site is: <http://www.falundafa.com>.) Li said in the statement that he hoped "the Chinese government and its leadership will not treat the people who practice Falun Gong as enemies."
The movement is "not against the government now, nor will we be in the future," Li said. "Other people may treat us badly, but we do not treat others badly, nor do we treat people as enemies."
Still, he warned that if his followers are treated as enemies of the state in China, "the consequences would cause people to lose confidence in the government and its leadership and to be disappointed in the Chinese government."
Falun Gong, which claims to have attracted 100 million followers worldwide with a mixture of spiritualism and exercise, insists that it is apolitical, but it has unnerved the Chinese government with its ability to organize large-scale protests in China demanding official recognition.
The Chinese government has arrested hundreds of Falun Gong followers, labeled Li a fraud and accused the movement of threatening to cause social chaos.
In San Francisco, two protesters were allowed inside the consulate, but officials there did not accept Li's letter. The protesters dispersed quietly an hour after they arrived.
"We want the Chinese government to release practitioners in China who have been detained and to recognize that we are just a mind-body practice like tai chi," said Cathy Zhang, a San Jose tax analyst who has practiced Falun Gong for two years.
Zhang and other demonstrators said they understood Mayor Willie Brown's decision to rescind a proclamation that the city had intended to issue declaring Friday as "Li Hongzhi Day." Brown rescinded the proclamation Thursday, saying he wanted to avoid interfering in internal Chinese affairs.
Demonstrators here insisted that Falun Gong is purely a self-help movement, a form of a traditional Chinese meditation and exercise known as qigong.
"I used to be filled with stress and I had no cure for it," Zhang said. She and her husband now go to a park near their home to do the slow-moving exercises associated with Falun Gong for two hours every morning, she said.
"I am improving my body and improving my nature," she said. "I know now that if other people treat me badly, instead of retaliating, I should think what I did wrong to them, I should be considerate of others and not seek benefits for myself."
Other protesters here gave similar testimonials.
"We want to be good people, to upgrade society," said Hau-Yu Sun, a Houston follower of Falun Gong who said she traveled to San Francisco for the planned issuing of the proclamation.
Joseph Beckenbach, a San Jose software engineer, said he began following Falun Gong more than three years ago after his Chinese wife and mother-in-law introduced him to the discipline. He said the daily two-hour exercises have relieved severe tendinitis.
Many Falun Gong followers, Beckenbach said, choose not to use medicine or see doctors, but that decision is left to the individual.
"This is not a cult," he said. "We are not a religion. Everything we do is voluntary. This is a self-improvement discipline."
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