Followers of Chinese Sect Defend Its Spiritual Goals

New York Times, July 30, 1999
By Seth Faison

BEIJING -- Sitting around a table in the back room of a restaurant on this city's south side, four followers of Falun Gong discussed their shock and sense of betrayal at the government's crackdown on their spiritual movement. There must be some misunderstanding, the four men agreed. To them, Falun Gong is a life-saving road to spiritual awakening and physical well-being through exercise and meditation, though the government has branded it as a political evil.

"Banning a whole movement is impossible," said Liang Zhenxing, a 34-year-old carpenter who has been practicing Falung Gong for four years. "Our activity is healthy. We are not going to quit. We are going to continue to demand to be recognized legally."

The crackdown on Falun Gong appears to be a classic clash of ancient Chinese culture with the grim modern reality of Communist Party politics. On one side is an army of ordinary people -- many of them retired women and laid-off workers -- yearning for spiritual fulfillment. On the other is an increasingly paranoid crew of Communist Party leaders who feel threatened to their core by a movement aimed at countering the soulessness that has infected a country whose official ideology has grown stale and pointless. Thursday, the Chinese police issued an arrest warrant for Li Hongzhi, Falun Gong's founder, an essentially meaningless gesture, since Li lives in New York and the United States does not have an extradition treaty with China. Instead, the arrest warrant reflects the primacy of politics over legal procedure in China. A week into China's political campaign against Falun Gong, every ministry is expected to demonstrate its resolve to combat the group, and the Public Security Ministry's logical response is to say it would like to arrest him.

Thursday's media blitz included television footage of some of the destruction of 1.5 million of the movement's publications by crushing or shredding, an act that is redolent of the ancient practice of burning books in a public ceremony when a Chinese emperor wanted both to control information and to send a message about what was permitted. In the modern version, such repression also includes blocking many Internet sites. Falun Gong followers rely heavily on Internet Web sites, e-mail and mobile phones to pass on information and mobilize.

How well the authorities will succeed is unclear. "They want to shut us down and stop us from practicing anywhere," said Zhai Shulin, a 32-year-old cook from northeastern China. "They cannot. We are too big."

How big, exactly, is an open question. Zhai and other Falun Gong followers insist that they number at least 100 million, though scholars say a truer figure is probably between 20 million and 60 million. The authorities, not known for their accurate portrayal of the movement, say there are only 2 million followers.

One of the many mysteries surrounding Falun Gong is why its leaders took the politically reckless step on April 25 of sending more than 10,000 followers to surround the Communist leadership's compound in Beijing to protest what they felt was unfair treatment by official media.

Yet what was apparently most shocking to China's leaders was the discovery that some senior military officers and ministry-level officials not only believed that Falun Gong could indeed help practitioners achieve mystical healing and paranormal powers, but were openly urging their colleagues to take it up.

Falun Gong, a variant of traditional qigong exercises that many Chinese believe can enhance and channel vital forces, takes its name from the falun, or "law wheel" that practitioners envision revolving in their bodies, both emitting and absorbing energy.

Mindful of the explosive role that mystical movements have played in toppling weakened rulers at transitional periods throughout Chinese history, the government has responded with an iron fist. In addition to arresting more than 5,000 adherents, the authorities detained more than 1,200 government officials who follow Falun Gong for political re-education sessions, where they are required to write self-criticisms and to study Marxist documents.

When the crackdown began last week, the authorities called Falun Gong the greatest threat to their security since the Tiananmen student movement of 1989, and orchestrated its largest political campaign since that time, revving up the nation's sprawling Communist Party apparatus to try to stamp out any practice of Falun Gong.

Labeling the movement a political operation aimed at overthrowing the government lays the groundwork for heavy prison sentences for the movement's organizers. A commentary in Thursday's People's Daily, the Communist Party newspaper, stressed the need for proper application of legal procedures in prosecuting Falun Gong followers, an indication that China's leaders are sensitive to criticism from human rights groups that they are violating China's constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and assembly. Yet the authorities have spared no criticism of Li, who founded Falun Gong in 1992 and moved to the United States in 1997. The police accused Li of repeatedly disturbing public order and of being indirectly responsible for the deaths of 743 Falun Gong followers, some of whom performed reckless acts in trying to effect supernatural feats like flying or surviving in a pit of fire.

In the Beijing restaurant, the Falun Gong followers said they had come to the capital from China's far northeast to protest the crackdown, yet found themselves unable to do so because of the overpowering police presence at Tiananmen Square and outside the leadership compound, Zhongnanhai. Whether more protests will follow, they said, was unknown. The men, seemingly earnest if politically naive, offered simple examples of why they thought studying Falun Gong was the path to spiritual and physical salvation.

"I used to smoke, drink and seek out, uh, members of the opposite sex," said Zhai, the cook who also said he was fired from his job last week when his restaurant, like thousands of other work places around the country, carried out a sweeping purge of Falun Gong members.

"Now I know that was no way to live," he said. "I don't do anything that hurts society. I have learned that before you act, you must think about how it is going to affect other people. Others first, self second." Zhai said he was detained for three days last week, and was beaten by the police while he was in custody.

His friend Liang is a Communist Party member, but he said he saw no conflict between practicing Falun Gong and believing in the party. "They are both about serving the people," Liang said. "If I have to choose, I will remain a member of Falun Gong.

"Leaders should like people like me," Liang continued. "In any environment, I am going to act well, because my behavior comes from the heart. I am not just following what someone told me to do."

A third follower, a cow herdsman from a village in northeastern China, said that at least 70 of the 2,000 residents in his village practiced Falun Gong. The crackdown may not extend into villages where the government does not directly control the work force, but the herdsman, Ji Peng, said his fellow villagers would all willingly come to Beijing to protest the government crackdown if they thought it would help.

The followers protested that their movement has no formal organization, no offices, no financial income and no political aspirations. "How can we be an organization if we don't even have a headquarters?" asked a fourth member, an astrophysics professor at a university in Beijing. "We have no income, no legal status. We don't want any; we don't need it. All we want is to be able to practice Falun Gong in peace."

Pressed about Falun Gong's organization, which seemed evident if hidden in the remarkably well-coordinated protest on April 25, the professor conceded that if there was one, it was minimal.

"If everyone wanted to contact Teacher Li directly, it would be overwhelming," said the professor, referring to Falun Gong's founder. "So there have to be people who help coordinate contact."

Li originally said he was in Australia giving lectures when the protest on April 25 occurred. But after the authorities produced immigration documents that showed his arrival in Beijing on April 22 and his departure on April 24, he acknowledged having been there but denied having met or spoken to anyone about the protests.

Thursday's People's Daily carried a report quoting former colleagues of Li who called him a mediocre trumpet player, an undistinguished writer and a friendless loner. "

At work he didn't even write good reports, so I cannot believe he ever wrote a book," said his former boss, Yan Guowu, the newspaper reported. The Falun Gong followers gathered around the table at the restaurant were not bothered by inconsistencies in Li's account.

"Li Hongzhi's most important lesson to me is that it is important to live as a good person," Liang said. "That's all I care about."

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