New York and Beijing -- BRIAN MILNER in New York MIRO CERNETIG in Beijing
The founder of a movement that is the target of a massive crackdown in China says he is shocked by what has been happening to his followers, that he is not orchestrating their actions and that he worries bloodshed might follow.
Beijing outlawed the spiritual group falun gong yesterday, declaring it an evil movement that threatens China's social stability. That follows the arrest of 30,000 followers in massive police sweeps across the country on Wednesday, the largest show of force since the 1989 Tiananmen square massacre.
Falun gong founder Li Hongzhi, a former Chinese grain official who lives in New York, told The Globe and Mail yesterday that he "cannot comprehend" the crackdown.
"There are over 100 million people practising falun gong in China," Mr. Li said in a rare interview, speaking through an interpreter. "They have many friends and relatives. How could the government treat so many people as the enemy?"
Mr. Li, 48, spoke by telephone from a downtown Manhattan apartment belonging to a falun gong member.
Supporters have been nervous about revealing his whereabouts, because of fear of Chinese government agents.
Mr. Li said he had not given any directions to falun gong followers in China, from whom he has been cut off, and has had to follow developments through the media.
The group's Web site, a key vehicle in its rapid growth both inside China and around the world, has been blocked by Chinese authorities and phone lines are all tapped or cut off, he said.
"I have no way of getting in touch. I have no way of knowing what is going on there."
In a separately issued statement, Mr. Li said: "I am also concerned that the Chinese practitioners will be more severely persecuted. . . . I am deeply worried that another June 4 bloodshed will take place," alluding to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
This morning, security forces detained about 200 people staging a sit-down protest in Tiananmen Square, witnesses said. Police then cordoned off the square and emptied it of all people, the witnesses said. It was not immediately known if the 200, who were taken away in buses, were falun gong followers.
The Communist regime's clampdown on the movement's adherents is reminiscent of the purge on religious cults and secret societies after the 1949 revolution. But officials, who called some foreign journalists in for a special briefing yesterday, said the arrests were not an attack on human rights or religious freedoms, but rather a necessary action to protect China's social stability from an "evil" influence.
Beijing warned that all Communist Party members must abandon falun gong or face severe criminal punishment.
"Party members, government officials and the people as a whole should understand that this is a serious ideological and political struggle," warns a lead editorial to be published today in the People's Daily, the China-wide newspaper of the party.
Falun gong first angered and rattled China's Communist regime three months ago when 10,000 members descended without warning on the steps of Zhongnanhai, the secretive compound that houses China's leaders.
That April 25 protest, designed to force Beijing to allow falun gong more freedom in spreading its literature, was broken up without violence. But more protests followed, and this week China's leadership ordered security forces to round up 100 of the sect's leaders.
Within 24 hours, 30,000 followers were holding peaceful protests in 30 cities across the country. That prompted a major crackdown, as the protesters were rounded up and in many cases detained in stadiums. It is not clear if they have been released.
Mr. Li claimed yesterday that numerous adherents of the seven-year-old movement are also members of the Chinese Communist Party, which is one reason Beijing is so nervous. "Probably 40 to 50 per cent of Communist Party members are practitioners," he said.
Before the interview began, Mr. Li's interpreter warned that falun gong, a mixture of ancient Chinese exercises, meditation and the study of Mr. Li's teachings, should not be called a cult.
It is nothing more than another form of qi gong,Chinese healing exercises and meditation that have been around for thousands of years, Mr. Li said. These are mixed with Buddhist and Taoist teachings and a heavy reliance on the Internet to get the message out. "We are only teaching people to heal their illnesses and keep fit," Mr. Li said.
But there is more to it than yogalike exercises. Adherents regularly study and put into practice Mr. Li's teachings, which preach of a higher morality. These are available in five books, which are sold in Chinese and English, or free on the Internet.
It is the prescriptions for a better life -- not the exercises -- that appear to frighten the Chinese leaders, particularly after group members showed themselves eager to demonstrate for their rights.
Mr. Li's teachings include a disdain for money, fame, power and traditional religions. But he insists he has no political agenda.
"I am teaching people to have healthy minds and bodies and to think of other people first. Wouldn't that be better? In order to reach a higher level, you must be a person of virtue, with a high morality."
Mr. Li refused to discuss some of his controversial personal views, including a purported belief in space aliens and his comparisons of himself with Buddha and Jesus.
"Because the issue in China is so serious, I don't want to talk about these things," he said.
Reports that falun gong is some kind of doomsday cult come directly from Chinese security officials, Mr. Li added.
"If you search all over my books, I have never mentioned the words 'end of the world.' "
In China, the ubiquitous secret police will now be out in droves, attempting to prevent the group's members from posting public messages, holding meetings or passing out their literature.
Chinese government officials have also attempted to portray the group as a dying movement. While the government initially estimated falun gong membership as high as 70 million, yesterday the official estimate was reduced to about two million. "As people recognize the true face of falun gong, more and more are leaving the organization," said Zhang Qiyue, the spokesman for China's foreign ministry.
Whether falun gong members will be cowed by the crackdown remains to be seen. They have shown an unusual appetite for public protests in recent months, and yesterday the group's Web site posted a statement urging followers to carry out "voluntary protest actions" against the government, to force the release of all detained members.
"We are good people," said another message posted on the site, capturing the common sentiment of the group's membership. "How can good people be criminals? Why do we have to endure such persecution?"
The nature of falun gong is not clear cut. In China, most members are ordinary workers. Those who show up at protests are predominantly middle-aged or elderly. They prefer to stand quietly in peaceful protest in front of government offices. North American members have also repeatedly denied the group is a cult, has a doomsday message or believes their meditation leads to magical powers, like levitation and invisibility.
But Mr. Li has also told Western reporters that humanity will soon be wiped out, that space aliens are on Earth trying to replace human beings with clones and that he is invested with supernatural powers allowing him to move through dimensions. He also criticizes rock 'n' roll, science and homosexuality.
China's propaganda machine made full use of such accounts yesterday, calling Mr. Li a charlatan who spreads evil. In television and written reports sent across China, the government alleged that some falun gong members had gone insane. Alleged cases involved a follower who chopped his wife to death, another who jumped out of a building believing he was immortal and others who died after refusing medical treatment, believing falun gong would cure them.
"Cases of dire consequences caused by falun gong to the psychological and physical health of people are innumerable," the government's Xinhua news agency reported.
The United States yesterday said it is disturbed by China's decision to ban the movement, and by Beijing's "heavy-handed tactics" in restricting rights protected under international law.
State Department spokesman James Rubin said the United States was not taking a position on the teachings or practices of falun gong. But he said the United States is urging China to abide by its commitments under international human-rights conventions.
"We note the participants in the falun gong demonstrations have been peaceful and that many are middle-aged women," he added.
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