The Way We Live Now

Questions For Li Hongzhi
Eye Of The Storm

New York Times Magazine, August 8, 1999
By Jonathan S. Landreth and J.S. Greenberg

As the Chinese Government calls for his arrest, the exiled leader of the massive Falun Gong movement talks about living in New York and watching politics and belief collide back home.

Q: Do you think of yourself as a political dissident?

I don't want to get involved in politics. I don't care for it. Governments focus only on the problem at hand, instead of looking at what has caused this problem in the first place. If ordinary people's society does not become more virtuous, any number of problems may occur, and I cannot concern myself with this prospect. I am only responsible to the practitioners of Falun Gong.

But you've recently been described as one of the most influential people in Asia. Does this new high profile help you?

I think it has done quite a bit of damage to me, personally. Were cultivators of Falun Gong to know that I was ranked among the influential people of the world, they would most likely laugh at me. As cultivators, we do not seek fame and profit. My masters are all practicing in the mountains. If they don't want to be seen, even I couldn't find them. I "came out" only because they said that I should. Otherwise I would not.

For the past three years you've been in America. During that time, what differences did you find between Chinese and American culture?

The difference is quite enormous. Chinese people's mentality is deeply influenced by their ancient cultural heritage. But Americans are unfettered by ancient culture. In terms of human characteristics, because Chinese people are so rational, they will consider the substance of what they do. A Westerner will make sure that it is done well on the surface.

For instance, everyone knows Chinese food is quite delicious. But when it comes to surface qualities, it is not very particular. Chinese restaurants are often very casual, and all you really need is a pair of chopsticks. But Western cuisine, while it doesn't necessarily taste any better, pays much closer attention to exactly which fork is to be used when eating a certain food. Chinese people are concerned with the inner quality of culture, whereas Westerners are concerned with the surface qualities of culture.

Those can be loaded terms. Do you disapprove of American culture?

Personally, I have no opposition to it. I need to have a quiet and calm place to concentrate on the practice. So I don't watch TV and movies often. But I know they have created irreversible pollution to the world.

And human beings can never reverse the pollution and get back to its purest state, no matter how hard we try.

You were supposedly living underground until very recently. With all the Chinese immigrants in your neighborhood, didn't anyone recognize you?

If they do not look carefully they will not recognize me. I seldom communicate with others because of the language barrier, and because of my personal practice, I seldom walk down the street. Sometimes on weekends, we go to the mall. You know, sometimes I help my wife do the grocery shopping. I love that I can get Chinese sauces in New York.

Are you settling into life in New York? Or will you return to China?

My wife and I have registered our own small company. We are preparing to publish my books. But I've been thinking, if the Chinese Government would not treat their people as they do now, and if they were willing to solve the issues through dialogue, I think that would be good for the Chinese Government and people as well. If they want me back, I would go back. But the Government is nervous and they don't want me back. I don't want to be any trouble to them. I can live wherever I am.

Unlike in China, however -- where you are said to have millions of followers -- here in America very few people understand your movement.

Is Falun Gong a religion? Does it require faith?

It is a practice that can remove illnesses, keep people fit and make one live longer. Like tai chi, it's a morning exercise. People practicing Falun Gong are expected to follow the principles of truthfulness, compassion and forbearance. And they must speak truthfully, have compassion, be benevolent, be tolerant. But whether people have other faiths or not, they can all practice Falun Gong. We do not get involved in faiths. We respect all of them

Falun Gong has been described as a cult. Is that description fair?

A cult advocates end-of-the-world theories and leads people to do many bad things. I am only teaching people the practice for healing and fitness. Not only that, I am teaching people to have good moral characters. I think this is good and meaningful to society. The Chinese Government accused me of advocating a doomsday and of saying I can delay the end of the world by 30 years. That's really ridiculous. And very often people assume that in order to study the Great Way of Falun they would have to live like a monk and give up everything. Actually, all practitioners are members of society; they do ordinary things just like anyone else.

Perhaps more specifically, cults don't tolerate dissent. Do practitioners of Falun Gong have differing opinions? Or do they tend to be of one mind on most things?

Normally people who do not like the principles of truthfulness, compassion and tolerance would not be very likely to study Falun Gong. Only the people who like these principles would come to learn. But people come and go as they please, you know; it's voluntary.

Translated from the Chinese.

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