HONG KONG (Reuters) - At dawn scores of early risers slowly move their arms and legs in deep concentration following rhythmic instructions delivered by a cassette recorder.
Hong Kong, which reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, permits the Falun Gong exercise and meditation movement to practice, despite its being outlawed throughout mainland China. "There is rule of law in Hong Kong,'' said Tony Chan, a spokesman for Falun Gong in the territory. "We have no fears.''
Falun Gong mixes exercise and spiritual practice, using meditation blended with Buddhism and Chinese mysticism. It was born out of Qigong, a form of martial arts based on the theory of inner energy and incorporating an array of breathing exercises and meditation designed to improve health.
But Falun Gong also preaches salvation from an immoral world on the brink of destruction, opposes homosexuality, rock 'n' roll and drugs, and blames science for evil in the world. Falun Gong leader Li Hongzhi says followers who are ill can be cured by reading his books and practicing Qigong.
Its Hong Kong members appear harmless, although the motives of its leaders are difficult to grasp. Members deny that Falun Gong is a sect, cult, religion, or even organization, but they believe they gain supernatural powers through Falun Gong.
"After you reach a certain level you may see something that other people cannot see, such as a halo,'' said Chan, 51, a businessman who has been practicing for three years.
At one of their several meeting places in Hong Kong, walls are adorned with posters depicting founder Li sitting on a lotus seat like Buddha. But members deny they worship Li.
"We don't idolize anybody,'' said Chan. "Master (Li), in his books, says we should not treat anybody like god or engage in personal worship.''
They have an Internet Web site (http://falundafa.org) but say they have few social activities or coordination among themselves. They call themselves Falun Gong practitioners and not Falun Gong members, saying they are not an organization and have no leaders or headquarters. BENEFIT OR DISTRACTION Thomas Cheung finds it hard to understand his uncle who, in his late 40s, is a very dedicated Falun Gong advocate in the United States.
"According to my aunt he talks about Falun Gong all the time. He says Li Hongzhi takes the first place in his life. He owns a restaurant and laundry but has ignored his business since practicing Falun Gong,'' Cheung said in Hong Kong.
"His relationship with his family has, therefore, become less close. My cousin feels he is in an evil religion.''
But Falun Gong adherents say the preachings improve both their physical and mental health. "A Falun Gong practitioner may have many evil thoughts before learning Falun Gong, but after learning it he changes. Therefore, every practitioner is basically surely a good person,'' Chan said.
"I find my health and academic results improved because I can concentrate better without loose thoughts,'' said 12-year-old Tsang Ka-luen.
Lau Cheuk-leung, 18, said he had smoked and sworn frequently until starting Falun Gong, which had changed him. "Now, I don't want to swear any more and have quit smoking. I am kind to people and want to be a good person.''
China banned Falun Gong in July after adherents protested outside government offices in more than 30 Chinese cities following the detention of about 100 Falun Gong leaders, including one who helped spread the practice to Hong Kong.
Although Hong Kong is part of China, it operates under a "one country, two systems'' policy, which grants substantial autonomy for 50 years and preserves the common law tradition in the former British colony.
Falun Gong members have used the territory's autonomy to protest the crackdown and call for the release of jailed Falun Gong members in China. But major bookshops in Hong Kong stopped stocking Falun Gong books and materials after the group was outlawed on the mainland.
China's state media say Falun Gong was responsible for at least 743 deaths in the country as many followers were driven mad or died after refusing medical treatment. They accuse the group of cheating people and threatening social chaos.
The Chinese Communist Party's flagship newspaper has said the group was trying to replace the government.
U.S.-based founder Li, who is now on Beijing's wanted list, introduced Falun Gong to mainland China in 1992 and to Hong Kong in the following year. The group, originating in China, claims a global membership of over 100 million -- a number doubted by critics and disputed by China, which estimates it has only about 2 million members in China.
But its claim has alarmed the atheist Communist Party, which has only 60 million members. Falun Gong practitioners stunned Beijing in April when some 10,000 besieged the Zhongnanhai leadership compound to press for official status for their faith.
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