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November 30, 2000

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Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

FEBRUARY 11, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 5

A Two-Way Siege
Falungong struggles after being banned -- but still scares Beijing

A Falungong devotee in Hong Kong is free to study Ricky Wong - Moonshine Photo for Asiaweek
Five a.m. in a park in China. In the pre-dawn dimness, shadows converge in an open space - a small group of men and women, mostly elderly, bundled up against the winter cold. They murmur hellos and whisper together for a bit, exchanging news: who got detained, who has been released, who hasn't been heard from. In the distance stand a few solitary figures: lookouts. The group spreads out, each person standing loosely with legs slightly apart. In unison, their arms spread, their hands float upward. It is the start of another day for the Falungong faithful. In private, one adherent vows: "We will never be destroyed."

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A Two-Way Siege
Falungong struggles after being banned -- but still scares Beijing

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Several hours later, the day begins for the police. Plainclothes officers usually patrol the major parks from around 8 a.m. until dusk, on the lookout for Falungong devotees. In public places, police keep an eye on suspicious groups that might be gathering to perform the exercises that mark Falungong, or even unfurl a protest banner. But what makes this job more trying than clamping down on other "trouble-makers" is the fact that so many Falungong practitioners are elderly retirees of state and Communist Party institutions. "What are we to do? Where can we take them?" sighs one officer. "They worked most of their lives for the party. We can't just deprive them of their livelihoods."

Six months since Chinese authorities outlawed the mystic sect - and nine months after 10,000 devotees quietly surrounded Beijing's Zhongnanhai leadership compound - the state is bearing down ever more heavily on Falungong. "We will continue to deepen the work on ideological education of the practitioners," Luo Gan, a top political and law official, vowed last week, "and strike against the key organizers and die-hard followers of the sect." Under attack, the group is in some disarray. Most of its leadership in China has been detained. Many prominent members have recanted. Protests by adherents are small, sporadic and uncoordinated. And New York-based founder Li Hongzhi has not been seen for months.

Yet security officials admit that Falungong followers throughout China, from farmers to senior cadres, continue to do their exercises and study their texts. "Our activities have lessened," says one devotee, "but we're maintaining enough spirit to study and practice." The authorities have picked up 35,000 adherents who practiced or protested in public and sent more than 5,000 to "re-education" camps without trial. Another 300 leaders are being tried, with those convicted receiving jail sentences of up to 18 years. But there are still so many devotees that police turn a blind eye as long as they do not call attention to themselves. (The sect claims 60 million followers in China and 40 million abroad. Beijing says they number 2 million in China.) "It's impossible for us to 're-educate' so many and you can't arrest them all," says a security official. "That is our dilemma."

What is Falungong? The term actually applies to the five exercises practiced as part of Falun Dafa, or the Buddha Law (Dafa) of the Wheel of Law (Falun), but has come to mean the sect. At its simplest, Falungong combines qigong, traditional breathing exercises that channel the body's qi (energy), with a moral philosophy centered on zhen (truthfulness), shan (benevolence), and ren (forbearance). It sounds benign enough. The details are a bit more esoteric. In the sect's bible, Zhuan Falun (Rotating the Falun), Li Hongzhi uses anecdotes from Buddhism, Taoism, science and daily life to explain that a Falun is rotating endlessly in the universe. By practicing Falungong and studying its texts, a devotee can get a small wheel in his or her abdomen, which spins one way to absorb energy, and the other way to eliminate harmful elements. With continued study and practice, adherents can ascend to higher levels, acquire a "third eye" (that peeps through an opening in the cranium) to commune with the universe, and evenutally achieve "perfect happiness."

That only scratches the surface of what adherents experience. Ms. Wang, 32, a laid-off oil industry worker in northeastern China, describes what happens when she practices Falungong: "I feel the qi going along channels in my body. Sometimes I feel an intense pulse. I can see lights, but only faintly [because] I haven't deepened my practice yet. After practice, I feel peaceful." Devotees claim that pain and disease diminish or disappear after just weeks of practice. "So many sufferers of deadly ailments who were given the death sentence by modern medicine made miraculous recoveries," wrote Wang Youqun, then a senior legal cadre, in an open letter to party leaders. "Who could have purified so many practitioners in such a short time to eliminate disease? No one but Li Hongzhi." (Wang was later arrested and his fate is unknown.)

In a sense, Falungong is one of a long line of qigong practices that offer disciples health and strength. (Li in Zhuan Falun denies that Falungong cures diseases, but the group's website boasts it has a "disease healing rate" of 99.1%.) The ancient tradition has enjoyed renewed popularity since the 1980s. What sets Falungong apart is that Li Hongzhi simplified the arduous and often secret qigong exercises, married them to a moral, if esoteric, philosophy, and set himself up as a teacher equal to Buddha. Practitioners must study Li's books and watch his videos continuously if they want to advance. Such requirements enrapture some Falungong devotees. Says Sterling Campbell, a New York-based musician: "Trying to be a good person in accordance with Falun Dafa is incredibly hard but I can't imaging living any other way now. I can honestly say I'm happier, on a much deeper level." From such beliefs spring devotion.

On New Year's eve in Beijing, Yang Lei, her husband and another Falungong follower stood in Tiananmen Square. The atmosphere was an uneasy mixture of people waiting to revel and police waiting for trouble. Yang and her companions composed themselves, closed their eyes and began Falungong exercises. "We only did them for five minutes," she recalls. "When I opened my eyes, I saw a cop standing in front of me." The three were bundled into a patrol car and taken to a nearby police station, which was already full of Falungong members. A policeman told Yang that they were arresting at least 100 adherents a day in the square. Yang, 29, and her friends were only held overnight. Hong Kong residents, they were released and told not to return to mainland China. But she was ready for worse. "Master Li gave me a second life," says the music teacher, who used to suffer from arthritis and heart ailments. "I shall protect Falungong even with my own death."

Such tales stand in stark contrast to the horror stories painted by official Chinese media. Take that of Zhang Yuqin. She was a middle-aged garment worker in Nanjing when she took up Falungong in 1995, practicing and studying Li Hongzhi's books and videos incessantly. By 1997, she was claiming that Falungong cured all ills. She also began worrying about the end of the world. Later, she told her husband that she was a reincarnated male truck driver. Finally, in January 1998, her husband found her dead, her wrists slit. Or how about Jiang Wenli, a retired paper-plant worker in Anhui province. In December last year, she became delirious, killed her husband with an axe and scissors, cut some flesh from his buttocks and ate it. Later, she was heard shouting: "Li Hongzhi, come and save me!" Her son found her dead the next day. All told, authorities claim that over 1,400 deaths can be directly attributed to suicides and deranged killings by frenzied Falungong practitioners.

Adherents say the authorities are playing fast and loose with cause and effect. "Those with mental illness also go into delirium while practicing other forms of qigong," says one follower. "Master Li forbids those with mental illness to practice Falungong. If they do anyway, they take the risk." Besides, simply adding up all the devotee deaths does not mean much by itself, he argues. "In Beijing hospitals, 300 people die each day. In a year, how many would that make?" he snorts. "The government is using the deaths to scare people." Indeed, Falungong has so far not embarked on collective suicides (like the Switzerland-based Order of the Solar Temple whose members killed themselves between 1994 and 1999), or mass murder (like the nerve gas attack by Japan's Aum Shinrikyo in 1995) or sexual abuse or even old-fashioned financial exploitation.

What Falungong does do is besiege opponents, literally. Li Hongzhi's demand that followers "promote the law" and "protect the law" seems to foster intolerance of criticism. Believers encircled media organizations in China 77 times over the past few years (and once in Hong Kong) over what they said was unfair coverage. When they encircled Zhongnanhai last April to ask the leadership to look into their grievances, it was the largest demonstration of any kind since the 1989 Tiananmen protests. Moreover, it took the authorities completely by surprise, although thousands had come from across the country. And their quiet demeanor was in unnerving contrast to noisier riots sparked elsewhere by layoffs or corruption. So Beijing's crackdown probably springs primarily from fear of the potential political challenge posed by Falungong, especially since Li teaches that action to promote and protect the sect can help devotees reach higher levels. Despite Li's repeated avowals that Falungong has no political interests, the way his sect rallied so many in as political an act as besieging Zhongnanhai, without tipping off security organs, at a time of rising discontent, must have shaken the authorities.

It is not just the powers-that-be who are concerned. Tang Lap-kwong, a lecturer in Chinese philosophy at the City University of Hong Kong, worries about the herd mentality he sees in devotees. (The sect is legal in Hong Kong.) "Members don't have their individuality any more. They speak and behave like one person," Tang says. "They only need slight guidance and then they will do anything en masse." People who feel weak or lost seem particularly ripe for Falungong's message. Ho Laiha, a Falungong coordinator in Hong Kong, started practice in 1994 while living in southern China, where she had been waiting with her husband for a decade for a migrant visa to join her husband's parents in Hong Kong. "I realized that society is very unfair," she says. "I was hoping a capable person would come to save our society." She met Li Hongzhi at a seminar. "Master Li was very amiable; I thought I had found a long-lost friend," she recalls. "Before, I didn't have a religion or god to give me support. Now I've found Master Li and the Falun. I feel very good."

Chan Kinman, professor of sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says Falungong fills a "market niche" in an environment where, on the one hand, people were worried about access to health care following market reforms and, on the other, traditional morality had been devastated first by the Cultural Revolution and then by the dismantling of Maoist dogma and the plunge into economic liberalization. "The Chinese government can't continue to take such a simplistic approach against Falungong. It should allow more religious freedom," Chan says. "Even if Falungong is suppressed, other groups will come up." Beijing is now cracking down on other qigong sects. Zhonggong (China Gong), one of the largest, reportedly may be declared an "evil cult" like Falungong, and the previously banned Fragrance Gong is being eyed again.

Hong Kong music teacher Yang says her brother, who lives in mainland China, is under great pressure from his family and workgroup to quit. Her mother already has. All members have been required to register with police and to turn in all materials related to the sect. Coordinators and instructors are under house arrest and have their phones tapped. Yet members arrange meetings via oblique phone conversations, exchange news and carry on with their exercises. Overseas-based webmasters use the Internet to spread the word and send information into China, keeping a step ahead as the authorities block off websites. Worries a Beijing security official: "There is a strong possibility that Falungong will become an underground organization." And the wheel turns.

With reporting by Rose Tang/Hong Kong

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