On any warm day, visitors to public parks around the US may see people listening to Chinese music while making slow, graceful movements with their arms, executing slow-moving standing postures and stretching exercises, or even engaging in sitting meditation. Often, they aren’t practicing Yoga or Tai Chi, but rather an ancient Chinese system of mind/body cultivation known as Falun Gong.
“You can really feel it,” said Jayne Schmidt, after participating in a practice session at a local community park in Pennsylvania. “It’s like you’re holding electricity.”
This ancient Chinese art, as interpreted today by Li Hongzhi, has been available to the general public for less than a decade. Yet, it has already become one of the most popular mind/body cultivation systems in Chinese history, used by more than 100 million people in over 30 countries.
The practice itself has two main components. The first is self-improvement through the study of three fundamental principals – truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. The second includes five gentle exercises, believed to open the body’s energy levels while strengthening and improving circulation. Sessions end with a tranquil, sitting meditation. The exercises can be practiced in a group or alone.
But Falun Gong goes beyond the pursuit of health and fitness, also stressing the goal of greater wisdom and enlightenment. By studying the books of Li Hongzhi and performing the exercises, practitioners hope to become better human beings.
The problem is that, although people are free to pursue this path in the US, it’s outlawed in China. There, thousands of practitioners – students, retirees, workers, scholars, and even officials – wage a daily struggle, facing harassment, detainment, and perhaps even death in police custody. Officially an atheist regime, the Chinese government refuses to acknowledge its citizens’ right to freedom of “thought, conscience and religion” (Article 18, Universal Declaration of Human Rights).
The Chinese ban was apparently triggered by a large demonstration in Beijing on April 25, 1999. From dawn until late into the night, an estimated 10,000 practitioners from various parts of the country stood quietly outside the compound of the Communist Party leadership. According to Falun Gong spokespersons, the demonstration was held in response to police harassment and detainment of practitioners over the previous months. Their plan was to demand official status and request a dialogue with the government. Instead, the authorities were unnerved by the group’s ability to mobilize such a large number of followers for public demonstrations without them knowing about it.
The Result: Falun Gong was banned on July 22, 1999, and a huge propaganda campaign was launched to denounce its practice and undermine its leaders, particularly Li Hongzhi.
That November, a representative of the government held a news conference to announce that Falun Gong had brainwashed its followers and caused more than 1400 deaths. “Any threat to the people and to society is a threat to the Communist Party and the government,” he added.
The regime also labeled the sect a “cult.” Those who practice Falun Gong counter that they’re free to come and go as they please, with no interruption in their usual lives. Money is never requested from the public, and practitioners are eager to introduce newcomers to the practice for free.
Since the ban, members claim that at least 67 people who dared to practice Falun Gong – ranging from 18 to 68 years old – have died in custody. The Chinese government confirms some of the deaths, but denies any mistreatment of detained members.
Despite the risks, practitioners continue to convene periodic protests in defiance of the ban. Last October, for example, a brief but large event was held on Tiananmen Square. Leaflets were scattered and banners raised before the police violently ended it.
After tourists were cleared from the square, paramilitary police marched in. According to the Associated Press, one man was thrown to the ground and kicked in the stomach and head until blood ran from his mouth. Police dragged an elderly woman by her hair for several yards as bystanders pleaded with them to stop. At least 100 people were seized, and one witness saw 30 police vans drive off, filled with protesters.
One of the leaflets they distributed said, “Justice is clear. Good and evil will be repaid in kind.” Another detailed the allegations that group members have been tortured and killed while in police custody. Since that protest, the government has confirmed that 151 principal organizers were convicted of some crime, and given prison sentences of up to 18 years.
In November, not long after the arrests, both houses of the US Congress passed resolutions criticizing China’s persecution of Falun Gong followers. The Senate also sent a letter expressing its concern.
Falun Gong practitioners say they aren’t political. Rather, their goals are self-improvement, health, wisdom, and enlightenment. But under China’s rulers, such altruistic intentions are nevertheless seen as a political threat, sparking what is widely viewed as a major and systematic violation of human rights.
The battle has since spilled into Hong Kong. Local officials there let Falun Gong rent space in City Hall to hold an international
conference. Demands were made for the right to practice freely on the mainland and an end to alleged torture-killings. Beijing and its Hong Kong allies were outraged to see such a campaign on Chinese soil.
Officials are caught between Beijing’s desire to stifle the group and equally vigorous arguments of pro-democracy and human rights campaigners, who claim Hong Kong’s cherished freedoms are under threat. The issue is becoming a major test of the “one country, two systems” government put in place when Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997.