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China’s Crackdown on Falun Gong

Nearly a decade after it was outlawed in China, the mysterious movement known as Falun Gong is struggling to survive government persecution. What is the movement about—and why does it frighten Chinese authorities?

Who are the Falun Gong?Technically speaking, nobody is. The term Falun Gong refers to a discipline, a set of physical and mental exercises with roots in the same Eastern traditions as yoga and t'ai chi. Falun Gong'”at least as it was originally conceived'”is an offshoot of qigong, a system of martial arts and meditation that aims to promote health and well-being by harnessing the body's natural 'œqi' (pronounced chee), or life force. 'œGong' means practice or cultivation, 'œlun' means wheel, and 'œfa' means law, specifically the cosmic law that governs the universe. 'œFalun Gong,' therefore, roughly translates to 'œcultivation and practice of the wheel of cosmic law.' The movement itself is properly known as Falun Dafa, though increasingly'”and particularly in the West'”Falun Gong has become the common term for both the practice and the movement.

How old is it?It's quite new. Falun Gong was introduced in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, a former police-band trumpet player. Li, 41 at the time, had been developing the discipline since the age of 4, after a strange encounter at a Buddhist temple with a monk who, he says, 'œcame and held me and stared at me awhile.' The finished product consists of five simple exercises that if performed with the proper mind-set are supposed to facilitate the circulation of qi energy throughout the body. For best results, Li teaches, the exercises should be performed on a daily basis.

So it isn't a religion?That's a key question. China is officially an atheist country, and the government has authorized the practice of only five religions: Protestantism, Catholicism, Islam, Taoism, and Buddhism. In 1992, therefore, Li chose to register Falun Gong as just another martial art. But his teachings are laden with religious ideas'”some of which are pretty wacky. Falun Gong teaches that space aliens walk among us, and that we were preceded by 81 equally advanced civilizations, each of which was eventually destroyed. Followers are also taught that a true master of Falun Gong harnesses qi not only to improve health, but to acquire the power to fly, walk through walls, turn lead into gold, move objects with the mind, and become invisible.

Is this why it was banned?No. When Falun Gong really took off, in the early '90s, the Chinese authorities were actually supportive. Any practice that encouraged people to exercise regularly and seek health seemed a blessing for a nation with such a primitive, poorly funded health-care system. But all that changed on April 25, 1999. After a prominent scientist denounced the movement in a magazine, essentially calling it a cult, 10,000 Falun Gong adherents staged a protest around the main government compound in Beijing. The protest ended peacefully, with the dissenters picking up their own litter and dispersing. But the government was deeply perturbed that any group'”especially one claiming millions of followers'”could mount a demonstration on that scale. After viewing the rally from a car with tinted windows, then-President Jiang Zemin decided to act.

So he outlawed Falun Gong?That's putting it mildly. Immediately after the Beijing protest, the government commenced a secret investigation of Falun Gong, and on July 22, 1999, declared the movement a 'œsocial cancer' and started rounding up people. All across China, police herded followers into stadiums, where they were interrogated and forced to sign statements renouncing the movement. As many as 100,000 of the most stubborn were sent to mental hospitals or labor camps to be 'œre-educated''”a euphemism, by most accounts, for forced labor, starvation, torture, and in some cases execution. Hard numbers are impossible to come by, but a Falun Gong Web site claims at least 2,898 practitioners have died in jail. Li Hongzhi managed to get out of China; he now lives somewhere in New York City, but stays out of sight, fearing the Chinese government will send assassins to eliminate him.

Did the crackdown work?Yes and no. The surviving remnants of the movement, an estimated 30,000 to 40,000, were driven underground'”but not entirely out of sight. Supporters of Falun Gong are now a fixture in the streets and parks of most Western cities, where they use sit-ins and street theater to protest the ongoing repression of the movement in China. In 2002, three Falun Gong followers set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square'”though many adherents now claim the incident was staged by Chinese authorities to further discredit the movement. In April, a joint press conference by President Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao was interrupted for nearly three minutes by Falun Gong member Wenyi Wang, who screamed at Hu, in Chinese, that 'œevil people die early,' and at Bush, in English, to 'œstop him from persecuting the Falun Gong! Stop him from killing! Stop the torture and killings!'

So what is the West doing?

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