July 24, 1999
Banned Movement's Head Urges Talks With China
By ERIK ECKHOLM
EW YORK -- The leader of the fast-spreading spiritual movement banned this week by the Chinese government said Friday that his group had no political ambitions and called on the government to engage in dialogue. "I don't want to get involved in politics ever," said Li, who in 1992 created a cosmic theory and a movement that now says it has more than 100 million members worldwide. Estimates of the number of followers in China range from the 2 million given by the government this week to the tens of millions claimed by supporters, numbers that cannot be verified.
From his self-imposed exile in New York, Li is embroiled in one of China's sharpest social rifts in years, as the government tries to stamp out a movement that has been wildly popular among many retirees, middle-age women and others, mainly in urban areas around the country. The government this week described Falun Gong as an illegal political and social force and Li as an "evil figure who, by deceiving, has been seriously disrupting social order."
Li, a youthful-looking 48, was dressed in a navy blue suit and spoke in mild terms, becoming most animated when countering government contentions that he had lied about his past and his personal gains. He seemed to be anything but the plotting charlatan portrayed in official Chinese statements this week, or even the charismatic leader of a new spiritual movement that has spread quickly in a few years and put the most populous country on a near crisis footing.
Alarmed by the rapid spread of a movement outside the control of the Communist Party, China's leaders detained scores of Falun Gong leaders and mounted a campaign of invective against Li. Subsequent protests by tens of thousands of followers in at least 30 cities were dispersed by the authorities.
"I really can't understand what the Chinese government is doing," Li said Friday. "I think the crackdown is going to do damage to the state, do damage to human rights and attract the attention of international public opinion." "If a state cannot even tolerate a part of its cultural heritage like qigong, then what can it tolerate?" he asked, referring to traditional exercises thought to channel cosmic forces on which major elements of his own movement are based.
Falun Gong was developed by Li after decades of study under various masters, he said in a personal history that the government disputes. It combines elements of qigong, Buddhism and Taoism. In Li's formulation, by performing certain physical exercises, people can harness cosmic forces to improve their health and well-being. The movement takes its name from the falun, the "law wheel" that is said to spin in the abdomen, drawing in good powers and expelling bad forces. Advanced students gain supernatural powers, his writings suggest. Many followers in China simply say that they feel better after having practiced the exercises and that they also enjoy the morning group exercises as a hobby. It is unclear how many Chinese are fervent followers.
But the Communist Party is unwilling to tolerate any competing allegiance. Surprised and shocked in April when 10,000 Falun Gong adherents held an unauthorized demonstration outside the leadership compound in central Beijing, the authorities apparently began planning the crackdown for this week. "If they want to outlaw the organization then let them do it," Li said. "We don't have an organization."
Followers insist that volunteers carry out all activities, teaching neighbors and friends. Li professed Friday to have no control over the activities of practitioners, who carefully study his books and speeches for direction in their meditation and exercise regimens. Critics have likened the group to a cultish religion, an idea that followers vehemently dispute.
Li has communicated with a spreading worldwide network of followers through the Internet, where his latest thoughts are often posted at several sites.
Chinese authorities this week called Falun Gong "highly organized," with 39 teaching centers, more than 1,900 instruction stations and more than 28,000 designated exercise spots around the country. The authorities said Li had amassed large sums of money from sales of his books and his lectures, had bought cars and houses through relatives and had "hoodwinked" and "corroded the minds" of followers.
Li angrily denied the charges of personal gain as "sheer fabrications." He also said the authorities had highlighted rare cases of followers who had committed murders or suicides without noting that those cases were already mentally ill. "It is a proven fact that more than 100 million people have become healthier by practicing Falun Gong," Li said. "And many patients with cancer or other terminal diseases are still living because of this practice."
In the interview, Li was more muted than in his writings about supernatural powers like X-ray vision, an ability to fly and the radically lengthened lives that may be achieved through proper harnessing of cosmic forces. Li said he felt that the reason for the persecution of Falun Gong was that so many people had become involved, including many Communist Party members, and that the growth had made officials nervous.
Authorities have tried to distinguish publicly between the "ordinary" practice of qigong as a health-promoting exercise and the practice of Falun Gong. In fact, most Chinese loosely believe in the supernatural forces evoked by various qigong sects. The Communist Party has worked unsuccessfully to stamp out such beliefs as superstition.
In detailing the case against Li this week, the Chinese authorities said records showed that he quietly visited Beijing on April 22, leaving for Hong Kong on April 24, the eve of the giant demonstration in Beijing by thousands of followers who were protesting harassment of the group and who called for the group's official approval.
In his interview, Li said he had visited Beijing then, but insisted that the timing was coincidental. He said that he was on a layover en route to Australia by the cheapest method, and that he did not meet with any followers and had not known of any demonstration plans.
Li, his wife and daughter have lived since last year in Queens in New York City, where they moved from China. They moved in part because he feared government interference, he said, but more because his daughter wanted to attend an American high school.
Copyright 1999 The New York Times
July 24, 1999
China Continues Campaign Against Spiritual Movement
By THE NEW YORK TIMES
EIJING -- A day after it outlawed a fast-growing spiritual movement, the Chinese government continued its campaign of invective Friday against the group, known as Falun Gong. The government maintained a tight cordon of security in central Beijing, where members of the group had gathered in protest after the authorities began detaining Falun Gong leaders around the country Monday night.
Early Friday morning, police detained about 200 people staging a sit-in demonstration at Tiananmen Square, according to foreign news agencies. Police then cleared the square, which was the site of vast pro-democracy rallies a decade ago, allowing only a line of people to snake into the Mao Zedong mausoleum. Hundreds of police and troops ringed Zhongnanhai, the compound that houses the Communist Party leaders. However, officials allowed motor traffic back into a thoroughfare on the western edge of the compound, where Falun Gong first attracted international attention with a demonstration on April 25.
The state-controlled news media repeatedly aired a documentary portraying the group's reclusive founder, Li Hongzhi, as a charlatan who deceives his followers and harbors a hidden political agenda. The main evening television news program gave prominent play to footage of President Jiang Zemin inspecting army troops, coinciding with the release of a statement from the army supporting the crackdown. The army said it would begin a campaign within its ranks "to struggle against idealism, feudal superstitions, and pseudoscientific ideas."
Copyright 1999 The New York Times