October 28, 1999

Falun Gong Members Meet With Foreign Journalists

BEIJING -- Members of the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual movement held a daring, clandestine meeting with a handful of foreign journalists Thursday to appeal for international help against a relentless government crackdown. Risking serious criminal charges for speaking out at an illegal meeting, Falun Gong members described a worsening pattern of harassment, arrests and even physical abuse since their movement was banned in July. They insisted, against all evidence, that if national leaders only knew the facts, they would see the movement as wholesome and unthreatening.

"What we want is not much -- we just want a peaceful place to practice," said Jiang Chaohui, a devotee who recently had to resign his assistant manager's job in a joint venture in the southern province of Fujian. He came to Beijing last week, he said, "to report the truth to the highest authorities." But like hundreds of other practitioners who have converged on Beijing in recent days, dodging the police, Jiang, 35, has discovered that the right to petition the authorities for justice means little because the government has decided that it must destroy the movement.

The seven foreign reporters attending the meeting were spirited by a succession of cars to a suburban location. In a country where information is usually tightly controlled, the ability of the group to organize such an audacious meeting itself suggested why Communist leaders feel threatened.

The police detained members of the banned Falun Gong movement in Tiananmen Square in Beijing Thursday. Dozens were taken away on buses.

Falun Gong, which melds elements of Buddhism and Taoism with traditional qigong exercises that are said to harness cosmic forces in the body, has been wildly popular since its founding in 1992, especially among middle-aged and older people, who believe that it enhances health. The writings of its leader, Li Hongzhi, who now lives in New York, advocate clean living, and suggest that committed practitioners can even attain supernatural powers.

But China's top leaders, who were shocked in April when thousands of Falun Gong members converged without warning at the Communist Party leadership's compound in Beijing to demand official recognition, portray the group as a threat to party rule and social stability. Li, its leader, is said to harbor covert political goals and to exploit the gullible to enrich himself.

Some 30 believers at Thursday's clandestine meeting vehemently rejected such characterizations. They included two policemen, both Communist Party members, from the northeastern province of Liaoning who said they had been forced by their superiors to choose between their careers and their devotion to Falun Gong. "Our Master Li told us the universal law unselfishly," said one of them, Wang Zhiguo, 37. "So on Oct. 15 I took off my police uniform and came to Beijing," Wang said, and he hopes somehow to convince national leaders that Falun Gong is no threat.

After the group was declared an illegal organization on July 22, a few dozen top leaders were arrested while thousands more who refused to repudiate the philosophy have suffered temporary detentions and sometimes have lost their jobs. At Thursday's meeting, 11-year-old Qu Yuyan said he had not been allowed to attend his school, in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, because he practiced Falun Gong.

In the official news media this week, Falun Gong was labeled a "cult," perhaps setting the stage for harsher measures since cults are illegal. And with the announcement that many of the arrested Falun Gong leaders had seen top-secret documents concerning the campaign against the movement, it is considered certain that show trials and long sentences for perhaps dozens of leaders are soon to come.

"No responsible government will allow a cult to harm people's lives and security, destroy public order or social stability," a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Zhang Qiyue, said Thursday. The state press has compared the group to cults like Aum Shinrikyo in Japan, whose adherents released nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system in 1995, and the Branch Davidians, who died fiery deaths in the United States.

A second policeman at Thursday's covert meeting with journalists, Shi Jingsheng, 35, said, "The government decided we are a cult because they have listened to false reports." Those who practice Falun Gong, he said, "cultivate themselves to be truly kind." When his bosses forced him to criticize Falun Gong, he said, "I couldn't bear it," so he left for Beijing. "I told my leader that I still wanted to be a good policeman and a good citizen," he said. "This is not contradictory: Falun Gong asks us to be better policemen and better party members."

Thursday, for the fourth straight day, some of the many believers who have gathered in Beijing walked onto Tiananmen Square or around the adjacent Great Hall of the People as a form of silent witness, or protest. Dozens were seen being away led by the police to buses, which took them to temporary detention centers or sometimes back to their home provinces.

One speaker at Thursday's clandestine meeting, a 31-year-old hairdresser named Ding Yan from Shijiazhuang in nearby Hebei province, said she and others were badly mistreated after they were arrested on Tiananmen Square on Oct. 17. She said that her arms were twisted into painful positions before she was handcuffed, and that she had been beaten in the face. "Even though you treat us this way," she recalled telling the police, "we don't hate you because you don't understand us." Ms. Ding also described the long hunger strikes of another woman jailed in Shijiazhuang, a radio broadcaster who had aired a program sympathetic to Falun Gong.

The 30 adherents attending Thursday's meeting concluded it by demonstrating the key exercises that are said to keep the Falun -- an inner cosmic wheel -- spinning, drawing good forces into the body and expelling bad ones. At the very end, they chanted in unison one of Li's poems, "To Be a Person," which includes lines like, "Have serene assurance in yourself and don't strive for fame," and "To be free of lust, keep a pure heart and quell your desires."

October 28, 1999

Falun Gong Devotees Converge on Beijing in Bid to End Government Ban


BEIJING -- In a brazen act of civil disobedience, thousands of members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement have descended on Beijing in recent days and weeks, hoping, the members say, to press the Government to reverse its condemnation. The Government outlawed the movement, which it has called an "evil sect," on July 22 and has mounted a relentless campaign to discredit its leaders and ideas. Dozens of leaders are being held for trial, while thousands of disciples in cities around the country have been briefly detained, some repeatedly, as they refuse to disavow a method they fervently believe has brought them physical and spiritual well-being.

Falun Gong, developed in 1992 by a former clerk named Li Hongzhi who now lives in New York, combines traditional Chinese exercises and meditation with elements of Buddhism and Taoism. The group claims to have tens of millions of followers, mostly in China, while the Government puts the number at two million.

Thursday, for the third straight day, small groups of unrepentant Falun Gong devotees trickled onto the vast expanse of Tiananmen Square, staging silent, almost private protests. They were hard to discern among the tourists and local people who always fill the area, but patrolling plainclothes police officers stopped and questioned suspicious people. Dozens who admitted that they were Falun Gong adherents were quickly led away to buses.

But a far wider and more profound confrontation appears to be building between clearly unnerved authorities and an uncrushed movement that with astonishing speed drew in millions of ordinary, seemingly nonpolitical Chinese, creating an unexpected challenge to Communist authority. The followers' sense of injustice was deepened when Wednesday night's television news described the unyielding commentary to appear in this morning's People's Daily, the Communist newspaper, calling Falun Gong a "true cult" that "brainwashes" followers with "heretical ideas" and intimidation.

Even as the Government intensified its attacks on the group, large numbers of followers were hiding in the capital and preparing, for example, to petition the National People's Congress, China's Parliament, or mount further demonstrations. "There are practitioners all over Beijing now -- under the bridges, in the alleyways, everywhere," said Qu Dehong, a farmer from Yongan Township in northeastern Heilongjiang Province, who is now in Beijing. "We plan to stay until Falun Gong is rehabilitated," he said. "We are here to appeal to the central Government. The ban on Falun Gong will be regretted by history."

Late Wednesday and early this morning groups of followers were on edge around the city, wondering how to present their appeals and dodge the stepped-up police presence. Extra vans of police officers were visible overnight not only around Tiananmen Square, but also along roads and near parks in some areas.

A 38-year-old Beijing woman, who works as a clerk in a state conglomerate and has been a practitioner of Falun Gong for two years, said: "We are good people, and we are not interested in politics. We have to convince the authorities not to brand good people as evil." The woman, who would give only her surname of Zhang, said that her home was raided on Wednesday and that she expected to be detained today when she and several other adherents planned to try to present a statement to the Congress, which on paper is the country's supreme legal authority. The Congress's Standing Committee is currently considering a law intended to crush "religious cults." Like many other followers, she has made previous efforts to petition the authorities to reverse their verdict, and has been detained more than once as a result, she said in an interview this morning.

Some devotees said that tens of thousands or more of Falun Gong members from other provinces were now in the city, but the numbers could not be confirmed. Some outsiders have hidden in and around the city for weeks, searching for ways to petition or convince authorities that the ban was a terrible mistake. Many more have come from outlying provinces in recent days, followers said. One farm outside Beijing, without heat or electricity, was serving as temporary quarters for at least 50 visiting members, Reuters reported.

The migration into the capital and the protests of recent days were not organized, members insisted, but rather were a largely spontaneous display of frustration by practitioners who are unwilling to give up Falun Gong and have faced building harassment from the police or in their workplaces since July.

Some followers from outside Beijing said they had had so much trouble with the police since the July ban that they intended to continue their furtive lives and appeals in Beijing until the Government sees the light. "I don't dare to return to Liaoning" said a 36-year-old believer named Wu of her home province in northeastern China. Ms. Wu, who spoke early this morning, was part of the group that intended to present a statement to the Congress later today, with her arrest virtually certain.

In addition to the Congress's deliberations on new restrictions on "cults," Falun Gong members said they were incensed by President Jiang Zemin's statement in France on Monday that their group was "an evil cult threatening the Chinese people and society." Zhou Li of the Microbiology Institute at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said, "Jiang Zemin declared it an evil cult, so people from different provinces are coming independently." She said that 1,000 out-of-town followers were detained in Beijing on Monday. "They want to demonstrate how good the Falun system is," she said. "They're all prepared to be arrested."

Falun Gong first provoked the ire of the Government on April 25, when 10,000 members staged a silent vigil in the heart of Beijing around Zhongnanhai, the Chinese leadership compound, seeking official recognition for the group. The ease with which the movement was able to assemble so many protesters, without warning, in such a site clearly stunned China's leaders.

The tension between the Government and the group has increased steadily since then. Even before the July ban, the Government forbade party members from practicing, harassed members and closed down bookshops that sold Falun Gong materials. Since July the Government has waged a strident villification campaign, suggesting that Li is a common scoundrel out to bilk the naïve and that thousands of people have died because they put their faith in Falun Gong rather than seek medical care. The group says that its exercises are so beneficial that followers may not need medical care, although it does not forbid it. The Government has also accused the group of propagating superstition, even drawing parallels in today's People's Daily with the Branch Davidians. Li's books do combine relatively straightforward spiritual and exercise advice with discussions of topics like time travel and achieving X-ray vision.

But the savagery of the campaign seems to have backfired to some degree, appalling many Chinese who regarded Falun Gong primarily as a health movement, favored especially by middle-aged and retired people who performed the exercises in groups in urban parks. Qu, the farmer now hiding in Beijing, said that since he had begun practicing Falun Gong two years ago he had quit smoking, drinking and gambling and that his goal now was simply to lodge a protest with someone in authority. "We don't have slogans and we won't stage demonstrations," he said, noting that in his township alone there were 400 practitioners.

Yuan P. Li, a Chinese-born practitioner in Atlanta, said that it was "impossible" that this week's protests were centrally organized, given the monthslong crackdown including large-scale detentions and surveillance. "All the old lines of communication are broken," he said. "And the international Web sites are blocked from entering China."

Early Thursday, the police presence in and around Tiananmen Square increased as more practitioners, learning about the People's Daily editorial, vowed to make a public statement. One student named Cai at Qinghua University said: "I'm going down to Tiananmen. Maybe I won't be coming back. I don't know. But I'm prepared for that eventuality."

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company

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