The New York Times

New York Times International

July 5, 2001

Sect Clings to the Web in the Face of Beijing's Ban


Agence France-Presse
Two Falun Gong followers at their trial in April in Beijing, where they were given 13-year prison terms for threatening to derail trains unless the government freed Falun Gong detainees.

Craig S. Smith/The New York Times
Lloyd Zhao, a fervent Falun Gong follower and computer technician, at the sect's Web site.

Jeffrey A. Salter/The New York Times
Li Hongzhi, founder of the outlawed movement, in Manhattan.

BEIJING Tapping away at one of his computers in a cramped two- room apartment in western Beijing, Lloyd Zhao is engaged in an extraordinarily dangerous endeavor searching through the night for holes in the electronic wall that the government has built to keep Chinese from seeing Web sites of Falun Gong, the outlawed spiritual movement.

Periodically, firewall programs that Mr. Zhao has installed on his computer detect a signal from another computer in China that is trying to identify him. The string of numbers from the snooping computer that appear on Mr. Zhao's screen can invariably be traced to a branch of the Public Security Bureau.

"They look for anyone who tries to reach Falun Gong Web sites overseas," says the shaggy-haired Mr. Zhao, 33, a fervent Falun Gong follower and an advanced computer technician. When the surveillance becomes too intense, he switches Internet accounts, operating systems, even hard-disk drives and telephone lines to mask his online identity.

He says the threat of detection will not dissuade him from his self-appointed mission to keep open the lines of communication between the discipline's United States-based founder, Li Hongzhi, and followers here, where a government campaign to eradicate the movement has entered what Beijing hopes is the endgame.

Since China set out to crush Falun Gong nearly two years ago, as many as 200 people have died, possibly thousands have been beaten or tortured, and millions have been cowed into renouncing their faith in Mr. Li's apocalyptic cosmology.

[On Wednesday, Chinese officials confirmed a human rights report of a mass suicide by Falun Gong followers in a labor camp, but Falun Gong adherents continued to insist that the inmates were tortured to death.]

But Mr. Zhao and hundreds like him continue to elude China's internal security forces, using temporary cell phone numbers, encryption programs and obscure Internet services based overseas to keep the remaining network of followers connected.

That makes Mr. Zhao one of the "most dangerous" of Falun Gong's remaining proponents, according to He Zuoxiu, a physicist and a Communist Party member who has played an integral role in having the movement banned. Mr. He says Falun Gong is an evil cult that, unchallenged, could threaten China's tenuous stability, should it galvanize the millions of people disenfranchised by the transition from a centrally planned to a market-driven economy.

Sitting in his apartment a few miles from Mr. Zhao's apartment, Mr. He said people like Mr. Zhao should be hunted down and locked up until they have recanted their beliefs.

The two men, separated not only by age but also by spiritual beliefs Mr. He, 74, is an avowed atheist, and Mr. Zhao believes in multiple gods are on opposite sides of a confrontation that has drawn considerable attention in the West, in part because it represents the most sustained challenge to Communist Party authority in more than a decade.

On one side is a group that believes that it is engaged in a battle with evil beings for control of the universe. On the other is a government that promotes atheism and feels so threatened by a relative handful of people that it has marshaled the full force of its police power to bend them to its will.

"The number of followers is getting smaller, and the crackdown is growing fiercer, but it's going to end with our victory soon," Mr. Zhao said at one of many recent interviews, almost always at restaurants or bars or shopping malls around the city, for which his lanky frame, clad in black, would suddenly emerge from the crowd at the appointed hour.

Mr. Zhao said he had decided to speak out because Master Li says followers should step forward to "validate" Falun Gong. Mr. Zhao said he believed that the authorities would find it difficult to identify him, because Zhao is a common surname in China. He asked that this article use his anglicized first name, which he uses with foreigners but which does not appear on any of his identity papers.

One meeting was in a private room on the second floor of a Thai-Indian restaurant where Mr. Zhao and two visitors were obliged to order too much food to buy some isolation. Yet he still chose his words carefully, stopping in midsentence whenever a waitress passed by outside or entered the room. No matter where he is, his eyes have a habit of looking out their corners as if he were listening for footfalls from behind.

He turns vague when asked how the end will come.

Under attack, Falun Gong has evolved from a well-regulated movement with a structure not unlike that of the Communist Party into a nonhierarchical mass movement whose structure mirrors that of the Internet, on which it depends.

There are no longer any national Falun Gong posts in China, only local volunteer "tutors" and "facilitators" like Mr. Zhao who look to Master Li for guidance. Although Mr. Zhao is an important node in that network, he is the first to concede that he and his friends are dispensable.

If they are caught, he said, other devotees will take their place. The Communist Party can punch large holes in the Falun Gong movement. But until the government "re-educates" or imprisons every last true believer, he explained, the network will endure.

Still, the destruction of the group's internal hierarchy has fragmented its members into loosely connected groups, some following charismatic tutors or even fake scriptures that are circulating in China.

Interpretations of Mr. Li's messages now vary widely among followers. One manifestation of the less cohesive dogma may have been the self-immolation of followers this year on Tiananmen Square, an act that senior followers in the United States say went against Mr. Li's teachings.

Inspiration: After Bar Binges, a Spiritual Quest

Mr. Zhao got his start on computers in the early 1980's. By the time he reached his 20's, he was among the first computer geeks in China, going days without sleep while he hacked away at his keyboard. His expertise later landed him a string of high-tech jobs. One was at a company that installed pinhole video cameras and other surveillance equipment in hotel rooms.

For years, he softened the edges of his spiritually arid life among computers with binges in Beijing's bars. With beer, cigarettes and sleep deprivation, his health deteriorated to the point that he began losing his teeth. He speaks today with a self- consciously stiff upper lip that hides a gap where his eyeteeth once were.

Many Falun Gong followers live in an industrial urban jumble of half- finished concrete shells, smokestacks and high-tension power lines where traditional religion has been replaced by official atheism.

Mr. Li, a former clerk in a government grain bureau, was among dozens of self-styled "masters" who stepped in to fill that void in the early 90's with spiritual disciplines based on the practice of traditional Chinese breathing exercises that seek to channel qi, the body's vital energy, to improve health or obtain supernatural powers.

He wrapped his exercises in a complex cosmology that mixed traditional religious tenets with popular notions of extraterrestrials and U.F.O.'s to create a vivid belief system that struck a chord with many Chinese who were searching for moral and spiritual guidance.

In 1996, a friend sent Mr. Zhao an e-mail message that directed him to a Falun Gong Web site in the United States. He logged onto the site and spent the night reading an online edition of Zhuan Falun, Mr. Li's main text, which followers regard as their bible. Mr. Zhao bought a copy the next day. Three days later, he said, he stopped smoking and drinking and was immersed in the world that Mr. Li presents.

At its core, Mr. Li's message is a simple one be a better person and you will be saved. He cast his followers in the pivotal role of a cosmic morality play, the aspect that most attracted Mr. Zhao.

"Master Li has said that there is not much time left, and so all followers should grasp this chance to reached the highest spiritual level that they can before the day comes," Mr. Zhao said at another meeting, this time beneath the soaring escalators of a new shopping mall here. "My aspirations are different now. I'm pursuing the improvement of my inner self."

At the peak of the movement two years ago, thousands of Falun Gong "tutors" guided followers in exercise and study sessions in parks and plazas at dawn each day. The tutors were, in turn, grouped into "stations" and met regularly to discuss the development of the movement and the planning of periodic mass events.

Station "chiefs" communicated with the Falun Dafa Research Society in Beijing, which took orders from Mr. Li. Falun Dafa, or Great Law of the Dharma Wheel, is the formal name for Falun Gong, or Dharma Wheel Practice.

Mr. He, the physicist, was among the first prominent Chinese to speak out against the growing organization. According to Mr. He, one of his students became mentally unstable after practicing the discipline in the mid-90's, and the physicist faulted Falun Gong for the student's trouble in a televised interview in 1998.

In a magazine article a year later, Mr. He warned again of the movement's danger to youth. That article inspired a 10,000-strong Falun Gong demonstration outside the leadership compound here in April 1999, the event that precipitated the government's eradication campaign.

Falun Gong's formal structure in China broke down after the crackdown, as members of the hierarchy were rounded up, with the most active sentenced to lengthy jail terms. Those tutors not under detention are now under close surveillance by the neighborhood committees that are the lowest rung of the Communist Party's national surveillance system.

Nonetheless, many Falun Gong followers continue to meet daily, though it is impossible to tell how many remain active. Mr. Li says there are 70 million practitioners in China and 100 million followers worldwide, though he has never offered evidence to support that. Closer scrutiny suggests the movement in China never numbered more than several million, and China's anti- Falun Gong campaign has most certainly scared off many.

The government has had more than a year to measure the breadth and depth of what is left, and it apparently believes that it has identified the remaining core, 40,000 people, according to Mr. He. By dealing harshly with the most militant, a manageable number in the scope of the vast internal security apparatus, Beijing hopes to neutralize the rest.

"The detention centers are all full up!" Mr. He exclaimed, sitting in his study in black long johns and a gray hand-knit sweater one afternoon.

He said that at the beginning of the year the government switched from its strategy of sending followers arrested in the capital back to their home provinces and began collecting the detainees at centers here. As many as 6,000 of the most active followers are in detention, to be held until they have recanted their beliefs or are sent to reform-through-labor camps in the countryside, Mr. He said.

Mr. He has become one of Falun Gong's prime enemies, described in the group's literature as a demon in league with evil beings, including President Jiang Zemin, who are fighting Falun Gong for control of the universe. Mr. He smiles at the reference, his eyeglasses and thin gray hair askew, but he insists that such talk is far from harmless. He said it recalled the language of the Taiping, the mid-19th century spiritual movement that turned into full-scale armed rebellion, which took over a huge swath of the country, cost millions of lives and threatened to bring down the last imperial government before it was suppressed.

That assessment paints Mr. Zhao as a threat to China's social order, a role Mr. He knows well. "I did underground work," he said, recalling his early days as a Communist Party member before the party took power in 1949. "We went to demonstrate, but the core in the movement wouldn't go to the streets. Falun Gong is the same."

Practice: As Pressure Grows, a Movement Adapts

In Mr. Zhao's crowded apartment, a diptych that shows the Falun Gong founder both seated and standing sits atop a white enameled bookshelf beside Mr. Zhao's bed. The apartment's only other decoration is a round pillow with a large yellow swastika, a Buddhist symbol of good will, surrounded by smaller swastikas and yin-yang symbols, associated with Taoism, the other ancient philosophical strain that has contributed to Master Li's teachings. This is where Mr. Zhao sits to perform his exercises each day.

The pillow's emblem represents the Falun, or Dharma Wheel, and is described by Mr. Li as a miniature of the cosmos that he says he installs telekinetically in the abdomens of all his followers, where it rotates in alternating directions, throwing off bad karma and gathering qi. Many Falun Gong adherents say they can feel the wheel turning in their bellies.

The rest of Mr. Zhao's Falun Gong paraphernalia books, tapes and photographs of Mr. Li are stored elsewhere in case his apartment is raided. Mr. Zhao and others like him download and disseminate inspirational Falun Gong videos, Falun Gong propaganda fliers and even Mr. Li's books formatted for desktop printers, all with the intent of keeping the movement in China alive.

Mr. Zhao has distributed hundreds of compact disks containing a complete Falun Gong kit, including links to secure Internet servers overseas and dozens of Falun Gong Web sites, as well as photographs of U.F.O.'s and videos of the corpses of some of the followers reportedly tortured to death by the police.

"When Master Li issues a new message, 99 percent of the followers in Beijing will have it within three days," Mr. Zhao said.

China recently issued a new legal interpretation of the antisubversion laws that allows it to hand down lengthy prison terms to followers like Mr. Zhao who distribute leaflets or disseminate Mr. Li's messages, which have grown increasingly apocalyptic.

"It is in fact time to let go of your last attachments," Mr. Li wrote to followers in August, adding that believers should "let go of all worldly attachments (including the attachment to the human body)."

On Jan. 1, Mr. Li told his disciples: "The present performance of the evil shows that they are already utterly inhuman and completely without righteous thoughts. So such evil's persecution of the Fa can no longer be tolerated."

That set off a debate among Falun Gong followers in China about what Mr. Li's message meant. Senior followers in the United States were quick to issue an appeal that followers keep calm. A week later, a similarly cautionary note was posted on the Web site by followers in China, who wrote that "certain disciples had some extreme interpretations" of the message.

Mr. Li never clarified his remarks, and three weeks after he made them, five followers ignited themselves on Tiananmen Square.

The Chinese government seized on the self-immolations as proof of its contentions that Falun Gong is dangerous. Some Falun Gong followers insisted that Mr. Li prohibits the taking of life, even one's own, and that the five could therefore not have been Falun Gong followers.

But contrary to the Falun Gong public relations campaign, which is organized in the United States, Mr. Zhao said he believed that at least some of the people who set themselves on fire were indeed followers. "What they did was wrong," he said. "But it was very brave."

Mr. Zhao said his job was to keep Mr. Li's message pure and to prevent additional followers from going astray. With a few keystrokes in the darkness, he circumvents the government's electronic barriers and up pops Mr. Li's image on the screen, along with a message that reads, "Removing the evil beings that manipulate people to damage humankind is also protecting humankind."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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