TAMPA -- John Nania stood motionless in the parking lot beside the Days Inn on Fletcher Avenue, eyes closed, feet splayed, arms gently outstretched.
It was a moment of meditation. It was an act of rebellion.
"This is what the Chinese government is so threatened by," Nania had just explained.
Falun gong, a spiritual way of life that includes the slow, deliberate movements Nania practices, has been outlawed for several years in China, its birthplace. Practitioners have been detained, some tortured, others killed.
After staging a peaceful protest in Beijing in the name of falun gong last month with 35 other foreigners, Nania, too, was detained.
"I didn't plan to get arrested," said Nania, a Minneapolis computer consultant, "but that's what happened."
Nania, 43, flew to Tampa as a featured speaker at a conference this weekend on falun gong at the University of South Florida.
In accordance with the falun gong philosophy, there is no fee for participants and no registration for the two days of events at the USF Special Events Center that include demonstrations, lectures and practice.
Falun gong was born 10 years ago when a former Chinese government clerk, Li Hongzhi, began teaching a variation of the national exercise, tai chi. By the mid 1990s, falun gong had millions of adherents in China.
Master Li, as he became known, lectured widely about how to lead a moral life. Parks were crammed with daily practitioners.
At first, the government supported its practice. But its mass appeal soon worried Chinese authorities bent on safeguarding Communism. Falun gong was declared an "evil cult." Practicing it became a crime.
"The emphasis in this practice," Nania said, "is to free the mind from attachments" such as fame and money. "The idea is very foreign to Westerners."
Even as falun gong was outlawed in the East, its appeal has spread to the West. In most major cities, adherents practice quietly in parks, at YMCAs or on college campuses. The Tampa Bay area has several small groups, including two in St. Petersburg and two in Tampa.
Last month, Nania sent e-mails to seven friends and family members, explaining why he was going to Beijing for five days in order to practice falun gong for a mere 15 minutes in public. The goal was to regain acceptance for the movement among the Chinese.
"Oh! You're going to be thrown in jail!" warned Nania's sister, "but at least it will be for a good cause."
In Tiananmen Square last month, the group of foreigners sat down and quickly adopted a falun gong posture. A few unfurled a banner. Written in Mandarin and English were three words: Truth, compassion, tolerance. They are the falun gong principles, the stuff, the Chinese government fears, of revolution.
"We had the banner up for 30 seconds before the police were there," said Nania. One man who resisted had his finger broken, Nania said. All but one were hustled to a police station.
"We were interrogated one by one," Nania said.
"Are you a Christian?" Chinese police wanted to know of Nania, who was raised in a Catholic home.
"Do you see any conflict?" they asked.
And later: "Do not lie!"
Still, said Nania, "I was treated with relative respect." He was detained for 17 hours. There was no torture or even much discomfort. The international press was covering the detentions, he said, and the world's eyes were on China.
"We did something really noble and righteous." Sharing those experiences, he said, is a responsibility.
BEIJING - China has jailed six academics fordownloading material on the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong anddistributing it over the Internet, a Hong-Kong based human rights groupsaid.
Beijing's Number One Intermediate Court sentenced the six Falun Gongpractitioners, including four graduate students at the prestigious TsinghuaUniversity, the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said in astatement seen on Sunday.
The six received separate jail terms of three to 12 years for ``making useof a cult to undermine the implementation of the law,'' the group saidciting relatives and a fellow practitioner at the university.
The court was not reachable for comment.
China has carried out a legal crackdown against the practice anddissemination of Falun Gong since branding it an ''evil cult'' and banningit in 1999.
Falun Gong practices a mixture of Taoism and Buddhism and traditionalChinese physical exercises.
The human rights group did not say if the six jailed were accused of actingtogether but said they included husband-and-wife Tsinghua scientists LiuWenyu and Yao Yue. The six were detained between January and April.
Yao, who studied microelectronics, received a 12-year sentence while husbandLiu, who studied thermal energy, was jailed for three years, the group said.
Nine other Tsinghua students or teachers who have been arrested foractivities related to Falun Gong remain untried, it said.
Thirty-two Tsinghua University academics overseas have sent an open lettercalling on Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji and Vice President Hu Jintao, bothalumni of the university, to stop Beijing's ``suppression and persecution ofFalun Gong,'' it said.
Chinese state media have intensified a campaign against the spiritual groupin recent weeks through repeated coverage highlighting a murder in Beijingthat officials said was carried out by a practitioner.
The banned group's U.S.-based information center has denied the reports,saying its teachings prohibit killing and suicide.
The group says more than 1,600 followers have died as a result of abuse inpolice custody or detention centers.
Chinese authorities have acknowledged several deaths of Falun Gong membersin custody, but say most resulted from suicide or illness. They blame thegroup for the deaths of at least 1,800 people through suicide or the refusalto take medical treatment.
Falun Gong members (from left) Wei Ping, Joy Zhao, Hong Liner, Young Yang and Leeshai Lemish arrive at the Capitol after a three-day walk from Portland to Salem to raise awareness of the issues the spiritual group faces throughout the world.
A handful of Falun Gong enthusiasts arrived in Salem midday Monday after a 2 1/2-day march from Portland to publicize repression against the movement in China.
"Many lives are at risk," said Joy Zhao, a Portland State University student who helped organize the march. "By doing this walk, we hope more people will know the truth about this persecution."
Falun Gong combines meditation, spiritual and philosophical guidelines, and exercises similar to Tai Chi and yoga. It revolves around three precepts: truth, compassion and tolerance.
After its 1992 founding by Li Hongzhi, Falun Gong attracted tens of millions of adherents in China. By the late-1990s, thousands of followers thronged to Tiananmen Square for daily group exercises. As the movement swelled, the Chinese government cracked down on the practice, ultimately banning Falun Gong in 1999.
The government was "scared of people gathering," said Zhao, one of eight people who participated in the Portland-to-Salem march and one of three who finished the entire 49-mile route, mostly along Highway 99E.
The Chinese government "can't stand that people are free and have free thought," said Xiao Yang. She learned about Falun Gong on a 1996 trip to China, and now lives in Portland.
Falun Gong cured her mother's heart disease, Yang said. "It's really a miracle."
Followers say tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners have been arrested in China, many of them detained in labor camps or mental institutions. Many have been beaten or died in custody, they said.
Li now resides in the United States, and his ideas continue to draw followers here and around the world.
In recent months, Falun Gong followers have organized a series of marches in various nations and across the United States to publicize their plight.
Marchers estimated there are only 30 people who practice Falun Gong in Oregon, and none in the Salem area.
But they hope to attract more through the Internet, one-on-one instruction and training.
BEIJING - A member of the Falun Gong spiritual movement died in custody on December 5 after police beat her for refusing to answer their questions, a human rights group reported on Sunday.
Zhang Min died in the Yilan County No. 2 Detention Center in Heilongjiang province, the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said.
Zhang was arrested on November 28 while she was distributing Falun Gong leaflets with eight other members, the center said.
Police ordered Zhang to tell them where she got the leaflets and where they were printed, but she refused to cooperate and became seriously ill as a result of beatings and lack of water, it said.
Despite her obvious illness, Zhang was not taken to hospital and eventually died of breathing problems. Her body was cremated on December 7, it said.
The center said it had confirmed 186 deaths in custody of Falun Gong members since China banned the group in 1999.
Exiled Falun Gong leaders claim 321 members have died in Chinese police custody. They say more than 500 practitioners have been jailed, some 1,000 confined to mental hospitals, and 20,000 sent to labor camps without trial.
But the government says the group it deems an "evil cult" has led to the death of up to 2,000 people, mostly by encouraging followers to avoid medical treatment or stage hunger strikes after detention.
Last month China expelled 35 Western Falun Gong members who protested in Beijing's Tiananmen Square against the government crackdown on the group.
Falun Gong promotes a mixture of traditional qi gong breathing exercises and Taoist, Buddhist and other beliefs.
The death toll of Saturday's explosion at a McDonald's outlet in China has gone up to two, after a weekend that saw five others die during a series of similar incidents in a southern province.
Beijing has asked regional authorities to conduct a thorough security check in the wake of the incidents in Shaanxi and Guangdong provinces.
Apart from stepping up surveillance on criminal gangs, a key goal of this year's winter security campaign is to prevent violent and terrorist activities.
China's official media have reported that the violent acts were committed by individuals rather than groups or organizations.
However, sources close to security departments in Beijing said the authorities were investigating whether the recent bombing incidents and other violent acts not reported in the media had links to terrorist and "cult" groups including Xinjiang separatists and the Falun Gong.
They said police nationwide were on alert against Uighur separatists who might stage acts of retaliation against the arrests of more than 2,000 underground activists in southern and western Xinjiang since mid-September.
Xian has a sizeable population of Uighurs and the lone suspect behind the McDonald's bombing was reported by local police to be somebody from outside Shaanxi Province.
Several official papers also reported that the McDonald's incident was a case of "suicide bombing" and that the suspect was killed on the spot.
At the same time, internal party and government circulars have identified the Falun Gong spiritual movement as a "terrorist organization."
And the state media on Monday gave a big play to the story of Falun Gong practitioner Fu Yibin, who allegedly stabbed his father and wife to death late last month.
The official China News Service reported on Monday that police in Shaanxi were carrying out extra checks in an effort to prevent fires, explosions, as well as "violent and terrorist activities."
The special security alert would last at least through to the Chinese New Year in mid-February.
Officials in Guandong said over the weekend that the explosions that killed five and injured seven in the cities of Zhanjiang and Jiangmen were perpetrated by Lin Guojian.
They said Lin, who died while setting off a detonation, had had arguments with some of his victims over money and emotional issues.
A Hong Kong-based rights group says a follower of the banned Falun Gong meditation sect has died after being beaten by police in China.
The Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said Zhang Min died on December 5 at a detention center in Yilan county in northern Heilongjiang province after repeated police beatings.
The Information Center said Ms. Zhang was passing out Falun Gong material with eight other followers when they were arrested on November 28.
The rights group says police beat her repeatedly in an attempt to find out who had printed the materials and where she had obtained them. The group says authorities cremated the woman's body two days after her death.
According to the human-rights center, Ms. Zhang was the 186th Falun Gong follower to die as a result of abuse since China's Communist rulers outlawed the sect in July of 1999. The Falun Gong puts the number higher, at over 300.
Beijing considers the Falun Gong to be a threat to social stability and has detained tens of thousands of practitioners in labor camps, mental hospitals and prisons without trial.
SALT LAKE CITY -- Followers of a spiritual practice outlawed in China have been given permits to meditate en masse during the 2002 Olympics.
City officials and Olympic leaders have designated a number of protest zones where gatherings will be allowed during the Feb. 8-24 games.
Falun Dafa, also known as Falun Gong, signed up for time every day Feb. 7-24. Some of the 50-minute demonstration slots allow for up to 500 people to gather.
``They just want to show the world that peace is a good thing,'' said Josh Ewing, spokesman for Mayor Rocky Anderson. Followers of the practice meditate, exercise and read from scriptures.
City officials review applications from those who want to sign up for time in the demonstration zones, but they don't make their decisions based on what the groups plan to talk about, Ewing said.
In China, Falun Gong practitioners are routinely arrested.
Last month, six Americans and two dozen other Westerners were expelled from the country after they sat cross-legged and chanted in Tiananmen Square, protesting Beijing's suppression of the sect.
Falun Dafa is one of two groups that has already been allotted time in the protests zones. The other group is a disabled-rights organization.
BEIJING -- A senior Chinese official has called for all-out efforts to safeguard the stability of the country so as to make fresh contribution to the opening of the forthcoming 16th National Congress of the Communist Party of China(CPC) and the nation's reform and opening-up drive.
Wei Jianxing, member of the Standing Committee of the CPC Central Committee Political Bureau and member of the Secretariat of the CPC Central Committee, made this call Wednesday at the closing of a national working conference on law enforcement.
In his speech, Wei endorsed the achievements made in the field this year, said law enforcement departments across the country have played their role in guarding against and cracking down on hostile factors, ethnic separatist activities and cult organizations like Falun Gong.
A large number of criminals have been punished in the ongoing "Strike Hard" campaign nationwide, according to Wei.
He said top priority should be given to the issue and greater efforts are needed to fight the hostile forces under the new circumstances.
He called for tough strikes against terrorists, religious fundamentalists, ethnic separatists and the Falun Gong cult. Theirvarious plots must be stopped, he added.
He urged Party committees, governments and law enforcement departments to study the issues carefully and strive to create a sound legal environment in China.
SOUTH PORTLAND - Six people wearing yellow and blue T-shirts sat on the ground with their legs folded and one arm across their chests. Their eyes were closed and their faces were expressionless as they moved from one position to another, almost in slow motion.
"If you were doing this in China, you could be beaten and sent to a labor camp," said Martin Fox, using a microphone to explain this demonstration of the mind-and-body practice known as Falun Gong. "We need to stop this persecution."
Fox, a public relations professional from Kittery, was among about a dozen Mainers who say Falun Gong has improved their lives. They were at the Maine Mall on Sunday to demonstrate the techniques and make people aware of the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners in China, where the practice originated.
The demonstrations were uneventful, as the practitioners stood or sat with their eyes closed and slowly moved their arms into different positions while soothing music played. The participants stretched in various positions and often looked as if they were praying.
But Fox and others talked passionately to interested onlookers about Falun Gong and what it has done for them. Fox, 60, said he and other Falun Gong enthusiasts demonstrate the practice at fairs and other events around Maine to help people find out more about it.
"We're not an organization. We are all people who happen to practice it and who take the opportunity to help people find out about it," Fox said. "It's a free practice, and it's just something that made sense to me." As hordes of Christmas shoppers flowed through the mall, a trickle of people stopped to find out more about Falun Gong.
Fox, who saw a pamphlet about Falun Gong at a Chinese restaurant, said the practice has helped make him more relaxed, more aware, more truthful. He and others at the demonstration said that it is Falun Gong's emphasis on truthfulness and compassion that makes it a target of persecution by the Communist government in China.
Chinese government officials have called the movement an "evil" sect controlled by its U.S.-based founder, Li Hongzhi. It was outlawed in China in 1999.
Fox and others at the demonstration said the principles of Falun Gong are achieved by doing the exercises and reading the teachings associated with the practice.
"It's a purification of body. There's no mind intent; you're not thinking about anything," Fox said. "You're connecting yourself to nature."
Jason Pomerleau, 25, a native of Vassalboro now living in Boston, said he discovered Falun Gong while in college. He had read about other mind and body practices but found that Falun Gong appealed to him more than other techniques.
He said his younger brother began reading about Falun Gong on his recommendation, and because of positive changes in his attitude, Pomerleau's mother began practicing Falun Gong as well.
"Everyone has their own internal questions to answer," Pomerleau said. "And I found more of my questions answered through this than anything else."
What Is Falun Gong? See "Falun Gong 101", by Massimo Introvigne
"Falun Gong 101. Introduzione al Falun Gong e alla sua presenza in Italia" (in italiano), di Massimo Introvigne
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