Only two years ago, the Falun Gong spiritual movement in China could mobilize thousands of protesters in an instant.
Followers of a former Chinese government clerk now living in New York would appear en masse, as if from thin air, on famed Tiananmen Square, on obscure street corners, or outside the homes of high officials. Adherents would unfurl trademark yellow banners or conduct silent vigils until the police trucks arrived. China-wide, Falun Gong's grass-roots numbers ranged to the tens of millions, according to internal Chinese research.
So quickly had the quasi-Buddhist movement grown in the late 1990s, and so effective had it been in organizing outside Communist Party channels, that when members demanded official recognition, no less a person than China's supreme leader, President Jiang Zemin, oversaw a campaign to stop it.
Today, it appears that campaign has succeeded. After two years of arrests, reeducation programs, and media attacks - the most extensive since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown - most of the sect's top echelon of leaders are in camps or behind bars. It's estimated that tens - perhaps hundreds - of thousands of adherents still remain, but they have gone deep underground and practice at home.
On July 22, the second anniversary of the official crackdown on Falun Gong, only four protesters were seen carried off by police from Tiananmen Square - a testimony to the state's success against what it terms "an evil cult."
"It's been a war of attrition," says a Western expert who declined to be identified. "Falun Gong has been creative and has staying power far beyond what people thought. But as an organized protest movement it's basically crushed. The best people are in jail. The second-best people are in jail. Now [it is] fourth-stringers - mostly women from small towns - who come to protest."
"We are close to completely wiping out Falun Gong. There are just a few hard-core members left," said a State Council official, Zhao Chongxing, to reporters last month.
In January, on the eve of the Chinese Lunar New Year, five Falun Gong members lit themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square in the most dramatic protest since the group was outlawed in 1999. Two of the self-immolations resulted in death.
Falun Gong officials in the US deny the immolations were ordered or sanctioned in any way, and stressed the nonviolent nature of the movement's teachings, which draw from Daoist and Buddhist traditions of mind-body exercises. Still, those involved did profess loyalty to Li Hongzhi, the group's leader.
For weeks, China's state TV and newspapers used grisly video of the event as evidence of the extreme behavior of a group that Chinese officials maintain poses a risk to public health and social stability.
The immolations and the media campaign seem to have ended what vestiges of legitimacy Falun Gong held among the mainstream Chinese public. The real vitality of the movement had flagged as long as a year ago, experts say, following the all-out crackdown that human rights groups report involves thousands of cases of beatings or torture.
Still, Beijing is taking no chances. In an anti-Falun Gong exhibit at the downtown Museum of Military Affairs that ended last week, more than 850 photos, drawings, and editorials highlighted 134 cases of Falun Gong adherents alleged to have maimed, killed, or otherwise harmed themselves, family, or friends. Drawings depict sect members throwing themselves from buildings, into wells and rivers, and out of windows.
Falun Gong officials in the US call the two-week exhibit "propaganda."
Experts say that outside China, there is not a case record of the kind or degree of destructive behavior illustrated in the Beijing exhibit. (It opened right after the July 13 decision to award Beijing the 2008 summer Olympics. China has promised that foreign athletes who practice Falun Gong may participate in the Games.)
During the exhibit, the English-language China Daily ran four editorials warning of "lurking danger," "spiritual poison," and "bloodcurdling mayhem" caused by the sect.
The ongoing campaign is so effective that most ordinary Chinese don't want to talk about Falun Gong. "I think I'll be in hot water if I discuss this," says one Chinese interviewed at random in Beijing.
China still faces a skirmish over the status of Falun Gong in Hong Kong. The former British colony has operated under a "one-country, two systems" formula since it was returned to China in 1997. Legal provisions for religious expression, protected by the British common-law system, have thwarted efforts to single out the group for a ban - though Hong Kong chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, a close ally of Beijing, refers to Falun Gong by its obligatory moniker, "the evil cult."
Last month, a permanent resident of Hong Kong, Chan Yuk-to, was arrested in Beijing for involvement in the sect.
They gather in the early morning hours at parks and plazas across the Bay Area. In silent unison, they glide from one pose to another, their eyes closed in peaceful contemplation.
But for many Falun Gong practitioners, the peace they say the exercises give them is tainted with the knowledge that in China thousands of people have been jailed -- possibly even tortured -- for practicing the art.
For two years, the Chinese government has tried to crush the Falun Gong movement, which leaders have called an "evil cult." But practitioners here say they don't understand all the hubbub over a practice that is more like a low-impact workout than a religious sect.
Loretta Lam of San Leandro ran afoul of the government crackdown when she visited China last year. She spent four days in jail when police raided her friend's apartment and found printouts from a Falun Gong Web site.
Undeterred by her experience, she organized and now participates in the weekend sessions at the San Leandro Marina. She said practicing Falun Gong has made her happier, more clear-headed and cured her bad back.
"I always smile now. Before (Falun Gong), I was very stern," Lam said. "After practicing Falun Gong, I found I could gain weight, and I have a better appetite. Also, I sleep less but still have lots of energy."
Most practitioners make a daily routine of the tai chi-like movements that Falun Gong prescribes, meeting at spots throughout the Bay Area, usually early in the morning, before work or school. They say there is no organization to their movement, no member list, no hierarchy and no political aim.
Until the Chinese government cracked down on Falun Gong, most people in the Bay Area might never even have heard of it. But its popularity in China spread so quickly that it alarmed Communist Party bosses, who practitioners say felt threatened by the sheer number of followers.
The severity of the Chinese government's two-year purge is in stark contrast to the United States, where the practice is met either with bemused indifference or with cautious praise.
Several cities, San Leandro among them, have declared "Falun Dafa" days in recognition of the plight of Chinese practitioners, but most people still don't seem to know a lot about the practice.
Falun Gong is not an ancient art. It is a blend of Chinese philosophies and religions, first introduced in China in 1992 by former grain clerk Li Hongzhi.
Hongzhi mixed the prime tenets of Buddhism and Taoism and borrowed heavily from the widespread practices of tai chi and Qigong to establish the premise of his book, Zhuan Falun.
Zhuan Falun lays out the principles of Falun Gong, the three most oft-presented being truthfulness, benevolence and forbearance, or Zhen-Shan-Ren. A set of five exercises is given that is meant to cultivate what Hongzhi calls the Falun or "spinning law wheel."
The Falun is described as a rotating, swastika-like emblem that is supposed to spin in practitioners' bellies, gathering energy from the cosmos and relieving practitioners of "bad elements," which supposedly cause disease and mental strife.
The emblem is a centuries-old Buddhist symbol, not to be confused with the Nazi insignia.
With the proper dedication, Hongzhi wrote, practitioners can gain the ability to perform "supernormal" feats, such as freezing evildoers in place with the power of their minds.
Lam said Falun Gong practitioners are forbidden from talking about their abilities.
"If we have supernormal abilities, we cannot tell people," she said. "If every practitioner used it (at once), this earth will shake."
But Lam said it would violate Falun principles to use that power against another person.
"I will not fight and hurt somebody," she said. "We are taught to never fight back, never talk back. If someone hits you, you never (look for) revenge."
According to recent news reports, pressure by the Chinese government has reduced the number of people practicing Falun Gong in China. In the Bay Area, the number of people practicing has stabilized at about 300, Hayward practitioner Pei Li said.
Li said the challenge of Falun Gong practitioners in the United States is to expose the Chinese government for its crackdown, while still maintaining a detached attitude toward politics.
"We do not have any political intentions, we just want to reveal the truth," Li said.
BEIJING -- Expanding its use of torture and high-pressure indoctrination, China's Communist Party has gained the upper hand in its protracted battle against the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, according to government sources and Falun Gong practitioners. As a result, they say, large numbers of people are abandoning the group that presented the party with its most serious challenge since the 1989 student-led protests in Tiananmen Square.
After a year and a half of difficulties in suppressing the movement, the government for the first time this year sanctioned the systematic use of violence against the group, established a network of brainwashing classes and embarked on a painstaking effort to weed out followers neighborhood by neighborhood and workplace by workplace, the sources said.
They said the crackdown has benefited from a turn in public opinion against Falun Gong since five purported members set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square, leading many Chinese to conclude the group is a dangerous cult.
In recent interviews, the sources and practitioners described for the first time in detail the methodical efforts being used to eradicate the Falun Gong movement, efforts that the Chinese call "reeducation." They told of believers being beaten, shocked with electric truncheons and forced to undergo unbearable physical pressure, such as squatting on the floor for days at a time. Many adherents are also sent to intensive classes where the teachings of Falun Gong leader Li Hongzhi are picked apart by former believers, sometimes friends who have already been tortured into submission.
"I am a broken man," said James Ouyang, 35, an electrical engineer who was forced by labor camp guards to stand facing a wall for nine days and then sent to a brainwashing class for 20 more. "I have rejected Falun Gong. . . . Now, whenever I see a policeman and those electric truncheons, I feel sick, ready to throw up."
Two years ago, the Chinese government outlawed Falun Gong, a nonviolent movement that mixes Buddhist beliefs with slow-motion martial-art-type exercises, and denounced the group as an evil cult and a threat to society. But the underlying reason for the crackdown is the leadership's view that Falun Gong is an independent organization that threatens the Communist Party's monopoly on power.
The crackdown's recent gains have been a boost to both President Jiang Zemin, the Chinese leader most closely associated with the campaign, and the party, which some experts had thought was too fractured and ineffectual to defeat the unusually well-organized group.
"This campaign should teach us not to underestimate the Communist Party," said one party official who has advised the government on the crackdown, but opposes its use of violence. "The party has a powerful ability to synthesize experience and come up with methods to deal with challenges. All the brutality, resources and persuasiveness of the Communist system is being used -- and is having an effect."
A Strategy for Success
At the start of the crackdown, government officials estimated that between 3 million and 6 million people were serious followers of Falun Gong, which translates roughly as Wheel of the Law. About 10 percent, up to 600,000, were considered willing to fight the government crackdown, Chinese officials said. Estimates outside the government have put membership much higher -- in the tens of millions, but exact numbers are not available.
The government's campaign against Falun Gong, launched in July 1999, struggled at first, hampered by uneven enforcement and a split between central government leaders, who viewed the group as a threat to the party's rule, and local officials, who did not. But over the past six months, China's security forces have regrouped and devised an approach they say is producing results.
That approach has three ingredients, according to another government adviser.
The first, he said, is violence. The crackdown has always been associated with police and prison brutality, but the adviser said it was only this year that the central leadership decided to sanction the widespread use of violence against Falun Gong members. Citing government reports, he said practitioners who are not beaten generally do not abandon the group.
The adviser said the second element, a high-pressure propaganda campaign against the group, has also been critical. As Chinese society turned against Falun Gong, pressure on practitioners to abandon their beliefs increased, and it became easier for the government to use violence against those who did not. The self-immolation of five purported members in Tiananmen Square on Jan. 23 was a turning point. A 12-year-old girl and her mother died, and the party made the incident the centerpiece of its campaign to discredit Falun Gong. By repeatedly broadcasting images of the girl's burning body and interviews with the others saying they believed self-immolation would lead them to paradise, the government convinced many Chinese that Falun Gong was an "evil cult."
Finally, the security apparatus has begun forcing practitioners to attend intense study sessions in which the teachings of the Falun Gong leader are picked apart by former followers. These brainwashing classes have been key to persuading members to quit practicing Falun Gong, the government adviser said.
"Each aspect of the campaign is critical," he said. "Pure violence doesn't work. Just studying doesn't work either. And none of it would be working if the propaganda hadn't started to change the way the general public thinks. You need all three. That's what they've figured out."
Some local governments had experimented with brainwashing classes before, but in January, Beijing's secret 610 office, an interagency task force leading the charge against Falun Gong, ordered all neighborhood committees, state institutions and companies to begin using them, government sources said. No Falun Gong member is supposed to be spared. The most active members are sent directly to labor camps where they are first "broken" by beatings and other torture, the adviser said.
At the same time, Beijing is getting more efficient at forcing local officials to carry out its orders on Falun Gong. Internal polls conducted by the Central Party School show county-level officials placing a greater priority on eradicating the group, the government adviser said. The 610 office also dispatches teams of investigators to check up on local officials, and a "proper attitude" toward Falun Gong is now required for any promotion, he said.
No One Spared
Neighborhood officials have compelled even the elderly, people with disabilities and the ill to attend the classes. Universities have sent staff to find students who had dropped out or been expelled for practicing Falun Gong, and brought them back for the sessions. Other members have been forced to leave sick relatives to go to class.
A university student in Beijing, Alex Hsu, said he was on his way to a computer lab earlier this year when a school official stopped him and told him he had to take the class. The school had confronted him before about his faith in Falun Gong, but he had never participated in protests and had never been arrested.
Six men surrounded him, forced him into a car and drove him to a hotel near a labor camp outside Beijing. About 20 practitioners were there, all of them students, teachers, university staff members or retired professors. Hsu later learned the class was organized by the Education Ministry. "We were all very scared," Hsu said. "We didn't know what was going to happen next."
By relying on "work units," to which all state employees are assigned, and neighborhood committees to ferret out and convert believers, the government is taking a page from the mass campaign tactics used by the Communist Party under the leadership of Mao Zedong. The plan has been surprisingly effective, especially given other changes that have undermined the party's control over Chinese society, such as the rise of a private business sector and looser rules governing migration and housing.
Each work unit is responsible for paying the "tuition" of its practitioners. And township governments that have been successful in converting Falun Gong members, most notably in Shandong province, have been encouraged to sell their services to other townships, Chinese sources said.
Hsu said school officials told him they paid about $800 to send him to the brainwashing class. The morning after he was picked up, the class began in a cafeteria inside the labor camp. The first lesson was a threat.
"They said if they didn't achieve their goals, if we didn't give up our beliefs, we'd be taken to the labor camp," Hsu said. "Reeducation through labor is a frightening thing to a Chinese person. We all knew we would be harmed and our lives would be in danger. We all knew someone who had died in the camps."
In the cafeteria, Hsu sat at a table with three former Falun Gong members, all of them still detained at the camp. For 12 hours a day, they tried to persuade him to abandon Falun Gong. As the days passed, more "teachers" joined his table, analyzing the writings of Falun Gong leader Li Hongzhi and refusing to let Hsu rest.
"It was mental torture. . . . The pressure just kept growing," Hsu said. "And the threat was always there. You could see these people all had suffered, and you knew what would happen to you if you didn't give in too."
Practitioners are forced to remain in the classes until they renounce their beliefs in writing and then on videotape. On average, the government adviser said, most people abandon Falun Gong after 10 to 12 days of classes, but some resist for as long as 20.
"It was like being drugged with a potion. They came at you fast, frightening you and confusing you," said Sydney Li, a practitioner who escaped from a class organized by neighborhood officials in which he was beaten about the head. "If you weren't a strong believer, it would be easy to be tricked."
The turning point for Hsu came in the third week. He looked up one morning and recognized one of the "teachers" at his table -- a friend, classmate and fellow practitioner who had disappeared earlier in the year. The student looked thin and sickly. He later told Hsu he had been tortured.
"It was a shock. I didn't know he had been sent to the labor camp, and he looked so different," Hsu said. "He didn't say much at first, but the others made him talk. I felt so sad."
A few days later, Hsu signed a statement promising not to practice Falun Gong again and another attacking the group as an evil cult. He read them aloud to his class and in front of a video camera. He wept on the ride back to his university.
"I'm not sure about the others, but I never believed what I was writing," he said. "It was very painful. They forced us to lie. We knew Falun Gong is good, but they forced us to say it was evil."
Hsu has since dropped out of school and gone into hiding because he wants to continue practicing. But he acknowledged many followers have given up Falun Gong completely. There are no reliable estimates of how many followers have abandoned the group.
Those who refuse to submit in the classes are sent to the labor camps, where members face a more systematic regime of violence than in the past, according to practitioners and government sources.
Days of Beatings
The sting of torture was felt by James Ouyang, a slight man with thick glasses and crooked teeth. On the sixth day of beatings this April, he recalled, he began to denounce the Falun Gong.
"I cursed and cursed Falun Gong, but the police said it wasn't enough," he said, running a trembling hand through thinning hair. "They continued beating me for three more days until they were satisfied."
When Ouyang, who asked to be identified only by his Chinese last name and an English name he calls himself, was first arrested in early 2000 for going to Tiananmen Square to unfurl a banner praising Falun Gong, police roughed him up but released him after a week. At the time, the government adviser said, China's security services were inflicting only a "normal amount" of abuse on Falun Gong practitioners. And in many parts of China, police ignored Falun Gong as long as practitioners did not go to Beijing to protest.
The adviser, contradicting some Western reports, said the government previously had no systematic campaign of violence to break Falun Gong. "Before this year, practitioners were beaten if they broke rules in jail or if the police were normally brutal," he said. "It must be understood that anyone in a Chinese jail will get beaten for breaking the rules. Deaths in custody are commonplace."
But the adviser said the policy changed after the Jan. 23 self-immolations and a Communist Party work conference in early February. At that time, party officials concluded the self-immolations and the unrelenting propaganda campaign that followed had turned the public against Falun Gong. The self-immolations seemed to show that Falun Gong was a bizarre cult, and that freed the party's hand, he said.
"The immolations had a huge effect," he said. "Previously, most Chinese thought the crackdown was stupid, like a dog catching a mouse. After those people burned themselves and the party broadcast that little girl's face on TV for almost a month straight, people's views here changed. Now many agree that it's an evil cult. That was a huge defeat for Li Hongzhi."
Li also played into the party's hands. His spokesmen in the United States denied the people who burned themselves were Falun Gong members, disappointing some in China who felt he was rejecting his flock. And Li continued to issue circulars encouraging his followers to confront the authorities, upsetting people because he seemed unmoved by the growing casualties. So far, Falun Gong says more than 250 followers have died in government custody.
Ouyang was arrested again in April after going to Tiananmen Square to show his support for Falun Gong. This time, he said, police methodically reduced him to an "obedient thing" over 10 days of torture.
At a police station in western Beijing, Ouyang was stripped and interrogated for five hours. "If I responded incorrectly, that is if I didn't say, 'Yes,' they shocked me with the electric truncheon," he said.
Then, he was transferred to a labor camp in Beijing's western suburbs. There, the guards ordered him to stand facing a wall. If he moved, they shocked him. If he fell down from fatigue, they shocked him.
Each morning, he had five minutes to eat and relieve himself. "If I didn't make it, I went in my pants," he said. "And they shocked me for that, too."
By the sixth day, Ouyang said, he couldn't see straight from staring at plaster three inches from his face. His knees buckled, prompting more shocks and beatings. He gave in to the guards' demands.
For the next three days, Ouyang denounced Li's teachings, shouting into the wall. Officers continued to shock him about the body and he soiled himself regularly. Finally, on the 10th day, Ouyang's repudiation of the group was deemed sufficiently sincere.
He was taken before a group of Falun Gong inmates and rejected the group one more time as a video camera rolled. Ouyang left jail and entered the brainwashing classes. Twenty days later after debating Falun Gong for 16 hours a day, he "graduated."
"The pressure on me was and is incredible," he said. "In the past two years, I have seen the worst of what man can do. We really are the worst animals on Earth."
BEIJING - A 33-year-old man arrested in China for refusing to abandon his beliefs in the banned Falungong spiritual group has died after being tortured, a rights group said Thursday.
Li Changjun, a masters degree graduate, was detained on May 16 after police caught him downloading and printing Falungong material from the Internet, the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said.
Li was working at the land tax bureau of Wuhan city in central China's Hubei province at the time of his arrest. He had been detained many times in the past for defying the government's ban on the group.
On June 27, 40 days after his latest detention, Wuhan police notified his family of his death.
Li's mother, Wei Sumin, was allowed to see her son's body and said it was covered with red bruises and scars. She said his neck and ears had been beaten purple and he had lost a lot of weight, the center said.
He had been healthy before he was detained, the center said.
Wei told the center she believed Li was beaten to death. She could not be reached for comment Thursday as her phone line had been disconnected.
Another Falungong member who was detained in the same jail with Li said five days before Li's death was announced that Li was beaten until he became unconscious, the center said.
Contacted by phone for comment, a police official in Wuhan hung up when he realized the call came from a news agency.
Li is the 156th Falungong member to have been confirmed by the center to have died in police custody since China banned the group as an "evil cult" in
Falungong's New York headquarters claims the number of deaths is more than 259. Many of the reported deaths cannot be immediately confirmed.
China has denied that any Falungong members have died in police custody, explaining the deaths as suicides or natural deaths.
There have been no reports of the punishment of police officials who use excessive force against Falungong members.
In an effort to hold police officials accountable and discourage them from further abuse, the Falungong group last month filed a civil suit in New York against the visiting public security chief of China's Hubei province alleging torture, murder and crimes against humanity.
Zhao Zhifei, second-in-command of Hubei's "610" office, set up by the central government to crack down on Falungong and other spiritual groups, is being targeted under the Torture Victim Protection Act and the Alien Tort Claims Act.
The legislation allows American jurisdiction over acts of torture committed outside the country. A lawsuit can only proceed, however, if defendants are served with legal papers while in the United States.
The case, filed in the US District Court for the southern district of New York, was accepted by the court, the center said Thursday.
China sees Falungong as the biggest threat to stability since the 1989 student demonstrations.
The group, which advocates clean living through Buddhist-based meditation exercises and founder Li Hongzhi's own brand of philosophy, had openly challenged the government's ban by staging numerous protests on Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
Its popularity grew out of a need by Chinese people to find meaning in life in face of a rapidly changing society, a lost in social benefits such as free medical care, a growing gap between the rich and poor, and widespread corruption.
HONG KONG -- A Hong Kong resident belonging to the Falun Gong meditation sect, which is banned on the mainland, has been detained in Beijing, local followers and relatives said Thursday.
Police took Chan Yuk-to, a Hong Kong resident and Falun Gong practitioner, from his residence in eastern Beijing on the night of July 12, said Lau Yuk-ling, Chan's mother.
Lau, a Hong Kong resident who also belongs to Falun Gong, said authorities had not informed her or relatives in Beijing about the reason for her son's detention.
Police in Beijing declined comment.
Chan's father traveled to Beijing and learned that Chan was being held in the Balizhuang Detention Center in the eastern part of the city. Police did not allow him to see Chan, Lau said.
Chan, 34, is a graduate of the Beijing College of Architecture and Engineering. He was working in Beijing and was last heard from on July 8, Lau said.
Thousands of Falun Gong members are in jails and labor camps and tens of thousands have been arrested and pressured to renounce their beliefs since the government outlawed the group in 1999, accusing it of being a public menace and threat to Communist Party rule.
Falun Gong says many followers have been tortured and that 258 have been killed. Government officials deny allegations of mistreatment.
``I am worried that my son may have been beaten up or suffered from some harsh treatment,'' Lau said.
Lau said she had sent petitions to Hong Kong's Immigration Department and Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji seeking help. Immigration Department spokesman Sunny Ho said Hong Kong officials were making inquiries.
Despite the ban on the mainland, Falun Gong remains legal in Hong Kong, whose residents enjoy greater civil liberties under an autonomy arrangement agreed to when Britain handed the colony back to China in July 1997.
Chan is one of two Hong Kong members detained on the mainland, according to local Falun Gong spokesman Kan Hung-cheung.
Chu O-ming, a Hong Kong businessman, was seized on Sept. 7 after he filed a lawsuit accusing Chinese President Jiang Zemin of brutality in the crackdown against the spiritual group, Kan said. He said Chu was being held in a jail in the northern city of Tianjin.
Falun Gong has attracted millions of followers, most of them in China, with its combination of slow-motion exercises and its philosophy drawn from Taoism, Buddhism and the often unorthodox ideas of founder Li Hongzhi.
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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