MILWAUKEE -- Each Sunday morning, a half-dozen people gather in a Milwaukee mall, standing quietly in a circle as soothing Chinese rhythms emanate from a portable cassette player.
They hold their arms in an arc at their hips, then above their heads, holding each stance for more than 15 minutes. After nearly an hour, they sit on the floor and meditate.
Their tranquil movements stand in stark contrast to the images on posters tacked up nearby, depicting oppression and torture. These followers of Falun Gong, the spiritual movement banned in China quietly have brought the movement's regimen of physical and spiritual exercises to Wisconsin and other parts of the United States.
Calling Falun Gong an "evil cult," the Chinese government banned the practice in July 1999, beginning a crackdown in which followers claim thousands of people have been tortured. China accuses the sect of leading more than 1,600 followers to their deaths by encouraging them to eschew modern medical care and commit suicidal acts.
Some Falun Gong practitioners here are Chinese nationals who say they could be punished if they returned to China. Others are new devotees taking up the combination of physical stretching, meditation and religious readings. Followers claim it brings spiritual enlightenment and improved health.
The groups that have started in Milwaukee and Madison in the last three years are among many U.S. Falun Gong organizations.
Because there is no official membership, and people often practice in their homes or in small groups, it is impossible to estimate the number of followers in the United States, said Feng Yuan, a spokeswoman for the Falun Dafa Information Center in New York. Followers also refer to the movement as Falun Dafa.
Yuan said a New York conference two years ago drew more than 3,000 people, and there are thousands more across the country. The center's Web site has links to groups in 45 U.S. states.
Joyce Lee represents Falun Gong in Madison. Lee, a University of Wisconsin-Madison business student who is in the United States on an international visa, said she knows practitioners who were detained when trying to visit China.
She once received more than 2,000 anti-Falun Gong e-mail messages in one day, an apparent attempt to intimidate her, she said. But she refuses to stop practicing and has registered the group as a public society at the university.
"We are benefiting from this exercise so much," Lee said. "We are trying to be better people, to respect others -- it's not a political thing."
Others are not so sure.
In Milwaukee, Mayor John Norquist's office refused to grant a Falun Gong Day proclamation for a recent workshop at the public library. Though the city's proclamations are largely ceremonial, "they're not supposed to be politically driven or involved in any other types of controversy," said Norquist's policy director Steve Jacquart.
"We're not in a position to check with the Chinese government or get to the bottom of what's really true," Jacquart said.
Liam O'Neill began a Milwaukee group in August after learning the practice at a Pennsylvania college. He regularly hands out fliers and posts notices in storefronts. His primary motivation, he says, is to inform people about human rights abuses in China.
He said that while Chinese meditation initially might seem out of place in traditionally Lutheran Wisconsin, many people have expressed interest.
Falun Gong calms him and helps him be more understanding in his job as a high school math teacher, O'Neill said.
"I don't get anxious and depressed. I think that's because it gives me a confidence and an inner peace," he said.
Wenjiong Li, a UW-Milwaukee chemistry student from China, has practiced for four years. People from his hometown have been sent to labor camps for participating in Falun Gong, he said.
He doesn't know whether he'll return to China, where he too could face persecution.
"It's my belief. For my whole life it guides me," Li said. "It teaches people to lead a good life."
BRUSSELS - China has warned the European Union their ties could suffer if the directly elected European Parliament continues to meddle in its human rights issues.
The EU assembly adopted a resolution on February 15 calling on the Chinese authorities to guarantee full religious freedoms and to respect the followers of the Falun Gong sect.
"There exist disagreements between China and the EU over the question of human rights," China's ambassador to the EU, Song Mingjiang, wrote in a strongly worded letter to all European Parliament members.
"The question, if improperly handled, can also give rise to negative impact on the development of our bilateral relations," warned the letter, a copy of which Reuters obtained on Friday.
Song said there was no link between religious freedom and the issue of the Falun Gong, whose followers practise a religion based on elements of Taoism, Buddhism and traditional Chinese meditation and exercises.
China regards the sect as a dangerous cult. Thirty seven Falun Gong followers were jailed on Friday for up to 10 years for distributing leaflets about the group.
"To support the Falun Gong cult in China both hurts the Chinese people's feelings and goes against European values. It undermines the (parliament's) credibility," Song wrote.
He also said European accusations of human rights violations in Tibet were "groundless."
Secretary of Security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee launched another scathing attack on the Falun Gong yesterday, branding it fanatical, superstitious and devious.
She told the Legislative Council Security Panel the sect could lead believers to commit harmful acts and it should be monitored to prevent followers hurting themselves by blindly following irrational behaviour.
Mrs Ip told legislators that having read Falun Gong's teachings she believed it had ``the characteristics of being a fanatical'' group.
She compared the writings of Falun Gong guru Li Hongzhi with Zu Warriors of the Magic Mountain, a Chinese martial arts story about mythical characters set in an ancient magical era.
``Many of its contents bear Chinese traditional superstitious beliefs,'' she said, citing the fact that practitioners were not encouraged to seek medication if they fell ill.
``Their readings promote nothing but superstitions. I thought I was reading Zu Warriors of the Magic Mountain,'' she said.
``The writings encourage people to practise to stages like `Cultivation of Mind and Body', `Primordial Spirit Left the Body' and `Omniscient Celestial Eye'.''
Mrs Ip said the group's unique characteristic was that it was very ``devious''.
``They deny Falun Gong is a religion, but at the same time position themselves above all religions, even superior to Buddhism,'' she said. ``To prevent some possible believers from blindly following irrational behaviour such as avoiding medical treatment when sick or even self-immolation, why can't we keep an eye on them? We're simply monitoring.''
Responding to panel member Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee's concern that by such action the Security Bureau was monitoring thoughts and beliefs, Mrs Ip replied: ``The rights of conscience and beliefs are protected by law.
``However, manifested behaviour is excluded because it could affect other people.''
Another panel member Emily Lau Wai-hing challenged whether the bureau's jurisdiction would include any ``high-profile, organised societies which point their spears at the Central Government''.
``Should anyone or any organisation with these characteristics be monitored by the bureau?'' Ms Lau asked. Mrs Ip responded that it was legal to protest, even against the Central Government.
``But Falun Dafa is an organisation with a fanatical characteristics.
``Not only are they organised and resourceful, their beliefs are also distorted and devious,'' she said.
She insisted the government was only worried about whether Falun Gong created social disturbance and threatened public safety and order.
``Britain, the USA and a lot of media also monitor Falun Gong. Why can't the Security Bureau?'' Mrs Ip said.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong members of the mainland's top advisory body may raise the Falun Gong issue during discussions in Beijing.
Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference Standing Committee member Xu Simin disclosed yesterday that a working committee of the advisory body had recently compiled a report on the sect in Hong Kong.
He would not say whether Hong Kong members would discuss the report in the coming plenary session.
Mr Xu met Vice-Premier Qian Qichen yesterday in his capacity as a member of the Federation of Overseas Chinese. Mr Qian talked about Falun Gong at the meeting but ``had not targeted the sect in Hong Kong'', Mr Xu said.
BEIJING: Four people have been arrested on suspicion of helping to organise a mass suicide attempt by alleged members of the banned Falun Gong movement at Tiananmen Square in January, a prosecutor said yesterday.
The three men and a woman were arrested on Saturday on suspicion of ``using an evil cult to disrupt the law'' although they had not been formally charged yet, according to a Beijing Municipal People's Procuratorate spokesman.
He confirmed a report in the state media that two of those arrested were Liu Yunfang and Xue Hongjun, described as the masterminds of the incident. A third suspected mastermind, Wang Jindong, who took part in the suicide attempt and remains in hospital, had also been arrested, the spokesman said.
The woman is Liu Xiuqin, a Beijing resident who allegedly provided lodging for the Falun Gong practitioners before the suicide attempt and equipped them with the petrol with which they used to set themselves alight.
The official press said yesterday the self-immolation was the result of ``incitement and spiritual control'' by Falun Gong leader Li Hongzhi, who now lives in the United States, and a ``conspiracy'' by some of his followers.
In the alleged mass suicide attempt on January 23, one woman died, while four others, including a 12-year-old girl, Liu Siying, survived with severe burns.
While the mainland press had previously reported that Liu Yunfang, a 57-year-old worker from the city of Kaifeng in the central province of Henan, was prevented by police from immolating himself, Xinhua said yesterday he never had the intention of committing suicide. ``I did not set myself on fire, because the `master' wanted me to stay,'' Liu Yunfang said, referring to Mr Li. ``He wants me to live so I can speak.''
The allegation the suicide attempt was orchestrated by Mr Li was given prominent coverage in yesterday's edition of the People's Daily. ``This is a very serious criminal matter,'' an editorial said, claiming a direct link between Mr Li and the suicide bid. ``Irrefutable proof shows that this is an organised and planned crime.''
BEIJING - China's annual session of parliament next week is likely to avoid attacks on the Falun Gong movement's presence in Hong Kong which might add to worries that the territory's autonomy was at risk, analysts said on Friday.
Few doubt Beijing's all-out campaign against the spiritual movement it outlawed as an "evil cult" will pervade the two-week session of the National People's Congress which opens on Monday.
But, despite a series of comments from Beijing leaders that Falun Gong was using Hong Kong, the former British colony handed back to China in 1997, as a platform to "point its spears" at the Communist Party, it was unlikely to involve Hong Kong, they said.
Beijing, riled by an international Falun Gong meeting in Kong Kong earlier this year, is aware that letting mainland lawmakers loose on Falun Gong in Hong Kong -- where the movement is legal -- would be counterproductive, they said.
Political analyst Lau Siu-kai at the Chinese University in Hong Kong said public condemnation of the Falun Gong in Hong Kong would be most unlikely.
Beijing had plenty of private channels to put pressure on Hong Kong's China-anointed leader Tung Chee-hwa to close in on the Falun Gong, he said.
"Why would Beijing need the NPC? It can do it behind the scenes," Lau said.
HONG KONG DELEGATES WARY
Hong Kong will be represented at the NPC by 36 deputies handpicked by Beijing and they, too, were unlikely to raise the subject of Falun Gong's presence in the territory, Lau said.
"From what I see, the central government does not want Hong Kong NPC delegates to touch on Hong Kong's internal matters and especially not to pressure the Hong Kong government," he said.
"If they discuss Hong Kong's Falun Gong, it will be perceived as an invitation to the central government to pressure the Hong Kong government to act. That would trigger criticism that Beijing is interfering in Hong Kong's internal affairs."
Under the deal with Britain that returned the territory to Chinese sovereignty, Beijing promised Hong Kong "a high degree of autonomy" for 50 years that would allow it to maintain its freewheeling capitalist ways.
Beijing has been under close scrutiny for any hint of a breach of that promise and its pursuit of the campaign against Falun Gong into Hong Kong raised many eyebrows.
Hong Kong democrats grew alarmed when Tung seemed to toe Beijing's line this year by describing Falun Gong as "bearing more or less traits of an evil cult" and pledged to monitor its activities in Hong Kong closely.
On Thursday, Hong Kong security chief Regina Ip called it a "heretical" organisation that encouraged superstition.
Such comments sharpen fears of greater Hong Kong action against Falun Gong ahead of a visit by Chinese President Jiang Zemin in May to open an economic forum there.
BEIJING, March 2 (Reuters) - China has jailed 37 Falun Gong followers for up to 10 years for disseminating statements downloaded from the spiritual group's websites, the Beijing Youth Daily reported on Friday.
Courts in several districts of Beijing handed down sentences of between three and 10 years on Thursday to 37 defendants who printed and distributed fliers from the banned sect, the state newspaper said.
Most were convicted of "using a cult to obstruct the law" for spreading Falun Gong statements opposing the ban China imposed on the group in July 1999, it said.
One follower, Xue Hairong, got seven years in prison for turning his rented home in Beijing into a small printing factory and producing leaflets from Falun Gong websites, it said.
Despite 19 months of an increasingly ruthless campaign to snuff out the Falun Gong and the Communist Party declaring victory several times, the group has continued to protest against the ban.
China says Falun Gong is a brainwashing "evil cult" and has detained thousands of followers in a harsh crackdown.
FALUN GONG FLIERS
Falun Gong recently blanketed mailboxes in Beijing back streets with fliers criticising the government for neglecting poverty and unemployment. The statements also disputed Beijing's account of self-immolations on Tiananmen Square on January 23.
China said five people who made a fiery group suicide attempt last Chinese New Year's eve were Falun Gong disciples inspired by exiled group leader Li Hongzhi. One woman died and four people, including a 12-year-old girl, suffered serious burns.
On February 24, two men from the central city of Kaifeng -- Liu Yun and Xue Hongjun -- were arrested on charges of planning the self-immolations, state television said.
Falun Gong, which is based on elements of Taoism, Buddhism and traditional Chinese meditation and exercises, has denied the five self-immolators belonged to the movement. Group spokespeople say its teachings forbid the taking of life.
CHINA ATTACKS CRITICS
China defended the campaign this week in the face of condemnation from the United Nations and the United States over violations of religious freedom and civil liberties.
Liu Jing, head of a new cabinet anti-cult office, told a news conference on Tuesday that Falun gong "does as much harm to its practitioners, especially the devout ones, as drugs."
He said U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson did not understand the dangers of Falun Gong and the United States was using the issue to interfere in China's politics.
During a visit to Beijing, Robinson had urged China to abolish "re-education through labour" camps which Beijing has used to incarcerate thousands of Falun Gong followers -- as well as political dissidents and prostitutes -- without trials.
The United States, which will propose a resolution censuring Beijing at a U.N. rights meeting in Geneva next month, condemned alleged abuses of Falun Gong followers in a human rights report which said the rights situation in China had worsened in 2000.
Shanghai's Liberation Daily newspaper said this week Washington supported Falun Gong -- as well as Taiwan and Tibet's exiled Dalai Lama -- "to distract China's attention from economic construction and destabilise the country."
BEIJING - China has sentenced 37 people to prison on charges of promoting the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual movement through gatherings and handbills, the government's Xinhua News Agency reported Friday.
The sentences of up to 10 years were given on Thursday by five courts in and around Beijing, Xinhua said in a brief report.
One alleged follower, Xue Hairong, received a seven-year sentence on charges of downloading articles about Falun Gong from the Internet to reproduce and distribute. The same court gave shorter sentences to four others, Xinhua said.
The rest were sentenced by four courts in the city's suburbs for allegedly organizing illegal gatherings and printing and distributing Falun Gong materials. Court officials refused comment or could not be reached.
Chinese authorities have reacted angrily to international criticism of their 19-month crackdown on the sect, saying other countries have also suppressed ``evil cults.'' Beijing accuses Falun Gong of causing the deaths of 1,660 people by opposing modern medicine.
Falun Gong drew millions of followers in the 1990s with a mix of calisthenics, meditation and an eclectic mix of Buddhism, Taoism and the teachings of founder Li Hongzhi, a former government clerk now living in the United States.
Human rights monitors say at least 112 people have died during the crackdown. Falun Gong puts the figure at 155, and on Friday it claimed four more deaths.
HONG KONG -- Hong Kong's security chief held out the possibility Thursday the Falun Gong meditation sect group could end up being outlawed here. "I think it's a devious organization - many of the things contained in their writings can lead people into superstition," Security Secretary Regina Ip said. "It has lots of overtones of Chinese folk superstition."
Speaking to lawmakers, Ip said Falun Gong followers have harmed their health by relying on their meditation and exercises instead of going to the doctor. Some practitioners claim Falun Gong has improved their health.
Ip upped her rhetoric against the group banned in mainland China, and although she didn't specifically call for any action that might hinder Falun Gong here, she hinted the group might face troubles later.
"I never said that they are illegal but that doesn't mean that they will not be illegal in the future," Ip said.
For now, Hong Kong officials have said only they will keep a close eye on Falun Gong activities here.
Chinese authorities are staging an often-violent crackdown against Falun Gong, but the group remains legal in Hong Kong, where followers have irked Beijing and its local allies by carrying out numerous protests against the suppression on the mainland.
Beijing supporters have urged the government to stop Hong Kong from using the former British colony as a base for attacking China's central government, but pro-democracy forces here say that would jeopardize Hong Kong's freedom.
Falun Gong insists it isn't being political, but Beijing's allies point to its frequent demonstrations against China's crackdown as evidence that the group is actually quite politically charged.
BEIJING - Authorities have arrested two men accused of organizing an attempted group suicide in Beijing by purported followers of the banned Falun Gong spiritual sect, a Chinese newspaper said Thursday.
Five people doused themselves with gasoline and set themselves ablaze on Tiananmen Square in the Jan. 23 suicide attempt. One woman died and the others remain hospitalized.
Gory footage of the self immolations captured by security cameras has been repeatedly shown on state television, portrayed as proof of government claims that Falun Gong is an evil cult and justification for the often-violent 19-month crackdown on the group.
The China Daily identified those arrested as Liu Yunfang, a 57-year-old former factory worker and Falun Gong practitioner, and Xue Hongjun, another sect follower whom it did not further identify.
Neither Liu or Xue set themselves on fire and the paper did not say what crimes they were charged with.
The newspaper said Liu claimed that while doing the group's meditation techniques he saw his spirit setting itself ablaze on the square and ``his `Buddha body' spraying fire from the mouth.''
Xue told other followers in the central city of Kaifeng about Liu's vision and, with others, organized a group to carry out the group suicide on Lunar New Year's eve. However, Xue apparently changed his mind and remained behind, telling the others ``he would meet them in `heaven''' when they left by train for Beijing on Jan. 16, the newspaper said.
Details of the China Daily's report, attributed to the state-run Xinhua News Agency, clashed with earlier state media accounts.
Previous reports said a man, Wang Jindong, set himself on fire first and that four women followed soon after. State media also had said that the women doused themselves with gasoline to the north of a monument in the center of the vast square.
But the China Daily said the women doused themselves with gasoline in a nearby toilet and then ignited themselves on the square. It also said Wang, identified in the paper's report as a third planner, arrived by taxi about 10 minutes later and then set himself alight.
Falun Gong representatives in the United States, where group founder Li Hongzhi lives, claim the five could not have been genuine practitioners because the sect's teachings forbid all killing, including suicide.
They have urged Beijing to allow an independent investigation.
HONG KONG - Hong Kong Secretary for Security Regina Ip on Thursday branded the Falun Gong movement a ''heretical sect'' and said there is nothing wrong with the territory's government closely monitoring its activities.
The security chief's remarks aroused immediate concern among pro-democracy legislators of possible censorship of the views of organizations and individuals.
Ip, who is in charge of public order in Hong Kong, told a panel of the Legislative Council that many teachings of the Falun Gong movement include traditional Chinese beliefs and encourage people to be superstitious.
She said the movement's followers are told there is no use seeking medical treatment for sicknesses because if they become ill it is due to sins they committed in a previous life.
The Buddhist-oriented movement, which has been outlawed and condemned as an ''evil cult'' in mainland China, is still allowed to practice in Hong Kong as long as members abide by the laws under the ''one country, two systems'' principle.
But many followers fear the government here will yield to pressure from Beijing and ban the group.
Last month, Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa toed the Beijing line by saying Falun Gong has ''more or less the characteristics of an evil cult'' and that the territory's government will closely monitor its activities.
On Thursday, pro-democracy legislators expressed concern that the government may start exercising political censorship over the teachings and thinking of groups in Hong Kong, which in turn will undermine people's freedom of expression and beliefs.
Albert Ho, a lawmaker and member of the Democratic Party, said the security chief should confine her duties to maintaining public order and that it is not her job to vet the teachings of organizations.
The Communist Party yesterday explicitly warned that Beijing would not tolerate Falun Gong activities in Hong Kong that turned the SAR into a base for resistance against the Central Government.
Beijing's most toughly worded warning so far was delivered in a front-page editorial of the People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party. The editorial, entitled Never Allow Falun Gong to Run Wild in Hong Kong, said the Falun Gong organisation in the SAR had attempted to gain an internationally recognised political profile, according to Xinhua News Agency.
``They have established close ties with die-hard Falun Gong elements in foreign countries and organised `world gatherings' in Hong Kong taking the opportunity to attack the Central Government,'' the editorial said.
Hong Kong Falun Gong followers lobbying Legco members for support, approaching and harassing pedestrians on streets and gathering for sit-in protests at the Central Government Liaison Office to challenge Beijing were all listed as evidence that the sect was attempting to turn Hong Kong into a base for resistance to the Central Government.
``No one must be allowed to make use of Hong Kong's freedom and tolerance to affect social order and disturb social stability in the SAR and in the mainland,'' the editorial said.
Hong Kong's stability and prosperity was closely tied to that of the mainland and Falun Gong's anti-Central Government activities in Hong Kong put that at risk, it said.
The editorial said any moves to undermine the Central Government were doomed to failure.
BEIJING has claimed that almost 240 Falun Gong members have committed suicide - out of a total of 1,660 sect followers who have died from practising the spiritual movement's teachings.
According to ``very incomplete statistics'', 136 Falun Gong members had committed suicide before the government banned the movement in July, 1999, Liu Jing, the head of the State Council's new Office for the Prevention and Handling of Evil Cults, said in Beijing.
``And a further 103 members [have] committed suicide since the ban,'' he added, without explaining why the figures had not been released before.
Including those who had committed suicide, at least 1,660 ``innocent people'' had died because of their beliefs in and practice of Falun Gong, the official Xinhua News Agency quoted Mr Liu as saying.
``They were driven to death by the heretical fallacies of [Falun Gong founder] Li Hongzhi and by spiritual control exercised over them by the cult,'' he said.
At the government's second only news conference on the crackdown against the sect, Mr Liu also handed out copies of The Whole Story of the Self-Immolation Incident Created by Falun Gong Addicts in Tiananmen Square, with glossy pictures and details of the January 23 incident.
One woman died and four others, including her young daughter, were severely burned in the accident.
They were still in critical condition and fighting for their lives in hospital, Mr Liu said. He defended the government's crackdown on the sect, denouncing Falun Gong as ``an evil cult'' which was ``the same as a spiritual drug''.
``The harm done to practitioners, especially the devout practitioners, is the same as the harm of drugs on addicts,'' Mr Liu said. Beijing has blamed the sect for encouraging its members to shun medical treatment.
Mr Liu further blasted Monday's decision by the United States to raise an anti-China resolution at an international human rights meeting, saying the move was based on ``wanton accusations'' aimed at interfering in China's internal affairs.
``It is not surprising that the US government is going to raise an anti-China resolution at the UN Commission on Human Rights and that ... the Falun Gong is an important component of this,'' he said.
Mr Liu's statements came after UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson raised concerns over the crackdown on the Falun Gong during meetings with officials in Beijing. He said Mrs Robinson's condemnations showed she ``knows too little about the Falun Gong''. The mainland maintains that international opposition to its 19-month crackdown is being organised by ``hostile Western forces''.
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
FALUN GONG UPDATES
[Home Page] [Cos'è il CESNUR] [Biblioteca del CESNUR] [Testi e documenti] [Libri] [Convegni]
[Home Page] [About CESNUR] [CESNUR Library] [Texts & Documents] [Book Reviews] [Conferences]