BEIJING - China's state media on Friday accused the Falun Gong (news - web sites) spiritual sect of lying when it claimed in a U.S. lawsuit that Chinese police beat two followers to death.
The suit filed in court in New York accused a senior provincial police official of killing the pair in custody.
But prominent reports carried Friday on state television and many state newspapers denied that police abuse was to blame. The reports said Peng Min, 27, died April 5 after he smashed his head on the bars of his cell, apparently in a suicide attempt. Peng had been in detention almost a year for organizing Falun Gong gatherings and producing and distributing sect promotional materials.
His mother, Li Yingxiu, 56, died of a brain hemorrhage April 29 in a hospital, the reports said. The reports did not say whether she had been in custody also.
``Lies will never save the 'Falun Gong' cult from doom. The attempt to stir up an incident has become a farce and ended in vain,'' the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily said.
The Falun Gong suit blamed Zhao Zhifei, deputy head of police in the central province of Hubei, for the deaths. Zhao was served papers at his hotel during a visit to New York in July.
Under U.S. law, foreigners accused of crimes against humanity or violations of international law can be sued in federal court if they are served a civil complaint in the United States.
The Chinese media has reported that the suit was filed by Peng Liang, the brother and son of the victims and himself a Falun Gong follower. But they have said Falun Gong tricked Peng into filing the suit and rewrote his statements to accuse the police official of killing his brother and mother.
Chinese authorities have pursued Falun Gong followers since the government outlawed the group in July 1999. The government says Falun Gong is an evil cult that hoodwinked followers and caused more than 1,600 deaths, mostly by encouraging followers to use meditation instead of medicine to cure ailments.
Falun Gong says almost 300 followers have died in custody during the crackdown and that many more have been tortured and abused. Thousands of followers have been sent to prisons and labor camps.
A figure in a hooded gray sweatshirt sits motionless just inside the entrance to Lincoln Park.
In the misty gray morning, dried leaves crunch underfoot, mingling with the soft splashing of two swimmers, who strip off their sweatshirts and warm-up pants and dive into the park's frigid pool.
At 7 a.m., a second person walks through the park gate, nods briefly to the first and sits cross-legged on the blanket facing her. Lost in meditation, they do not make a sound.
Such is the solitary practice of Alameda's small yet determined group of Falun Gong practitioners on a chilly Wednesday morning.
As the Chinese government's crackdown against the spiritual sect drives the once-flourishing group underground, the ranks of regular Alameda Falun Gong practitioners have dwindled from a high of 10 in April down to just two by late summer.
Every morning an Alameda piano teacher and her tech-savvy son perform the Falun Gong's five core exercises under a towering pine tree, listening to tranquil music on a portable tape player.
Armed with handfuls of literature, news articles and even an explanatory CD-Rom, mother and son are entreating the island's large Asian population to study Falun Gong's blend of meditation and slow-motion movements.
"It's very simple," piano teacher Betty Lin said, describing exercises that require participants to hold each position for seven minutes. "Easy, but not easy. It calls for forbearance. Many people can't stay still in each position."
As the clock ticks toward 7:30 a.m. at Lincoln Park, more people arrive. A man with a white dust mask over his mouth revs a lawnmower, and a cadre of dog walkers and their panting pooches pass without noticing the two silent figures.
Although Alameda has a sizable Asian population, Falun Gong has not gained the same widespread support here as it has in China. Still, Lin and her son Mark Zou keep practicing the pre-dawn regimen and try to recruit other Alamedans by holding free workshops in an Encinal Avenue beauty salon.
On most days, only Zou and Lin arrive at the park for the 6:30 a.m. meditation. Other Alamedans occasionally join them.
And sometimes a 20-year-old white student from California State University at Humbolt will join them if he is visiting his grandmother in Alameda.
"The practice doesn't force anyone to do it," Zhu said. "You have to say, 'Well, this is good for my health and the health of my family. It will give me memory in the workplace.' "
While it is a small, uneventful practice at the park, Falun Gong is an issue that could not be more politically charged in China.
On Aug. 17, a Beijing court convicted four Falun Gong practitioners of murder, claiming that they organized a Tiananmen Square protest where two pairs of mothers and daughters lit themselves on fire.
Last month the Washington Post reported the Chinese government uses vicious torture to wipe out the Falun Gong, which some say poses a serious threat to China's communist regime.
Similar to Tai Chi or yoga, Falun Gong incorporates meditation with five exercises in slow motion. Practitioners say the sect is deeply rooted in qigong, an ancient Chinese healing practice that integrates movement and breathing.
Started by a former cereal clerk named Li Hongzhi in 1992, Falun Gong caught on in Chinese towns and rural areas, especially among retirees, who were drawn to its promises of better health.
By 1999, the spiritual sect attracted millions of followers worldwide. But after a march on Tiananmen Square that drew 10,000 to protest the communist government, China branded Falun Gong an "evil cult" and outlawed it.
Now, observers estimate that the government's crackdown has slashed the group's memberships figures and made the Falun Gong politically impotent in China.
But Bay Area Falun Gong practitioners, who still meet in dozens of parks and universities each morning, said they will not stop trying to bring attention to their claims of Chinese human rights abuses.
Alameda Mayor Ralph Appezzato declared a week in February as the island's official Falun Gong week and issued a proclamation honoring the island's practitioners.
Each day in San Francisco, Falun Gong practitioners sit silently in front of the Chinese Embassy to protest China's decision to outlaw the group. Lin joins them every Tuesday.
Protests in Washington
In July, Lin and 12 other Bay Area Falun Gong practitioners took a cross-country van trip to Washington, D.C., where hundreds of members marched on the capitol to draw attention to China's crackdown on the spiritual sect.
Along the way, the van of Falun Gong practitioners held press conferences in dozens of cities in an attempt to disprove the Chinese government's claim that the group is dangerous.
A July 11 picture in Colorado's Rocky Mountain News captured the scene: As the morning sun rises, Lin stands with her eyes shut and her arms raised above her head, smiling a little and deep in meditation.
Lin More than a decade after emigrating from China, Lin speaks fluent English, but she still stumbles over some words, struggling to make her point. But when the topic turns to the Falun Gong, the 55-year-old piano teacher becomes animated, speaking louder and gesturing with both hands.
"This is not political," Lin said. "You see, we are American. We have freedom to do everything. In China, there's no freedom for exercise or reading the book."
She describes the pain of the 24-hour hunger strike she joined in August to protest the treatment of Falun Gong prisoners in China. A minute later, she vows to dress in an iridescent yellow shirt, carry an "S.O.S" sign and march with other East Bay Falun Gong practitioners across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco.
"We do everything for the Falun Dafa," she said.
Although practitioners originally used the term "Falun Dafa" to describe the entire movement and "Falun Gong" to describe the regimen of exercise and meditation, the terms increasingly have become interchangeable in the United States.
Like other forms of qigong, Falun Gong practitioners say the meditation and exercises bring them a panoply of health benefits.
Lin credits Falun Gong with easing her sharp ulcer pains, allowing her to bend her knees more easily and making her constant dizzy spells disappear. Outside Starbucks Coffee in South Shore Center, Lin grinned as she bent her knees in a perfect squat, the first time in years her knees have felt strong enough to support that kind of strain.
"Since I've practiced the Falun Gong, I'm healthy," she said.
A year ago, she said she spent hours locked in her house, playing the piano to vent her anger. Now, Lin teaches piano to her students but saves her free time for Falun Gong activism.
Betty and Mark Zou
When Zou started practicing Falun Gong, he said a knee injury from high school basketball disappeared within a month.
In college at California State University at San Francisco, Zou said he rebelled against this family by drinking heavily, swearing and becoming wrapped up in petty rivalries.
"This negative mindset was killing me," he said.
But when Lin persuaded her son to try Falun Gong meditations, Zou said he immediately felt less angry.
"Once I started to do the movement, my drinking habit was just gone," he said. "I don't know why. I stopped swearing for unknown reasons. Now I became a calm person."
The 24-year-old Zou wears a badge from Silicon Valley's TIBCO Software clipped to his khaki pants and a maroon shirt buttoned up to the top. Immediately, he opens his laptop and double clicks on an animated information program about the Falun Gong.
The computer's desktop shows a fiery red and orange sunset with the Falun Gong's precepts, "Truthfulness, compassion, tolerance," written in Chinese and English.
Falun Gong presents itself as a grassroots movement with no definite hierarchy. Organizers use the Internet to recruit practitioners throughout China and the world.
In the United States, members distribute a list of Falun Gong contacts in every region of the country. The group's literature urges potential members to call a U.S. hotline to find sites near their area.
"We are just trying to spread the philosophy," Zou said. "This is a good practice. This will be good for our community."
As Lincoln Park becomes more crowded Wednesday morning, Zou rises from his meditation, puts his pink mat away and reluctantly turns to leave. Although he said he would like to stay for the hour of standing exercises, he needs to reach his dot-com job by 9 a.m.
Once her son has waved good-bye, Lin begins an hour of standing exercises, following a set of Chinese directives on the tape.
As rays of sunlight break through the fog, his mother begins an hour of standing exercises, a solitary figure with outstretched arms.
STATESVILLE -- David Jerke of Tacoma, Wash., passed through Statesville on Tuesday on a trek from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles to raise awareness of what he says is the Chinese government's persecution of a lifestyle.
Falun Gong is a traditional Chinese program of self-improvement that Jerke said is based on truth, compassion and tolerance. Practice involves exercises for the mind and body. Many followers attribute cures for physical and mental illness to Falun Gong.
According to Jerke, China pursues an active regimen of terrorizing, imprisoning and even murdering Falun Gong followers.
"Followers of Falun Gong are apolitical," he said. "There's no reason for the Chinese government to commit these atrocities. Falun Gong is not a threat to any government or religion."
Jerke says his walk has been hard so far; he does have blisters. But he contends his pains are nothing compared with the suffering in China.
"Most people don't know about Falun Gong and have no idea about the brutal terrorizing by the Chinese government," he said.
The walk is financed by Jerke and other Falun Gong practitioners.
Pressing the majority of his colleagues to split hairs, Chris Daly is calling for a condemnation of the Chinese government to end the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners.
The supervisors voted 10-2 recently, over objections from human rights advocates, to praise Beijing for winning the 2008 Olympics bid. Daly and Supervisor Matt Gonzalez opposed the decision.
"Now, more than ever, I'm concerned with international human rights issues," Daly said before the Board of Supervisors meeting Monday. "From what I've read and seen, this is one of the more serious human rights issues going on right now."
Daly noted that the Chinese government has arrested more than 100,000 Falun Gong practitioners.
At least 286 Falun Gong members are known to have died in police custody, while more than 100 people are being held in mental institutions and tens of thousands remain in labor camps.
At Monday's board meeting, a large contingent of Falun Gong practitioners showed up at the board's chamber to voice their concerns.
Sherry Zhang, Falun Dafa (Falun Gong) Information Center spokeswoman, equated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks with daily occurrences of persecution in China.
That persecution even touches the Bay Area, she said, where representatives from the Chinese government harass Falun Gong members, photograph them and record their names while they practice at local parks.
The Bay Area is home to dozens of Falun Gong groups that practice regularly in Golden Gate Park and local BART stations. Every morning, a small group meditates by the trees in front of City Hall. They say they are cultivating energy and that their exercises keep them healthy.
Zhang says the exercises also encompass a mental and moral philosophy promoting the principles of truthfulness, compassion and tolerance.
She says the sheer mass of Falun Gong practitioners -- estimated at 70 million to 100 million worldwide -- threatens the Chinese government.
Though the protesters say their issue is separate from the 2008 Olympics, Zhang says she was dismayed at the Chinese government's behavior after it won the bid.
"They promised the International Olympic Committee they'd improve human rights," she said, "but it's almost as if they took it as a license to kill."
Zhang said some inside sources from the Chinese government say the death toll of Falun Gong practitioners may actually be closer to 1,000.
The Falun Dafa Information Center issued a recent report that police detained a 32-year-old woman from northeast China and tortured her for six days for refusing to renounce the practice before throwing her to her death from a fourth-story window.
Last week, six Falun Gong practitioners made a 900-mile trek from Seattle to San Francisco to call attention to their plight.
They are particularly concerned about the life of New York acupuncturist Chunyan Teng, who was sentenced to three years in prison for divulging details to Western journalists of Falun Gong practitioners allegedly abused in mental institutions.
Master Li Hongzhi, the founder of Falun Dafa, continues to live in exile in America.
In July 1999, the mayor's office prepared a proclamation supporting Falun Gong practitioners when the crackdowns first began in July 1999, but later rescinded it because of its controversial nature.
"As a policy, the mayor's office does not get involved with the civic policies of foreign countries," mayor spokesman Ron Vinson said.
Supervisor Leland Yee, who authored the resolution commending Beijing for winning the 2008 Olympics bid, said he would reserve comment until learning more details of Daly's resolution.
"Of course, I think all of us want to ensure that human rights are protected," Yee said. "It's a rock-bottom for all Americans."
The political leadership of China is not the only group alarmed by the sudden spread of Falun Gong, a term that describes both a set of slow, graceful exercises and the banned Chinese spiritual movement that practices them.
Teachers of qigong, a 5,000-year-old Eastern healing art that includes tai chi and acupuncture, cannot understand the growing appeal of the exercises.
"I don't see how the Falun Gong exercises could work" to promote health, says Renxu Wang, a qigong master and retired Western-trained surgeon now living in Massachusetts. "Qigong strengthens the body. Falun Gong strengthens the soul for salvation . . . [by] adopting energy from different dimensions in the universe."
Perhaps we should start by defining some terms. Falun Gong is the exercise component of Falun Dafa, a political and spiritual movement that has been banned by the Chinese government at least partly because authorities are concerned that its spread could destabilize the government. China's official explanation for the ban asserts that Falun Gong is a dangerous cult.
Falun Dafa's premise is that through a set of five exercises a practitioner cultivates an intelligent golden-colored entity called the falun, which resides in one's gut in a different dimension and spins continuously, absorbing energy from parallel universes to make the body invincible to disease. Falun Gong's founder, Li Hongzhi, who lives in exile somewhere in Queens, N.Y., maintains that David Copperfield has some serious falun that allows him to walk through walls and perform magic.
While the vivid Falun Dafa imagery suggests a relationship to ancient forms of Eastern mysticism, the exercises were developed by Li in China in 1992. Which is to say, these exercises are no more ancient than step aerobics. Still, Falun Gong is beginning to attract people who have little interest in the oppression of Falun Dafa practitioners in China but who want to practice the meditative exercises.
There are at least a dozen study groups in the Washington area and just as many outdoor practice sites, including the Mall, Catholic University and the campus of the National Institutes of Health. The movement has reached into the suburbs, with practice groups massing at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring and the Julius West Middle School in Rockville.
Yet seekers of the falun may not realize that the exercises are very different from other forms of qigong, which have been honed over centuries of practice.
"There are many differences between Falun Gong and qigong," says Wang. First, there's qi (pronouned "chee"), loosely defined as vital energy, the core concept of qigong. Through controlled breathing, practitioners of qigong direct vital energy within the body to the locations that need it the most. In Falun Gong, by contrast, there is no breath work. Energy comes drifting in from forces that exist in different dimensions of the universe.
With qigong, movements are precise. Tai chi movements, for instance, are deliberately slow and methodical to maximize the flow of qi. Acupuncture requires stimulation of very specific pressure points on the body. Falun Gong practitioners don't worry about the precision of their movements, Wang says, and indeed many practitioners render the poses very differently.
Further, qigong is practiced in many different forms to address many different ailments and goals; Falun Gong is a single set of exercises billed as a cure-all practice.
While the American medical establishment has not weighed in on Falun Gong, it is slowly warming to the qigong practices known as "internal qigong": tai chi, acupuncture and meditation.
"Qigong can elicit the relaxation response," says Herbert Benson, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Boston. "Saying the rosary will do the same."
Benson says that qigong-induced relaxation can slow one's metabolism, lower the heart rate and enhance resistance to disease. In this way, the traditional Chinese practices can produce the same benefits as other forms of relaxation, such as prayer and transcendental meditation, that have been proven beneficial over the years.
Since 1990, as part of its effort to explore the value of non-Western medical treatments, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has funded several small studies on the effects of qigong exercises for sufferers of neurological disorders, arthritis and other ailments. One study found that people over 70 years old gained more strength and cut their risk of accidental falls by nearly half after practicing tai chi. Larger studies are in the works.
"Can you gain anything from a less vigorous exercise program" like tai chi, asks Jorge Juncos, an associate professor of neurology at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta and an NIH-funded qigong researcher. "Do you give up anything when you don't exercise vigorously? That's what we're investigating."
Falun Gong's five meditative poses &Mac246; four standing and one sitting &Mac246; are certainly among the less vigorous forms of exercise. In addition to providing the claimed link to universal energy fields and superhuman powers, Falun Gong practitioners say they can cure everything from cancer to lifelong allergies. Benson says modest physical benefits, while unproven, seem probable, as long as the exercises trigger that relaxation response.
The sitting pose, the "way of strengthening supernormal power" exercise, is similar to qigong meditation exercises that have been shown to lower blood pressure. The standing poses mainly stretch the upper body, similar to qigong poses that have been shown to improve circulation. The Falun Gong "penetrating the two cosmic extremes" exercise, for one, is quite invigorating. With this exercise, one's arms move slowly up and down like pistons.
The "Buddha showing the thousand hands" exercise is most reminiscent of tai chi, with arms being stretched from side to side, like a hunter pulling back on a bow. The "falun standing stance" exercise can build strength in the arms and shoulders, for the arms stay suspended for several minutes above the head in a U shape. Finally, the "falun heavenly circulation" exercise involves running one's hands up and down the entire body a few inches from its surface.
Falun Gong practitioners admit the exercises are watered-down versions of other qigong exercises, but that doesn't matter to them. The exercises are not meant to be strenuous; rather, they cultivate universal energy.
"If you do it from your heart, you will benefit," says Hailian Zhang, 34, who leads weekly group exercises on the Mall. By "heart," Zhang means "xinxing," a code of morality one must observe if the exercises are to have any benefit. Adhering to xinxing is yet another aspect that separates Falun Gong from qigong.
The purported benefits of Falun Gong play out like late-night television testimonials. A retired white-collar worker from Beijing practicing on the Mall last week spoke of how Falun Gong cured his skin allergies and chronic diarrhea, even though he doesn't believe much in rotating, multidimensional faluns. (He joked about failing the xinxing test, too.) A Chinese woman in her fifties spoke of how Falun Gong helped her regenerate bone that had been removed in surgery. A self-described Christian said Falun Gong has helped control his diabetes.
"You just do the exercises, and one day you wake up and realize you don't have a particular [health problem] anymore," says Keith Ware, a Washingtonian in his forties who practices and teaches Falun Gong at home and on weekend mornings on the Mall, often with his wife.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at NIH and the qigong expert on the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy declined to comment on Falun Gong exercises. However, many health experts and even some qigong teachers remain open to the idea that Falun Gong, like qigong, can provide some health benefits, provided the exercises reduce stress and generally induce a relaxed feeling.
Yet some, as you can imagine, think the whole idea of cultivating energy fields is daft.
"There's nothing wrong with graceful exercise as a relaxation technique," says Stephen Barrett, a retired psychiatrist and editor of the Web site Quackwatch. "These practices can be mentally dangerous, though, when they instill false beliefs. False beliefs lead to bad decisions."
Movements like Falun Gong enter into the realm of quackery, Barrett says, when they consistently make health claims that cannot be verified scientifically. This includes healing by touch, raising the paralyzed, curing cancer at far higher success rates than conventional medicines, sending vibes across the sea to heal at a distance or living for several hundred years &Mac246; all claims that have been made for Falun Gong.
Bad decision-making enters the picture, Barrett argues, when the more passionate of practitioners refuse medication in favor of Falun Gong. Founder Li Hongzhi clearly states that practitioners will never get sick if they properly cultivate the falun. Taking medication implies one does not believe in the falun, thus illness becomes a test.
"Some movement is better than no movement," Barrett said. "Socializing can have health benefits, too. People can do these things in a variety of ways."
Christopher Wanjek last wrote for Health about antioxidants.
A female follower of the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual sect suffered a lengthy beating by police before being thrown to her death from a high window, according to the Falun Dafa Information Centre.
Yu Xiuling died on September 19, after a fall from the fourth-storey of a police station in the north-eastern province of Liaoning.
A police official is denying any knowledge of the event.
According to the centre, 32-year-old Yu was arrested on September 14 for being a Falun Gong practitioner.
On September 19, she was taken to the police station and beaten for a number of hours after she refused to renounce her beliefs in the Buddhist-based sect.
The centre says after the beating, two police officers threw Yu, who was still alive, from the fourth-storey window.
The centre says her husband was told she had jumped to her death.
The US-based centre says more than 280 followers have died in custody since the group was outlawed as an "evil cult" just over two years ago.
Reports of such deaths have proved difficult to verify but independent human rights groups have put the toll at more than 150.
Analysts assert China's communist leadership considers Falun Gong a threat to social stability and a challenge to its authority.
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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