Archive | June, 2010

Chinese “cult leader” has likely become US millionaire

30 Jun

It appears that Li Hongzhi the leader of Falun Gong, a group Chinese officials refer to as an “evil cult,” may have become a millionaire since his exile in the United States.

Hongzhi bought a house in New York shortly after arriving in US for $293,500 and then bought another home in New Jersey for $580,000 the next year. Together the two residences cost $873,000.00 reports The Independent of London.

Given the substantial rise in real estate values across the United States and particularly in the New YorkNew Jersey area, it is probable that Hongzhi’s homes may have doubled in value.

This means Li Hongzhi has likely become a millionaire.

Not bad for a former army musician and clerical worker, who seems to have done much better marketing religion than making music.

The British newspaper did not disclose if the homes were paid for in cash or financed through mortgages.

But even if the Falun Gong leader borrowed money, considering the timing and appreciation of his investments he is a wealthy man.

The Independent also reported that the so-called “Living Buddha” claims that he “can move himself anywhere by thought alone.”

Does this mean Li travels from house to house through telepathy?

Hongzhi also has made grandiose claims such as his supernatural powers “averted a global comet catastrophe and the Third World War.”

What else would a responsible property owner and good neighbor do?

Less fantastic but perhaps a bit unsavory is how Hongzhi reportedly promotes an “‘us and them’ feeling among his devoted followers.” And there is the less than “Buddha”-like and “unattractive beliefs he has about homosexuals and children of inter-racial marriages.”

CultNews has previously reported Hongzhi thinks that that gays are “disgusting” and somehow a “black substance” accumulates within the bodies of gay men. “Disgusting homosexuality shows the dirty abnormal psychology of the gay who has lost his ability of reasoning at the present time,” says Hongzhi. And one day he claims gays will be ”eliminated” by ”the gods.”

Hongzhi also seems to be a racist. He has said that “mixed-race people…[are] instruments of an alien plot to destroy humanity’s link to heaven.” And that these interracial unions are somehow part of “a plot by…evil extraterrestrials.”

Falun Gong frequently gets press by staging publicity stunts. This week one of Hongzhi’s faithful shrieked like a “banshee” while Chinese President Hu Jintao of China stood with President Bush at the White House lawn during an official visit.

This month Hongzhi’s followers also claimed that the organs of Falun Gong believers are being harvested by the Chinese government at hospitals for profit. Government and medical officials vehemently denied these allegations as “sheer lies.”

Unlike the historic Buddha, millionaire Li Hongzhi lives in comfort while his humble disciples frequently make personal sacrifices and live meagerly.

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Zhang Wenbo: My first close contact with Li Hongzhi

30 Jun

My name is Zhang Wenbo and I live in Tiexi District of Siping City in Jilin Province. I used to be interested in various qigong practices when they were popular in China in early 1990s.

It was the summer of 1994, my wife and I went to Handan City in Hebei Province to visit my mother. She did business there. One day, I went to shopping alone and saw someone distributing leaflets, saying that Master Li Hongzhi was going to the city to teach Falun Dafa, that he would convey Gong to the audience and heal the sick, and that this was a golden opportunity and local people shouldn’t miss it. Li and I share the same hometown and I wanted to meet him long time ago for he was very famous at the time. So I went to Handan Workers’ Cultural Club and spent 10 yuan in buying an entrance ticket. The lecture teaching the Fa hadn’t started yet and I saw big posters about Li Hongzhi at the entrance and several groups of people selling study materials about Falun Gong, including Zhuan Falun sold at ten yuan each, CD at ten yuan each, and the pictures of Li Hongzhi sold at 50 yuan each.

People flowed into the Workers’ Cultural Club, most of them were old people and some even lay on stretchers. There was a table at the center of the stage and the staff in exercising clothing was busy there. Then Li Hongzhi stepped onto the stage surrounded by his men. He was in apricot yellow exercising clothing with hair side parted, wore a pair of ordinary white shoes. He was about one meter and seventy, not too fat and not too slim. He was in good spirit.

Li Hongzhi sat down and said he came at the invitation of Hebei Province Handan Qigong Association and would stay here giving lectures for three days only. “I was born on May 13, 1951 and started to follow Buddhist Master Quanjue to practice in the same year. I soon achieved consummation and had various magic powers of moving things, letting things stay where they are, and making myself invisible. Then I follow Buddhist master to practice Dafa till I left the place. My power is hundreds of thousands of times higher than that of Sakyamuni. When you are in trouble, just call Master Li Hongzhi and my Law Body will be there with you immediately.” The audience was impressed and thought the money well spent this time, for this was a real “Master” in front of them.

After the self introduction, Li Hongzhi started to convey gong. He asked the audience to stand up and to face toward him stretching both hands with palms up. Then he asked: “Do you feel the heat in the palm? I’ll convey gong to all of you in next ten minutes. The sick people will get cured while the healthy ones will also benefit from it.” I did what he said. But it was hot and the crowded meeting place was stuffy. Neither of my palms felt anything unusual.

Then Li Hongzhi taught us several exercises but I couldn’t remember what they were since it was a long time ago. The next thing Li Hongzhi did was to “open the divine eye” and I remembered that quite clearly. Before teaching us how to do it, Li Hongzhi told us a story. “Once upon a time in Ming Dynasty,” he said. “There was a practitioner with a snake demon in his body. Later on, the snake took possession of his body and appeared as a man. But his nature never changed. He then transformed into a big snake and made troubles. I couldn’t bear it anymore and caught it by hands. Then I used great power of transformation and changed the lower half of his body into water. But his upper body ran away…Last year, he came out making trouble once again. He had done too many bad things and disturbed me when I taught Dafa. So I destroyed him completely.” (After the lecture, I borrowed Zhuan Falun from my colleague and read the similar description of the “transformation power”. And the introduction in the book was more vivid than I heard. It seemed that Li Hongzhi was so proud of his transformation power that he not only publicized it all around but wrote it down in his book.) After introducing to the audience his “great power”, Li Hongzhi told us to close eyes and to point our index and middle fingers at the point between the eyebrows, saying he was going to “open our eyes” by sending forth his power with his will power. I did as he told but still felt nothing except for the hot weather.

Then he started to treat the sick people at the meeting place. The first one coming to the stage had arthritis and Li Hongzhi slapped him on the joints. After his palms were in the air, he would make the special gesture as if picking up a flower with thumb and middle finger. As he was doing this, Li Hongzhi said: “I was sending forth my power to his joints”. It was hot that day and, after half an hour, Li Hongzhi started to sweat. Then the man said: “Alright, alright, it doesn’t seem to hurt so much.” At his words, I thought to myself, although I didn’t feel a thing when Li Hongzhi sent forth his power to me, but it seemed that he had something with him for he could cure people. But when I saw what happened next, I knew I was wrong.

After the man suffering arthritis stepped down, another one came up. He was humpbacked and in his 40s or 50s. His back hunched so much that it looked like he had a big backpack on his back. He begged Li Hongzhi to straighten him up and Li Hongzhi said: “Let me see. If all of you don’t mind, I’ll treat him here. I just can’t leave him like that.” Taking a good look at him, Li Hongzhi started to do all the tricks on his back, slapping and rubbing all over. His hands moved so fast that it reminded me of the top martial masters treating people in kungfu movies. But nothing changed with the back of the man and Li started to push it with his knee. At each push, the hunchback shouted aloud in pain. With sweat dripping from his face, Li Hongzhi had to stop and asked the man to step down. Li Hongzhi then told the audience: “The hunchback has too much karma but I have removed most of it for him. He’ll straighten up after a while.” I heard the whispers around me saying doubting words such as “That’s all a master can do” and “He’s talking horse”.

Then some people carried a man with a stretcher onto the stage. It seemed that the man was very sick and couldn’t walk. I could see that the yellow exercise clothing on Li Hongzhi was wet with sweat. He had a look at the man on the stretcher and told him: “You’re sick because you had too much karma resulted from your previous life. It will take me a long time to cure you and it’s not right to waste the time of the audience. Why don’t you go down first and I’ll treat you after the lecture.” So he was carried down, which resulted in more discussions among the audience and some left the meeting place.

Li Hongzhi continued his speech on the stage, saying something like “illness was caused by one’s karma during the previous life; if you want to get well, you should have faith in practicing, stop taking medicine, stop seeing doctors, and someone will come to cure you”. At realizing that the “magic power” of the “master” was nothing but empty words, I lost any interest in it and left before it ended.

Coming out of the Workers’ Cultural Club, I found it was early and had time to do some shopping. After a while, the lecture concluded and I saw the audience coming out from the main entrance. Several people carried the sketcher I saw just now and drove away in a van. Then I saw the hunchback with the back still humped coming out; he hesitated for a while and then got on a bus and left.

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“Evil cult” causes stir in San Francisco

30 Jun

Falun Gong had something of a public relations meltdown in San Francisco this month. And despite its best efforts at spin control could not right its sinking ship within the Chinese American and gay communities in the Bay Area.

It all started over a popular holiday event. The group, which has been labeled an “evil cult” in China, claimed it was experiencing discrimination because its devotees would not be allowed to march in the Chinese New Year parade.

However, parade officials saw things quite differently.

“We have strict rules No political statements,” said Wayne Hu, president of San Francisco’s Chinese Chamber of Commerce, which runs the parade.

Falun Gong frequently uses whatever events it can to promote itself and increasingly Chinese American communities have decided to rebuff such efforts.

The group put pressure on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for a statement of support, but that effort seemingly backfired, ending in an empty resolution without mention of its avowed nemesis the Chinese government.

But this should come as no surprise to the followers of “Master Li Hongzhi,” the founder of Falun Gong, who has been repeatedly described as both “homophobic” and a “racist.”

The exiled leader of Falun Gong who now lives in New York teaches his followers that gays are “disgusting” and somehow a “black substance” accumulates within the bodies of gay men. “Disgusting homosexuality shows the dirty abnormal psychology of the gay who has lost his ability of reasoning at the present time,” says Hongzhi. And one day he claims gays will be “eliminated” by “the gods.”

In the liberal and gay friendly city of San Francisco even an empty resolution of support for Falun Gong has angered many.

“What a disappointing vote. I have compassion for the practitioners but I think the supervisors have been duped by the master’s party line.” Thomas Brown told the Bay Area Reporter.

“I challenge any gay person in this city to get any Falun Gong practitioner to state they do not agree with their master’s belief. I have never heard them refute what he has said. There is deception here,” Brown said. “I think it is a vote that will come back to haunt some of the supervisors.”

Brown’s roommate, Samuel Luo, called the resolution “a huge disappointment” and warned that the group will use it “to recruit members. It makes it hard for people like me to get family members out of the cult.” Luo’s parents are involved with Falun Gong and he has expressed concern for how the group has affected their lives.

“I think it is great that the leadership in the Chinese community recognizes the homophobia of this group and I would support their efforts not to let them march,” said Thom Lynch, executive director of the LGBT Community Center

Interestingly, in a letter published by the San Francisco Sentinel Samuel Luo noted an apparent contradiction in Falun Gong’s battle for human rights. “Last year when the International Cultic Studies Association organized a program on the Falun Gong in which I was one of the presenters, the Falun Gong threatened the organization with a lawsuit and successfully suppressed our freedom of speech” he said.

It seems that Hongzhi’s followers have become adept at an old Scientology strategy. That is, filing what can be seen as harassment lawsuits against their perceived enemies. Lately this also included suing an Australian official for restricting their use of loudspeakers and banners outside a Chinese embassy reported the Sydney Morning Herald.

Apparently Falun Gong wants everyone to recognize its right to speak out loudly and boldly, but not the right of its critics like Luo to tell what they know in an organized public forum.

Falun Gong reportedly will be crashing the Chinese New Year parade in San Francisco, even though its members remain unwanted there reports Bloomberg News.

“They crashed the parade…[last year], and I am prepared for them to do this again this year,” Wayne Hu told the press.

Hongzhi’s followers don’t seem to care how much they upset Chinese Americans, gays or anyone else, as they pursue their master’s agenda.

Meanwhile North American Chinese communities just want to celebrate the coming New Year without political statements or “cult” entanglements.

L.A. Chung writing for the San Jose Mercury News said that Falun Gong “could espouse a doctrine based on loving fluffy kittens or for kicking Tibetan monks. I don’t think the group’s philosophies really matter to the Chinese Chamber of Commerce.”

Li Hongzhi’s followers have now filed a legal action to stop San Francisco from using $77,000 in city money to support the parade, which has left local Chinese leaders fuming and the public perception that they are spoilers.

The San Francisco parade in Chinatown is the largest such celebration in North America and the Chinese community there is the second-largest in the U.S. followed by New York. Fallen Gong has caused similar problems in New York surrounding community events there.

The narrow focus of Falun Gong devotees upon their own self-serving agenda continues to alienate many Chinese Americans. And after this most recent fiasco it appears doubtful that the controversial group will regain any ground or goodwill it has lost in the Bay Area.

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Who keeps ringing that (Falun) Gong?

22 Jun

No one told me that the Falun Gong had invaded Manhattan, but it seems to have happened. Just when we’ve gotten rid of the infestation of Republican delegates, I can’t go anywhere without tripping over a Falun Gong representative.

For anyone who’s never heard of the Falun Gong, I got this description from a website set up on behalf of the movement: “Falun Gong is a traditional Chinese spiritual discipline that includes exercise and meditation.” The website says it has no religious affiliation, but I had thought it was in some way a Christian sect. Also, one of their representatives told me all about local “churches”, so there’s some piece of the puzzle missing here.

So what’s going on in NYC these days? Thursday night, in the midst of my near-drunkenness, Marc and I were riding the subway to the Village. A young woman–a frighteningly stereotypical Chinese immigrant–was handing out information. She appeared almost desperate for someone to listen to her pitch.

Now, here’s the thing: I’m a happy drunk. I wasn’t quite drunk, but I was sufficiently toasted to be in quite a friendly mood. So I decided to act interested. Well, she sat down, told me some about the Falun Gong and showed me where I could attend church with them. (I didn’t bother telling her that I was incurably Jewish. Why ruin her fun?)

I could see Marc, who was sitting to my right as Ms. FG was on my left, looking at me like I was insane to even be speaking to this person.

When we reached our stop, I took my Falun Dafa Reader and went on to enjoy the rest of the evening.

Fast forward one day. We’re walking through Union Square, on our way to dinner. This time, there was no way to avoid the FG pitch. There was a huge Falun Gong display (for lack of a better word) set up in the square, and there were lots of Falun Gong people handing out information.

For a persecuted group from China, they look like they’re flourishing around here! Good for them, I suppose. From what tiny little bit I know about them, they seem like a decent enough group. That said, just leave me alone. If I want to convert to your religion, practice, group, etc., I’ll give you a call. Unless, of course, I’m drunk. Then you may feel free to tell me all about it. Just don’t expect me to give a shit once I sober up!

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O’Brien keen to avoid ‘incident’ with China

22 Jun

Less than a month after returning from a business mission to China, Mayor Larry O’Brien is refusing to proclaim Falun Dafa Day, for fear it might “create any kind of international incident.”

The City of Ottawa has made the proclamation in the previous two years, with O’Brien personally signing it in 2008.

Indeed, the spiritual group — also called Falun Gong — received notification in April from the city’s protocol office that today would be proclaimed “Falun Dafa Day” in the city. Earlier this week, though, the group was told the mayor would not sign the proclamation.

When asked why, O’Brien said Wednesday it was “in the interest of maintaining and developing a continuing stronger economic relation with a country that’s going to be important to our future.”

According to Bay Councillor Alex Cullen, when he asked the mayor why he would not sign the proclamation, the mayor told Cullen: “I made a commitment.” O’Brien did not say to whom, Cullen said.

Asked by the Citizen if he gave his word to any Chinese official he would not proclaim Falun Dafa Day, the mayor did not answer.

“Quite frankly,” he said, “based on what I saw, the progress and the warmth and the happiness that I saw in China, it would be very difficult for me to try and create any kind of international incident.”

Outside China, Falun Gong is widely accepted as a non-threatening spiritual practice, which the group says urges “truthfulness, compassion and forbearance,” as well as mental and physical well-being. Founded in 1992, the Chinese Communist party initially supported it, but, when the movement became so popular that it had tens of millions more followers, the government outlawed Falun Gong, branding it an “evil” cult in 1999.

The mayor said Wednesday his 11-day visit last month to China had a “profound impact” on “understanding the complexity of the country, seeing the enormous progress they have made.”

Travelling with the Ottawa Centre for Research Innovation and a number of local clean-technology companies, O’Brien met with high-ranking officials from four cities, including the mayor of Beijing and a senior vice-president with telecommunications giant Huawei.

During the trip, Ottawa company Plasco Energy signed a deal to set up a demonstration facility in Beijing, while Huawei announced it would expand its research and development centre in Ottawa to 200 from 80.

O’Brien said he was not concerned that he would be seen to be tolerating a repressive regime in exchange for stronger business ties.

“I think it’s important that we save the proclamations for days that are not going to be contentious internationally,” the mayor said. “We are a city, after all, and a city has a number of priorities including economic prosperity, social stability and I’m very comfortable in the decision I’ve made.”

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For whom the Gong tolls

22 Jun

Who’s behind the biggest threat to Chinese rulers since Tiananmen? An elusive mystery man who teaches calisthenic-like exercises to old ladies in tennis shoes, and appears to be in hiding somewhere in the American Southwest. Unless he’s in Queens.

It was strange, maybe even miraculous: As soon as Master Li saw Gary Feuerberg in the crowded Manhattan hotel lobby, he walked right over and shook his hand. Somehow, Master Li could sense that Feuerberg was one of his disciples.

“He knew I was a follower,” Feuerberg says. “He could see it because when you become a practitioner of Falun Gong, it’s evident to a clairvoyant.” Master Li is a clairvoyant. It’s just one of his many talents. “Undeniably, he has supernatural powers,” Feuerberg says. “But he doesn’t show them, he doesn’t display them.”

Thin and balding, with a neatly trimmed beard, Feuerberg, 56, is a mathematical statistician at the Department of Transportation. He’s eating his lunch in a cafeteria near his office, talking about Master Li Hongzhi, founder of Falun Gong, the spiritual practice that the Chinese government crushed last year, causing an international controversy.

“The other spiritual paths I’ve done–Christian things–were all related to Earth and this planetary sphere,” Feuerberg says, “but Master Li is beyond this planetary sphere.”

He digs into the last item on his plastic plate–a piece of apple pie–and continues.

“He has gotten permission–put that word in quotes–from the higher world to do what he does. You cannot bring this kind of truth to the world without permission. He would be killed. He would be destroyed. The fact that he has been able to do this shows that he has support from above.”

Clairvoyant?… Supernatural powers?… Beyond this planetary sphere? It sounds strange, but many strange things are said about Master Li Hongzhi–sometimes by his followers, sometimes by his enemies, sometimes by Li himself:

That he can levitate and become invisible.

That he knows “the top secret of the universe.”

That he has 100 million followers in China.

That he might be, as the Wall Street Journal put it, “the greatest threat to China’s ruling Communist Party.”

That he teaches five simple exercises that have resulted in millions of miraculous cures.

That he discourages his followers from taking medicine, which has led to more than 1,000 deaths.

That he is a charlatan living in luxury on wealth gouged from deluded disciples.

That he is indifferent to money and lives in a modest apartment in Queens, N.Y., with his wife and teenage daughter.

That he has disappeared.

That he’s on a desert mountaintop, watching over us all. Li Hongzhi is a man and a myth and a mystery. He also has a PR woman, Gail Rachlin. I called her to request an interview.

She laughed. “You and thousands of others,” she said. “I get calls daily. Unfortunately, it’s not the right time. Officials have informed us that the Chinese government has sent people out to assassinate him.” What officials? She can’t reveal that. But they were, she says, Americans.

“How would you feel if there were assassins after you?” she says. “The Chinese government is very shrewd. Why would we expose our teacher?” Last July, right after the Chinese cracked down on Falun Gong, Li held a news conference and did a few interviews in a Manhattan skyscraper. Those were his last public appearances.

“I haven’t heard from him since then,” says Rachlin, who is an avid Falun Gong practitioner. “I don’t know where he is. But I know he’s safe.” How do you know?

“I’ve heard.”

How did you hear?

She sighs. “I can just feel it,” she says.

Bogus Buddha?

The mystery of Li Hongzhi starts right at the beginning–with his birthday. Li says he was born on May 13, 1951. The Chinese government says he was born on July 7, 1952, that he created a bogus birth certificate to give himself the same birthday as Sakyamuni–the Buddha.

Li denies it. “During the Cultural Revolution, the government misprinted my birth date. I just corrected it,” he told Time magazine last July. “What’s the big deal about having the same birthday as Sakyamuni? Many criminals were also born on that date. I have never said that I am Sakyamuni. I am just a very ordinary man.”

Ordinary? A short biography that appeared as an appendix to Li’s book “Zhuan Falun” tells a far different story:

At the age of 4, Li was picked to apprentice with a famous Buddhist master. At 8, he attained supernatural powers: He could bend metal pipes, become invisible, rise into the heavens.

One day in fourth grade, he left his book bag in school and returned to find the place locked. “If only I could enter the classroom,” he thought, and suddenly he was floating through the walls.

When he was 12, his first master left him, saying, “A new master will come to teach you.” The new master took him to an isolated place and taught him kung fu and Li’s body became as “soft as cotton and as hard as iron.” A third master taught him inner cultivation and a fourth, a woman, tutored him in Buddhism. All in all, he was guided by more than 20 masters. From their wisdom, he created Falun Gong, which “will illuminate every corner of the earth, nourish all the living things, warm the whole world and play an unparalleled role in the realization of an ideal and perfect society on this planet.”

This official biography praised Li in the most laudatory of superlatives: “Mr. Li has a deep insight into the mysteries of the cosmos… Whoever is lucky enough to meet him is deeply impressed by his simple life style, unadorned speech and unselfish service… He works excessively and knows no Sundays and holidays, often having no time to eat or rest. His only aspiration is to make more people healthy and happy…” This praise of Li was signed “Research Society of Falun Dafa”–a group whose president is Li. It appeared in early editions of his book, but was later removed when Falun Gong was mocked as a cult of personality.


There is, of course, another version of the story. It’s less mystical, more mundane, more verifiable.

Li Hongzhi was born in Jilin province in northeast China. After high school, he worked on an army stud farm, played trumpet in a police band and, in the 1980s, became a clerk for the Changchun Cereals Co. By then, the post-Mao government had lifted restrictions on religion and encouraged entrepreneurship. This new openness led to a revival of qigong, the ancient Chinese spiritual practice characterized by slow, meditative exercises believed to improve body, mind and spirit. Scores of self-proclaimed qigong masters competed for followers, frequently touting their mystical healing powers. In 1992, Li Hongzhi joined them, hitting the lecture circuit to promote his brand of qigong, which he called Falun Gong. “He was one of many qigong masters who were going entrepreneurial at that time,” says Nancy Chen, an anthropologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who has studied the history of qigong. “He created an amalgam that combined some meditation, some exercises and some healing. It’s a combination of different traditions, a kind of New Age variety.”

Li’s “cultivation practice” is a mystical blend of Buddhism and Taoism, enlivened with cryptic references to “demonic interference,” animal spirits and a spinning “falun”–a mystical “wheel of law”–that he claimed to insert into his disciples’ abdomens telekinetically.

Li preached that illness is caused by evil deeds the sick person performed–in this life or a previous one. Modern medicine treats only the symptoms of a disease, he said, not its underlying spiritual cause, which can be cured only by practicing Falun Gong.

“The only way to find yourself comfortably free of illnesses,” he wrote in “Zhuan Falun,” “is through cultivation practice!”

Li quickly attracted millions of followers, many of them elderly women. Part of his appeal, says Chen, was that Falun Gong classes were free, although Li did sell millions of his books and tapes. Also, his message arrived at the perfect time: As state-run industries were closed or privatized, millions of Chinese were losing government health benefits and, as Chen says, “Falun Gong promised to cure diseases.”

At first, the government permitted Li to proselytize freely but in 1997, fearing his increasing popularity, it banned Li’s books and curtailed his meetings. Feeling the heat, he moved his family to Queens and began lecturing in America, Australia and Europe.

Back in China, his disciples, who by then numbered in the tens of millions, became increasingly militant. When a Beijing TV program denounced Falun Gong as a “cult” in 1998, the station was besieged by hundreds of Li’s followers. When a teen magazine ran an essay attacking Falun Gong last April, thousands of his disciples surrounded its offices. Cops broke up that demonstration, allegedly beating some protesters.

Two days later, on April 25, 1999, thousands of Falun Gong practitioners surrounded Zhingnanhai, the Chinese equivalent of the Kremlin, in a silent protest. It was the largest demonstration seen in Beijing since army tanks crushed pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square 10 years earlier. Shocked at the group’s audacity and its organizing ability, the government cracked down, banning Falun Gong and arresting thousands of practitioners. Many were tortured, according to Amnesty International, and a 42-year-old woman was beaten to death in police custody. In December, four Falun Gong leaders were sentenced to terms ranging from seven to 18 years for conspiring with Li Hongzhi to “spread heresy.” This month, hundreds of Falun Gong prisoners went on a hunger strike, and one died after being force-fed by his captors.

To outsiders, it seemed absurd to bring the full force of state power down on what may appear to have been little more than a cult of old ladies doing calisthenics. But, in terms of purely Machiavellian power politics, it was not an irrational move, says Merle Goldman, co-author of “China: A History.” Throughout Chinese history, charismatic religious groups have sparked political uprisings. In the mid-1800s, a man who claimed to be Jesus’s brother led a revolt resulting in a civil war that killed millions. In 1900, the so-called “Boxers”–a qigong cult that believed its exercises made members impervious to bullets–rose up in an attempt to expel foreigners. The attempt failed; it turned out that they weren’t impervious after all. China’s rulers see Falun Gong as a similar threat, Goldman says: “It’s widespread and they can’t seem to stop it. They are really frightened.” In his last public appearances before he dropped out of sight, Li tried to reassure the Chinese rulers that he had no political agenda. They responded with an indictment and a relentless barrage of propaganda against him. The government produced a videotape called “Falun Gong–Cult of Evil” and a comic book titled “Li Hongzhi: The Man and His Evil Deeds.” They accused Li of being a fraud, a “swindler,” a rich tax evader, a decadent patron of foreign casinos and brothels and a “despotic tyrant like Hitler.” Even the description in the government’s official arrest warrant was insulting: “Li is about 1.78 meters in height with slanted eyebrows, single-edged eyelids, a little bit fat…”

Magic Happens

“I met Master Li,” says Lisa Fan. “His skin is glowing. His face is glowing. You see this glowing around him.”

She is sitting with her husband, Robert Nappi, at the dining room table in their spacious Alexandria split-level. She is 35, a Chinese immigrant who works as a computer engineer at the Department of Health and Human Services. He is 47, an American who worked at a wastewater treatment plant until he was nearly killed seven years ago in an auto accident that left him with a bad back, a numb arm and so much brain damage that he could no longer read. But when he looked at Master Li’s book, he claims, he could suddenly read again.

“When you pick up the book, magic happens,” he says.

Fan first learned of Falun Gong while riding the subway in Washington in 1997. She saw a woman reading a book in Chinese, so she started reading over her shoulder.

“It stirred up something deep down inside myself,” she says. The book was “Zhuan Falun.” The woman lent it to Fan, who raced through it in two days. It emitted an energy, she says, that made her feel young and excited. Nappi was a smoker in those days, so she read him a brief passage about smoking. Immediately, he quit.

“That’s the first miracle,” he says.

Later, he stopped drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana. Those were miracles, too, he says. And one day, he cut his finger working in the garden. It was a nasty wound that turned the finger black and blue. He thought of going to the emergency room. Instead, he did Falun Gong exercises. A half hour later, he says, the cut was gone and his finger was healed.

“I thought, ‘This is spooky,’ ” he recalls.

Last year, they traveled to New York to hear Master Li lecture. During the question period, Nappi stood up but he was so nervous that he started babbling on and on about his brain injury and he never did say anything coherent. He was mortified. So was Fan.

But Master Li just smiled. “I have observed your thoughts,” he said. “Your mind is in a very confused state right now.”

He was so calm, so kind, Fan says. “I was very touched.” A picture of Li hangs on the wall of their living room. Another is propped on the fireplace mantle. But that doesn’t mean that they worship him.

“Master Li says, ‘Don’t worship me,’ ” Fan says. “That’s why he keeps a low profile. Master Li doesn’t want people to focus on him. He wants people to focus on the lesson.”

She gets up and takes out a videotape. It’s the first of a nine-part set of Li’s lectures. She pops it into the TV set. Li appears on the screen. He’s sitting in front of a yellow backdrop, wearing a white shirt and a blue blazer. He’s speaking in Chinese, with an English translation dubbed in. He’s telling the story of how a famous qigong master chose him as an apprentice when he was just a small boy.

“It was predestined,” Fan says. “He was selected to carry out this task.”

The Hustler

“Li Hongzhi is what you call a hustler,” says Yu Shuning, smiling mischievously.

Yu is the official media spokesman for the Chinese Embassy. He’s a middle-age man wearing the international uniform of the nondescript bureaucrat–white shirt, blue suit, subdued tie, black-framed glasses. “He deceives people–that’s why I think hustler is the word,” he says. “He changed his birthday to coincide with that of Sakyamuni. We have records of that. Then he says he’s much greater than Sakyamuni. He’s the greatest savior in the world. He can save anybody. He can save everybody.”

Yu laughs at the idea. He’s sitting in a little room in the embassy. Thick red drapes block out the sun. Plush green chairs are crowned by prim white doilies. The coffee table holds big bottles of Sprite and Diet Coke. There is no portrait of Mao, no hammer-and-sickle–and absolutely no noise. The room has the feel of a septuagenarian’s parlor.

Yu pours himself half a glass of Diet Coke and runs through the official rap on Li Hongzhi: He preached against medicine and 1,400 of his followers died because they stopped going to the doctor. Others went mad. Some killed themselves. One killed his parents. Meanwhile, Li was making millions and evading taxes. His organization harassed anyone who criticized it. And he masterminded the April 25 demonstration in Beijing.

The government had no choice but to ban the evil cult, he says: “By taking these measures, we’re trying to protect the human rights of all citizens, including the ordinary Falun Gong practitioners.” It’s a masterful bit of spin–arresting people for their religious beliefs is protecting their human rights.

He is disappointed, he says, that the United States government continues to give Li sanctuary. “We have asked Interpol to have Li Hongzhi arrested and extradited back to China. As a member of Interpol, the United States government is morally obliged to extradite because Li Hongzhi has been declared a criminal leader of a cult.”

He scoffs at rumors in Falun Gong circles that the Chinese government has dispatched a hit squad to kill Li. “This is the kind of rumor they spread to smear the Chinese government,” he says. “The Chinese government does not have a policy of terrorism.”

Later, he faxes over a packet of material on Li. Most of it is pretty dry but the last page is an anti-Li poem written in a weird pidgin English:

I think my Falun Gong is fine, It can help collect money to dine,
And drink a lot good wine,
I have lots followers here and there,
And now I’m a billionaire,
What about anything else that I need to care?
He Doesn’t Call,
He Doesn’t Write
In early January, the New York Post reports that Li Hongzhi, fearing Chinese death squads, has moved out of his Queens apartment and “gone into hiding.” The paper attributes this information to Gail Rachlin, Li’s PR woman. I call her. She says the story is “full of lies.” She says she has no idea if Li has left Queens or not.

“I don’t think he’s there,” she says, “but I don’t know.”

Why don’t you know?

“Master Li doesn’t call me,” she says.

Why not?

There’s no need for him to call, she says. Besides, he doesn’t speak English and she doesn’t speak Chinese.

So I call a man who does speak Chinese–Erping Zhang, a Chinese immigrant who translated for Li on speaking tours in the United States, Australia and Europe. I mention the Post story and ask if Li has really fled Queens. “I have no idea,” he says. “It’s not my concern. Of course, I hope he’s safe but that’s his private life. I don’t even have the desire to know.”

You’ve traveled around the world with him, I say. What’s he like?

“He is very prudent, very modest, very nice, very kind,” he says. “He always thinks of others before himself. He’s a very great individual.”

I’m hoping for something a little more specific. An anecdote or two, perhaps. What was it like, I ask, to hang out with him after lectures? “I didn’t associate with him at all after the lectures,” he said. “I have my own private life and he has his.”

Obviously he doesn’t want to talk about Li. But he’s eager to talk about Li’s teachings. He says Falun Gong is not a cult. He says practicing Falun Gong cured his ulcers. He says Master Li never told his disciples that they shouldn’t go to doctors–that choice is up to each practitioner. And he says that it doesn’t matter where Master Li lives–or even if he lives. “I don’t even pay attention to those things,” he says. “The practice is good for my health and I like the values but I don’t put a whole lot into the person. He’s a great teacher. I respect him highly. But I’m not into worshiping.”

Their Master’s Voice

Master Li’s voice whispers out of the boombox.

He is giving commands in Chinese, directing his disciples in the exercises he has invented.

“Up,” he says, and their hands move up.

“Down,” he says, and their hands move down.

But these aren’t calisthenics, and Master Li is not Richard Simmons. The movements are soft and slow and Li’s commands are low murmurs that are barely audible over the tape’s gently tinkling music. Twenty people stand in a circle around the boombox in a gym in a Rockville middle school. Most of them are Chinese immigrants but about a third are Americans. One of them is Feuerberg, the statistician for the Department of Transportation. He comes here every Friday night to do the exercises and study Master Li’s book. “Up,” Master Li whispers. “Down.”

This exercise is called “Penetrating the Two Cosmic Extremes.” It expels bad qi–or energy–from the body, Li claims, replacing it with purifying qi from the cosmos. It ends with the practitioners resting, hands cupped at the navel. Now, the room is silent, except for the sounds from the gym next door–basketballs bouncing, sneakers squeaking on shellacked wood.

After a pause, Li’s voice leads the group into the final exercise. It’s called “Falun Heavenly Circulation.” Li claims that it expands “energy potency and supernormal powers.” Moving very slowly, the practitioners trace the outlines of their own bodies, head to foot, back and front. They repeat this nine times, then return to the resting position.

Now the exercises are over. The practitioners take out their copies of Master Li’s book and sit in two circles on the floor–one for Chinese speakers, one for English. Feuerberg directs the seven English speakers to page 227, where they stopped reading last week.

“Maybe we should start with the paragraph before it,” he says, “because it’s a very good paragraph.”

He starts reading: “There is still another form of demonic interference that every practitioner, including each member in our cultivation way, will encounter. It is the demon of sex…”

Sex is very serious, Li says. It is necessary to reproduce the human race, of course, and he does not require followers to “give it up completely.” But sex can interfere with one’s spiritual life. “Desires and sex are such things that belong to the human attachments,” he wrote, “and these things should all be abandoned.”

Li discourses on sex for several pages. In the circle, each practitioner reads a paragraph aloud in turn. When the chapter ends, they discuss it. “Sex does have a role,” says one woman, “but it shouldn’t take over.” “That would be out of balance,” says another.

They move on to the next chapter, then the next, then the one after that. Li tells the story of a Falun Gong practitioner who had a cerebral hemorrhage and fell to the ground and was hustled to a hospital. After learning to walk again, he blamed Falun Gong for his injury. But, Li says, if he had not practiced Falun Gong he would have died where he fell.

Then Li raises a question: “How can you distinguish between fake and genuine qigong masters?” Not by healing powers, he says: Some fake masters can cure illnesses. Some of them are possessed by animal spirits. They are dangerous. He urges his disciples not to attend their lectures.

“There are many fake qigong masters nowadays,” he warns, “and some of them are quite well-known.” So how can you spot a fake master? Li never says, but he leaves the distinct impression that a fake is anyone not named Li Hong Zhi.

King of the Hill

Master Li is sitting cross-legged, hands folded in his lap. He’s perched on a rocky desert mountaintop overlooking a lush valley full of tall trees. It’s a photograph. It appeared on Falun Gong Web sites on Jan. 19. It’s a new picture, never before seen by his disciples. The caption is in Chinese. It says that Li left New York last summer and is now on a mountain, watching over Falun Gong practitioners and ordinary people.

It’s the first news about Li since he dropped out of sight last July and it caused quite a stir among practitioners. They’ve been printing it, framing it, sending it all over the world via the Internet, and speculating endlessly on what it might mean.

Feuerberg says he thinks it means that “Master Li is now going to make America his next center of activity.”

Nappi says he figures it means that Master Li has ended his teaching “and the rest of us have to finish it.”

Fan says, “he definitely is doing his part but it’s beyond our understanding.”

Chen, the anthropologist, says the picture is a Chinese metaphor that means that “he’s going into obscurity–basically hiding out.”

Rachlin says the photo was probably taken before July and posted by someone who has no idea what Master Li is doing.

Master Li says nothing, of course. He just sits there with his eyes closed, looking serene, inscrutable, mysterious.

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A dance show with politics in the wings

8 Jun

When the dancers of the Shen Yun Performing Arts company took to the stage at Toronto’s Canon Theatre on Friday night, many in the audience might not have realized that their show is connected to the Falun Gong spiritual movement.

They also might not have realized that the troupe’s traditionally inspired Chinese dance – reflecting the costumes and ideals of bygone Buddhist and Taoist periods – belies a heated, very contemporary war of words between Falun Gong advocates and the Chinese government.

In recent years, articles about the Shen Yun company in various mainstream media outlets, which have either questioned or asserted the political undertones of the troupe’s dance spectacle, have been picked apart by those on both sides of the divide. So have some of the reviews of Shen Yun’s shows – particularly the positive ones in The Epoch Times newspaper (which publishes in various languages and countries) and on New York-based New Tang Dynasty Television (NTDTV), both of which are affiliated with Falun Gong.

Shen Yun itself maintains an arm’s-length distance from Falun Gong. Uncharacteristically for an international touring company, no one from Shen Yun was available for an interview regarding this story – those who speak English and can talk for the company were said to be on tour and out of reach. The troupe’s website describes Shen Yun as a “non-profit organization that is independent of China’s Communist regime and which seeks to revive the true, five-millennia-old artistic tradition of China that thrived before decades of suppression by the Chinese Communist party.”

Still, Joel Chipkar, vice-president of the Falun Dafa Association of Toronto, which is presenting the production in Toronto, said in an interview: “It’s not… a Falun Gong show. That’s the issue.”

Chipkar says that, although Falun Gong is presenting the show, Shen Yun is an independent dance company – one that, he insists, restricts Falun Gong’s presence at its shows. “This is not proselytizing for Falun Gong, as some reporters have said,” says Chipkar. “Today, many productions use the arts to bring to light issues that face our world. And this is what makes these performances very powerful.”

The dance company, which is based in upstate New York, runs three different touring groups and performs worldwide. As Chipkar explains, the show contains about 20 scenes, with English and Chinese hosts introducing the dances and songs. “Even if somebody doesn’t know a lot of ancient Chinese culture or themes, they can easily view along,” he says. “It appeals to everyone.”
Since 1999, the Chinese government has cracked down on the Falun Gong movement, which soared in popularity in China during the 1990s. It opposes the Shen Yun production, arguing that it directly promotes Falun Gong. In January, seven sold-out shows in Hong Kong  were cancelled because several members of the company weren’t granted visas, according to a Shen Yun press release.

“Falun Gong is a cult. It is an anti-China organization. Actually, anything referring to China, they are opposed to,” says Huo Mingwu, a press officer with the Chinese consulate in Toronto. “Of course, our official position is quite clear. We strongly oppose this kind of performance. We hope that local people, especially politicians, not go, not watch that kind of false performance.”

He adds that the government hopes people will realize the connection between Shen Yun and Falun Gong and not fall for what he describes as “propaganda.”

Posters have appeared in store windows throughout Toronto advertising the production. And while Falun Gong’s name isn’t featured prominently, it is listed on the show’s promotion material and website, along with The Epoch Times and NTDTV.

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