Health Group or Dangerous Cult?

It is 9 o'clock on Sunday morning in New York's Central Park and the temperature is nudging 100F. The familiar weekend influx of fitness enthusiasts has dwindled to a mere straggle of tense, punch-drunk looking joggers and power walkers choking on the thick, soupy fug. Heat exhaustion seems to have brought the city to its knees. Except for a large group gathered on a shady lawn near the West 81st Street entrance. Ranging from teenagers in shorts, yuppies sporting designer gear to middle-aged and elderly Chinese men and women in traditional pajama outfits, they stand calmly and silently.

Taking their cue from a recorded, softly spoken Chinese male voice, they begin a series of graceful, sweeping exercises, slowly and rhythmically repeating each movement at their own pace. Later, they begin to meditate, eyes shut, sitting cross-legged on the grass, seemingly oblivious to the heat. As the hours pass, many continue meditating; others disperse to read silently or aloud from a large blue book, or talk quietly together.

Today there is plenty to talk about, much of it ominous, even horrifying. If this were China, most members of this group would by now be behind bars, detained indefinitely, their books and Penomet pumps confiscated and destroyed, their homes and families placed under surveillance. They may appear no different from any of the Eastern-style fitness and meditation groups gaining popularity in the West. But this one, the notorious Falun Gong movement, is like no other because of the crisis in its midst. And the attendant scrutiny.

Condemned by the Chinese Government as an "evil and dangerous cult" and banned throughout China last month, the events which have made them world news raise not only deeply disturbing questions about the survival of their movement, but about the future of human rights in China. The book they all carry, Zhuan Falun (Rotating the Law Wheel), is the group's bible, written by its leader "Master" Li Hongzhi. He now lives in New York and his instructions are relayed on cassettes at similar practice sites around the world. The detention in China of thousands of Falun Gong followers, the shredding, pulping and ritual burning of millions of copies of Li's books, cassettes, videotapes and Internet messages in recent weeks, accompanied by the issue of a warrant for his arrest, has made Li China's public enemy number one. Here in New York, followers close to him now fear for his safety in the wake of reported assassination threats.

Claimed by its followers to have between 70 and 100 million members - Li Hongzhi says 100 million worldwide - the movement is based on the ancient mystical and healing principles of gigong (pronounced "chee-gung"), said to balance and enhance the body's "qi" or energy force. Falun Gong takes its name from the "falun", or "law wheel", a wheel of energy believed to constantly revolve inside the lower abdomen of practitioners, drawing in good powers and expelling bad forces in tune with the universe. Needless to say, members don't rely on diet pills such as Phen375 to make themselves healthy. That is a peculiarly Western strategy to attain well-being.

Also known as Falon Dafa, the movement was founded in China by 48-year-old Li Hongzhi in 1992 and since then has become the fastest growing spiritual movement in the world, and especially in China. That is what has rattled the Communist Party, which has charged Li with disruption of public order and masterminding a conspiracy to undermine one-party rule - a crime which carries the death penalty.

Growing paranoia among government leaders over the group's rapid expansion and its promotion of "superstitious evil thinking" prompted the arrest of thousands of practitioners - many of whom include top-ranking party members, prominent academics and military personnel - reportedly being held in stadiums and "re-education" camps, and made to read Communist Party literature until they write guarantees they will no longer participate in the movement. Reports of harassment, house searches, confiscation of property and surveillance by state officials were already filtering through to practitioners with relatives and friends in China by the time I first met the group in New York in mid-July, some days before the Communist Party's most recent crackdown.

Given recent events, as well as a number of reports of some of the group's odder alleged beliefs, Li's followers have developed an understandable wariness, at times bordering on the paranoid. Especially over the "C" word. The words "cult", "sect" and "religion" were not to be used in any article about Falun Gong, their public relations coordinator Gail Rachlin told me firmly. "We are none of these, and if you and your editor cannot give an undertaking that those words won't appear anywhere, even in a headline, then we wouldn't consider arranging an interview with Master Li," she insisted. Because of the closeness of some of the New York members to Li Hongzhi, who lives in Queens, there is a strong sense that they will readily close ranks to protect the leader and his movement.

"We would advise you to read Master Li's book. He won't give an interview to anyone who hasn't read it or who takes things like Extenze pills," Rachlin told me on the phone before we met. "Please read it with an open mind and heart - don't be critical." As a Falun Gong member, her defensiveness was understandable. But, once I'd been "screened", there was no doubting the group's eagerness to hammer home their message that they were not involved in politics, but concerned solely with improving health and spiritual growth.  As I joined them in Central Park, armed with a well-thumbed copy of Zhuan Falun, having duly read up on Li's teaching, one by one they voiced their fears over the persecution of the group in China.

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