For Whom the Gong Tolls

Washington Post, February 27, 2000

By Peter Carlson

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. Crackdown

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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