Falun Gong Derided as Authoritarian Sect by Anti-Cult Experts in Seattle


San Francisco Chronicle, April 29, 2000
By Don Lattin


Seattle -- Falun Gong, the burgeoning Chinese spiritual movement banned by the Beijing government, is under attack by the anti-cult movement in the United States.

Three critics of the sect, which has attracted thousands of new followers among Chinese Americans in the Bay Area, New York and other metropolitan areas, opened a weekend conference in Seattle on "Cults and the Millennium."

"If you want a good description of a cult, all you have to do is read what they say they are," said Margaret Singer, a Berkeley psychologist and longtime crusader against authoritarian religious groups. "They actually say 'Don't Think.' Just recite the master's teaching."

In China, Falun Gong has faced a brutal crackdown by the Communist Party and the central government. Its members have been beaten, imprisoned and forbidden to publicly practice meditative exercises that resemble such traditional Chinese techniques as t'ai chi and qigong.

Falun Gong critics at the conference say that they have nothing against the exercises but charge that the movement's founder, Master Li Hongzhi -- now living in exile in New York -- leads an authoritarian sect that is breaking up Chinese families, discouraging devotees to seek medical care and misrepresenting its true teachings.

Memorized Jargon

Singer said she has been contacted 44 times by concerned relatives of Falun Gong members, 35 of them of Chinese background. "Their children have begun talking to them in memorized jargon, reading from the words of Master Li," she said.

Falun Gong members in the Bay Area and New York deny the allegations leveled by watchdog organizations in the United States and by the Chinese government, which has called the group an "evil cult."

Joseph Beckenbach, a Falun Gong member in San Jose, said the anti-cult movement's attack may be related to "Chinese government teams going out and spreading complete misinformation about us."

Gail Rachlin, a Falun Gong member and publicist in New York, said she couldn't believe anyone was alleging that Master Li exerts undo control over the lives of his devotees.

"Ninety-nine percent of them have never even met him," said Rachlin. "People come and go as they please, and they are never asked to donate money."

Rachlin also denied that Li discourages his followers from seeking medical care. "It's a personal choice," she said. "Before I started the practice, I was taking sleeping pills and medication for depression. Now I don't need it."

While parents may notice a change in the behavior of their children after they join Falun Gong, Rachlin said she hasn't heard any complaints about it.

"It allows you to be more at peace. You upgrade your thinking and have compassion in your heart," she said. "Nobody's acting strange. That's not allowed."

Another speaker at yesterday's conference session, Zixian Deng, said the English-language translations of Li's teachings are "less harsh" than in the original Chinese. Some of his more bizarre writings have not been translated at all into English.

Vanquished By Aliens

"They talk about aliens taking over the world," said Deng, a doctorate candidate in Chinese politics and philosophy at the University of North Texas.

Deng, who left China in 1991, said he began to get bombarded with e-mail about Falun Gong in 1995, and now knows several people who have left the movement.

The third speaker at yesterday's session on Falun Gong, Patsy Rahn, studies modern and classical Chinese at the University of California at Los Angeles.

She has written several articles on the movement for "The Cultic Observer," which is the journal of the American Family Foundation, the organization sponsoring this weekend's conference.

Rahn said the crackdown on Falun Gong in China has helped the movement's reputation in the United States, because most of the news accounts here focus on the issue of human rights violations by the Communist government in Beijing.

She suggested that the true story is somewhere between the "evil cult" image promoted by the Chinese government and the American news media's depiction of Communist China as the "evil empire."

Millions of Chinese have joined Falun Gong because of the uncertainty and dislocation spawned by rapid economic and social changes in China, Rahn said.


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