A Chinese Battle on U.S. Soil

Persecuted Group's Campaign Catches Politicians in the Middle

San Jose Mercury News/December 23, 2001
By Sarah Lubman

The battle between the Chinese government and Falun Gong, the banned spiritual group, has spilled onto American soil, catching sympathetic but uninformed bystanders in the crossfire.

As Falun Gong's overseas followers have stepped up appeals for public support, often invoking the movement's principles of tolerance and compassion, hundreds of American politicians have responded with letters and proclamations, including the mayor of San Jose and members of California's congressional delegation. It is a chorus that the Chinese government has tried to mute. But in supporting Falun Gong as a victim of Chinese communist repression, U.S. politicians often have unwittingly endorsed a philosophy that is intolerant in many respects and in conflict with the values of a Western democracy.

One teaching, for example, explains the existence of mixed-race people -- who number 1.6 million in California -- as instruments of an alien plot to destroy humanity's link to heaven.

Some critics say Falun Gong has deliberately obscured its teachings in the West so it can manipulate domestic and foreign policy.

''They know how to play politics with American elected officials,'' said Ming Xia, a political-science professor at the City University of New York onStaten Island.

He calls Falun Gong ''Janus-faced,'' saying it presents itself in China as a moral-revival movement, but in the West as a movement for freedom of religion and thought.

Falun Gong adherents in the United States deny this, saying human rights seem emphasized in the West only because the persecuted group cannot raise them in China.

''Chinese practitioners also try to present these issues but have no way to do it,'' said Sherry Zhang, a research chemist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a Falun Gong activist. ''Here, we have freedom of speech.''

Beijing sees it differently.

''I think Falun Gong has been used as a tool by congressmen to extend pressure to the Chinese government, although some know it's a cult,'' said Wang Yunxiang, consul-general in San Francisco.

According to one veteran China-watcher, Orville Schell, the West's blind embrace of Falun Gong fits into a well-established pattern of viewing communist China in black-and-white terms, missing the complexities and nuances.

''This has been the tradition,'' said Schell, dean of the journalism school at the University of California-Berkeley. ''Anyone the Chinese government opposes gets lionized as righteous.''


Propaganda war China tries to stop outreach by 'cult'

Last year, the Chinese propaganda war came to Saratoga. As in hundreds of other cities, followers requested a proclamation honoring their practice, formally known as Falun Dafa -- ''Great Way of the Law Wheel.''

The mayor, Stan Bogosian, did not know much about Falun Gong beyond that China had persecuted its adherents since banning the group in 1999. But his proclamation did more than assert followers' rights to their beliefs. It encouraged Saratogans to become aware of ''this ancient Chinese practice'' and its ''higher goals of ultimately bringing people toward wisdom.''

Bogosian was not prepared for the reaction. The Chinese consul-general in San Francisco, Wang, sent a letter calling the group a cult and asking Bogosian to retract the proclamation. He refused.

''My basic understanding was that the mayors who issue proclamations for Falun Gong know little about it,'' Wang said. ''I thought it was my responsibility to let him know more.''

Bogosian says he does not know much about Falun Gong philosophy and does not need to. ''On the surface, what I see out there looks reasonable,'' he said. ''The issue for me is what the Chinese government is doing to its citizens. That's my issue -- and their attempt to come in and interfere with our process. I'm not getting into the substance.''

Bogosian's proclamation joined hundreds on a Falun Gong Web site, most from the United States and Canada. More than 70 have been issued in California, testimony to the state's large number of followers.

Local practitioners say the Bay Area has 200 to 300 followers who try to raise awareness about Falun Gong's persecution. They say the number of practitioners is higher but cannot provide a figure.


Mixture of beliefs--Traditions blended with new concepts

Falun Gong draws on Taoist, Buddhist and other Eastern concepts, including Chinese folk beliefs that resonate with its largely Chinese followers. It also reflects elements of popular Chinese culture, such as an interest in UFOs and aliens.

The movement has three main principles: ''Truthfulness'' (Zhen), ''Compassion'' (Shan) and a concept that gets translated as either ''Tolerance'' or, more accurately, ''Forbearance'' (Ren). According to Li Hongzhi, the group's founder, ren is the ability to tolerate or endure suffering imposed by others. Li has said his teachings are best understood in Chinese.

Some scholars who study Falun Gong say Westerners are misled by its third principle. '' 'Tolerance' suggests respecting other people's viewpoints,'' said David Ownby, a Chinese-history professor at the University of Montreal. ''That's not what it means.''

Ownby says Li ''shares no common background with our Enlightenment heritage and its emphasis on the individual, on acceptance of difference.''

There is a good reason most outsiders and even some Western practitioners do not know about Li Hongzhi's teachings on race or about homosexuality, which he views as perverse: Many are available primarily in Chinese, and are not featured in Falun Gong's promotional materials.

Falun Gong's bible, Li's book ''Zhuan Falun,'' is posted in English on the Internet, the same vehicle for its well-coordinated human rights appeals. The book can be bought from Li's publishing firm or downloaded for free. The English version does not mention race. It briefly criticizes homosexuality, a stance not uncommon in socially conservative China.

Li gets more extreme when he expounds on his teachings to followers in his numerous talks, some of which have not been translated, and in the second volume of his book, which is no longer available in English.

Some practitioners in the United States acknowledge that Li's philosophy rejects homosexuality, but say Falun Gong followers are not trying to prevent it.

''We're not going out on the street and saying, 'Stop doing that,' '' said Shizhong Chen, a biology researcher at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego. ''That would be intolerant.''

Chen and other followers say Li's comments on race echo Jesus' teachings and have been misunderstood. They say Li's teachings about aliens cannot be disproved.

Li, a former grain clerk, blends philosophy with meditation, moral precepts and slow-motion exercises. He preaches that in an age of moral decay, practitioners must shed bad karma through suffering and self-cultivation by doing the exercises and reading his book over and over.

Li encourages followers, whom he distinguishes from ''everyday people,'' to study his book in groups. The goal is to purify one's mind and heart to attain a loftier spiritual plane, which Li calls ''consummation,'' a kind of paradise. ''If I cannot save you, nobody else can,'' Li writes, echoing the promise of countless religious movements throughout the ages.

When Li started teaching Falun Gong in China in 1992, it was one of many schools of qigong, a form of exercise meant to channel qi (pronounced ''chee''), a traditional Chinese concept of energy. With China's communist safety net eroding, state media initially praised Falun Gong for improving people's health. The group registered with an official qigong association.

But in the mid-1990s, Li split from the association, and the media began criticizing Falun Gong for advocating ''feudal superstitions.'' Li began lecturing abroad, and by 1998, he had moved to New York.

He left behind an escalating crisis. Criticism of Falun Gong mounted in China's state-run press. Without a public forum, followers began protesting outside media offices. During April 19-23, 1999, several thousand practitioners protested in Tianjin over an article that criticized Li. More than 50 were arrested.

Two days later on April 25, more than 10,000 followers gathered silently in front of Zhongnanhai, the Chinese leadership compound off Tiananmen Square. China's government, which is struggling to maintain social control, was spooked by the fact that such a large gathering could suddenly materialize, mere weeks before the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Three months later, China banned Falun Gong and branded it a subversive ''evil cult.'' That drove more followers to protest, many of whom were arrested as a result. Falun Gong has since gone underground in China, claiming 100 million members. The government estimates there are as few as 2 million.

Li's remarks from the United States became increasingly apocalyptic, posing China's persecution as a test of faith and urging followers to defy ''evil beings.'' ''Anyone who tries to make excuses for himself and who's never stepped forward is wrong,'' Li said in July.

Falun Gong representatives did not respond to repeated requests to interview Li.

Falun Gong followers say the non-violent spiritual group, unlike Chinese authorities, does not violate the rights of those who do not share its views. The group says tens of thousands of practitioners have been incarcerated in China, and that more than 300 have died of torture by police.

In January, five people identified by the government as practitioners set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square. A 12-year-old girl and her mother died.

Although state television showed the protesters seated in the meditative lotus position used in Falun Gong, representatives of the movement say they were not true practitioners. Adherents in the United States circulate a video that suggests the government staged the incident.

During a recent visit to China, Mary Robinson, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, expressed concern that Beijing is using the U.S.-led war against terrorism as an excuse to step up crackdowns on both its Muslim minority and Falun Gong.

The Chinese government says more than 1,600 Falun Gong followers have died, most from refusing medical treatment or suicide. The government will not cooperate with attempts to confirm its accounts. When the Mercury News Beijing Bureau asked to speak with former followers, it was referred to a government cult-monitoring agency for which there is no public phone number.


Homosexuality--Leader spreading idea of perversion

Though Li is often vague about how to become a better person, he is specific on a few points. One is that homosexuality is perverse.

''The disgusting homosexuality shows the dirty abnormal psychology of the gay who has lost his ability of reasoning at the present time,'' Li wrote in Volume II of ''Zhuan Falun,'' or ''Turning the Law Wheel,'' which was translated into English in 1996. It is now posted on Falun Gong's main Web site only in Chinese.

In a 1998 talk in Switzerland, Li said gay people would be ''eliminated'' by ''the gods.'' Asked in Frankfurt, Germany, that year whether gays could practice Falun Gong, Li answered, to a round of applause, ''You can cultivate, but you must give up the bad conduct.''

Those lectures can be read on www.falundafa.org or ordered from Li's publishing company in Chinese, but they have not been translated into English. Two organization officials said they did not know why. The Mercury News read Li's comments in Chinese.

Li also regards mixed-race or ''cross-bred'' people as rootless and deviant, a sign of morally bankrupt times.

In Li's world view, mixed-race people are a plot by the evil extraterrestrials who populate his cosmology, which spills over with accounts of lost civilizations, higher realms and mysteries that science cannot grasp.

''By mixing the races of humans, the aliens make humans cast off gods,'' he said in a lecture in Switzerland.

(But Li says practitioners may marry people of other races -- one of many contradictions in his philosophy.)

Li told followers that aliens came in droves during the Industrial Revolution and that they aim to take over human souls through science, monitoring people by assigning every computer a number.

''By embedding their technology and science in human bodies, aliens control their thoughts,'' Li said.

Some Chinese-speaking practitioners interviewed in California knew of Li's views and did not dispute them.

''Actually, a lot of scientists believe in aliens,'' said Sherry Zhang of the Berkeley lab. ''Just because we can't find them doesn't mean they don't exist.''

Alicia Zhao, a Foster City marketing consultant who sends out e-mail bulletins about China's persecution, said: ''It depends on how you define aliens. There may be intelligent beings we may not be able to see with our naked eyes.''

Like many Chinese practitioners, Zhao and Zhang had tried other forms of qigong before they learned of Falun Gong through friends. They say it has improved their health and relieved stress.

Other practitioners said Li's remarks about aliens, race and gay people are a small part of his teachings, or that they require more study to understand.

But some Western practitioners who discovered Falun Gong in the context of China's persecution of it were less aware of Li's views.

''My understanding of Falun Gong's teachings is that everybody has the right to their own sexual preference, and as a practitioner should be kind and tolerant toward everyone, regardless of age, race, culture, or sexual preference,'' said Alejandro Centurion, a neurology resident at StanfordHospital.

He learned of Falun Gong through press coverage of the 1999 protest and crackdown, and has read ''Zhuan Falun'' in English 10 to 15 times.

Dean Tsaggaris, an engineer at Xilinx who runs a Falun Gong Web site, was aware of Li's critique of homosexuality and was not bothered by it.

''Generally, traditional cultures have similar concepts and values,'' said Tsaggaris, who began practicing in 1997.

Besides, he said, singling out Li's individual teachings is misleading. ''Teacher discourages us from quoting him out of context. It's too difficult to understand one sentence without the whole paragraph or the whole book.''

Like scores of civic leaders, San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales didn't know any of this when he signed a letter commending Li.

''Your teachings and practices have impacted millions of people all over the world, encouraging truth, compassion and tolerance to improve individual lives and society as a whole,'' the 1999 letter said.

With those words, Gonzales became part of Falun Gong's Internet lobbying campaign.

His quote is featured on a flier, posted on a Web site for practitioners to download and distribute, as an example of ''proclamations and other forms of recognition for the contributions Falun Dafa has made to local communities throughout the United States.''

A press secretary for Gonzales, David Vossbrink, said such letters are routine: ''I don't think the mayor is very aware of the details of Falun Gong except what we've seen in press accounts of what's happening in China. We're familiar with Falun Gong here as a spiritual discipline with tai chi-like physical movements.''


Accidental pawn--Professor stunned by 'endorsement'

Gonzales was not the only person to wind up on the Internet as an accidental pawn in an intramural Chinese war. A political-science professor in the Midwest was stunned to find himself drawn into the fray after inviting Falun Gong followers to speak to his class.

Wesley Milner, who teaches at the University of Evansville in Indiana, was one of thousands of academics contacted by practitioners seeking to promote their cause. Milner thought the topic would interest his students.

He did not know that the practitioners would post an account of their visit on www.minghui.org, the Chinese-language Web site where Li's latest statements appear. It portrayed Milner as sympathetic to Falun Gong.

Two days later, Milner got e-mail from the Chinese Consulate in Chicago, giving the Chinese government's perspective. Then he was contacted by Deng Zixian, a Chinese doctoral student and ardent Falun Gong critic in Texas.

Milner was even more surprised to discover that Evansville had proclaimed Dec. 27, 2000, ''Falun Dafa Day.''

''These people here in middle America, they don't know anything about it,'' Milner said. Looking back, he said he felt used: ''I don't want to be out there trumpeting a cause I know nothing about.''

Qing Liu, a Columbus, Ohio, practitioner who contacted Milner, said she should have asked permission to post his name. She acknowledged that U.S. proclamations do not reflect a true understanding of Falun Gong, but said they help counter Chinese government propaganda.

''If someone says that Falun Gong is banned in China, but it's not illegal in the U.S. and local governments give us this award, it helps people in China understand.''


Angry rhetoric--Chinese tactics seen as too tough

Chinese government officials sometimes manage to block Falun Gong proclamations, although their angry rhetoric often backfires.

Chinese Embassy and consular officials won apologies from the governors of Connecticut and Maryland, and the mayors of Alhambra and Seattle. But attempts to stop two Falun Gong conferences in Pasadena fell flat.

One consular official in Los Angeles warned the California Institute of Technology that it would be ''illegal'' to hold a Falun Gong event, but the Pasadena university did not back down, citing freedom of speech.

Two years ago, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown signed a proclamation decreeing July 23, 1999, ''Li Hongzhi Day,'' but a ceremony was canceled abruptly. P.J. Johnston, Brown's press secretary, would not say why Brown changed course. Both he and a Chinese consular official said there was no pressure.

Falun Gong has also garnered high-visibility support for a loftier cause: getting Li nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. In January, four Bay Area members of Congress, Democratic Reps. Tom Lantos, Anna Eshoo, Zoe Lofgren and Pete Stark, joined 41 other lawmakers in signing a letter that praised Li for promoting the ''highest humanitarian values.''

''Mr. Li believes that by consistently pursuing truth, showing compassion, and practicing tolerance, an oppressed people will embrace a morally and practically sound method to purify their own minds and to resolve conflicts in any kind of society,'' said the letter, which was circulated by Rep. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

When the Mercury News asked the Bay Area legislators whether they knew about Li's views on homosexuals and race before they signed the letter, three said no.

''Obviously I wouldn't recommend to the Nobel Institute someone who's anti-gay, because that's a human right,'' Eshoo said.

She subsequently rescinded her nomination, writing to the Nobel Institute that while practitioners deserve freedom of speech, belief and assembly, ''Mr. Li has made statements that are offensive to me and are counter to many of my core beliefs.''

Stark said he signed because of Falun Gong's principles and Li's efforts to advance freedom in China, adding, ''If Mr. Li holds views which promote intolerance of any kind, I was not aware of it.''

Neither was Lofgren. When she asked Falun Gong adherents about Li's beliefs on homosexuality and race, Allen Zeng, a San Jose follower, replied that Falun Gong's philosophy applies only to practitioners. ''Falun Gong has no intention of promoting its own principles beyond its own circle of practitioners,'' he wrote.

Lofgren said that while she no longer considers Li to be Nobel Prize material, any publicity about Falun Gong may discourage its persecution.

''In addition to Falun Gong, there are other belief systems and religions we may find in some measure wrong, but that doesn't mean oppression of the believers is morally correct,'' she wrote in an e-mail to the Mercury News.

Lantos, one of Congress' toughest China critics, was unapologetic. He said he nominated Li to call attention to China's persecution: ''As with many human rights cases in which I have been involved, I do not agree with Li Hongzhi on all issues, and no one is a greater advocate for the rights of gays and lesbians at home and abroad than I.''

The U.S. State Department gets occasional calls from cities asking whether they should sign pro-Falun Gong proclamations. It tells them to make their own decisions, a State Department official said. The U.S. government has said repeatedly that practitioners' rights should not be violated, but has not taken a position on their beliefs.

But human rights groups, particularly those run by Chinese activists, know what Li preaches and do not endorse it. ''We stay away from what they're doing, the practice,'' said Ignatius Ding of Silicon Valley for Democracy in China. ''We speak about human rights, which doesn't mean we believe a certain religion.''

Similarly, Xiao Qiang, executive director of New York-based Human Rights in China, disagrees with Li's stance on homosexuality and his insistence that practitioners follow only his teachings. " Personally, Human Rights in China supports Falun Gong members' rights, but I don't support Li Hongzhi's message,'' Xiao said.


Teacher in exile--Leader in control in undisclosed spot

Li, whom followers refer to by the Chinese honorific ''master,'' formerly lived in Queens, New York. His current location is not known. He owns Universe Publishing, a private New Jersey company that sells his books, videos and practice tapes.

Li says he will ''personally install'' falun (a wheel of law) in his followers' abdomens. He also says practicing Falun Gong unleashes supernatural powers, reverses the effects of aging and prevents illness -- although not if you strive for such results. Mental patients and the mentally retarded cannot practice, he says.

Followers do not pay dues and are linked by the Internet, where new Li statements appear every few weeks, along with news updates and a running tally of persecuted victims in China.

Falun Gong's Web sites, which are hacked frequently, also list practice sessions and contacts around the globe. Adherents meet to share testimonials at occasional self-funded conferences, but have little or no direct contact with Li.

Although Falun Gong's promotional materials often show multiethnic groups of followers, most are of Chinese origin. Enthusiasts spread the word through the Web and through free talks and seminars, where they show videotaped talks by Li and teach the exercises.

Falun Gong's victim status was a draw for some people who attended a two-hour introductory seminar in Mountain View earlier this year. ''When I heard the Chinese government was oppressing it, I knew there must be something to it,'' said one non-Chinese participant.

As China's crackdown hardens, Falun Gong followers in the United States push for condemnation of local Chinese government offices. In April, followers asked the San Francisco Human Rights Commission to pass a resolution that accused the Chinese Consulate of ''harassment and defamation'' in an assault on practitioners in Portsmouth Square Park. The consulate denied involvement.

The human rights commission was sympathetic to Falun Gong's complaint, especially after getting a letter from the consul general that blasted the group as a ''cult.''

But commission members were wary of allegations that the consulate orchestrated the attack. Their revised resolution mentioned ''incidents of violence'' in San Francisco, but not the consulate.

Falun Gong followers have moved on. In September, the San Jose City Council adopted a resolution supporting the rights of local practitioners. It refers to ''interference in local Falun Gong activities,'' but the council dropped proposed language that blamed the Chinese Consulate.

Nan Su, a Santa Clara County building-inspection engineer and Falun Gong practitioner who drafted the measure, was not fazed. ''Anybody who hears this resolution will be pretty clear who the finger is pointed at,'' he said.



  • Falun Gong draws on Taoist, Buddhist and other Eastern ideas, blending its beliefs with exercises and meditation. Its leader, Li Hongzhi, founded the group in 1992, and has drawn criticism over his teachings on homosexuality and race. His followers say he is misunderstood.

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