By Wen Huang

Last week in front of the Chinese consulate, at 100 W. Erie, some 40 people, their eyes shut, stood barefoot on small cushions, performing a series of slow, graceful movements in unison. Candles burned, and soft Chinese music came from a tiny boom box.

Sen Yang, one of the chief organizers of the event, told curious onlookers that these were members of Falun Gong–they were there to mark the first anniversary of a massive sit-in by members in China that had sparked a brutal crackdown. The people at the vigil had also presented the consulate with a petition calling on the Chinese government to release Falun Gong members it’s holding and to respect the rights of all members. “We hope to engage in peaceful dialogue with the Chinese government,” said Yang, who was handing out leaflets to drivers who’d stopped at the light. “We want them to respect people’s right of peaceful expression of their beliefs.”

Yang, a 39-year-old Chinese national who’s a computer engineer with a PhD in physics, says that since the crackdown the Chinese government has launched a media campaign to discredit the movement, burning its books and videos and arresting and detaining at least 35,000 adherents. He says that more than 5,000 members have been shipped off to labor camps without trial, and at least 15 have died.

Falun Gong, a spiritual sect that combines Buddhist and Taoist beliefs with meditation and deep-breathing exercises, was founded in the early 1990s by a former Chinese government clerk, Li Hongzhi, who claims to have learned the breathing and meditation exercises from masters in China’s remote mountains. He promises his followers–estimated at more than 100 million in 30 countries, about 60 percent of them in China– good health, enlightenment, and supernatural powers.

Falun Gong came to Chicago in 1993, and the city has become the center of the movement in the midwest. Around 1,000 people, most of them recent Chinese immigrants, now practice it on their own or in centers scattered throughout the city and suburbs. Last June they organized a convention of more than 1,700 followers from Illinois and neighboring states. Governor Ryan and Mayor Daley proclaimed June 25 Li Hongzhi Day and gave him an award for helping to improve the health of society.

Yang, who lives in the northwest suburbs, first started practicing Falun Gong in 1995 for health reasons. “For many years I had suffered chronic hepatitis,” he says. “It was so severe that I had to suspend school for a year. Each time I saw a doctor he or she would tell me that there is no way to really cure my disease and I had to live with it for the rest of my life.” He says that not long after he started the exercises he could perceive “a warm current” moving through his body. “When walking, I felt my body was so light that I could almost float up.” Two years ago he had 32 tests done during a regular physical, and all of them came back normal.

But Yang soon came to believe that Falun Gong also provided him with moral and spiritual guidance. “Many practitioners like me grew up in mainland China,” he says. “We became disillusioned with communism. Falun Gong meets our spiritual needs because it promotes moral character and teaches you to be a nice person.”

Kuang Shijie, who’s now 62, is given credit for bringing Falun Gong to Chicago. She grew up in Guangdong province, though her parents were in the U.S. In the 1960s she was sent to a reeducation camp and wasn’t reunited with her family in Chicago until 1977. “When I first got here,” she says, “I was lonely and constantly invited to attend Christian church services. I grew up in an atheist country, so I resisted any form of religion.” After learning about Falun Gong from a Chinese friend who came to visit in 1992, she read the group’s book. “Falun Gong offered me great health benefits and spiritual support that communism or Christianity can’t. I used to work 60 hours a week at the packaging factory. I never felt exhausted.”

One of Kuang’s first converts was Marie Tai, who helped organize the vigil in front of the Chinese consulate. Tai grew up in Taiwan and moved to the U.S. with her husband in 1972. “As new immigrants,” she says, “our ultimate goal was to pursue our American dream. We thought that once we had money we would be happy.” Over the next 20 years they started a bank, a CPA firm, and a mortgage company. But Tai says financial success didn’t bring happiness. “We could never slow down, and we felt more pressure to succeed. Inside my heart I kind of felt empty.” She had blood-pressure problems, and her husband got a serious ulcer and was told he would have to be on medication for the rest of his life.

Tai says the Falun Gong book opened a whole new world for her. It explained that as human beings develop selfishness, jealousy, and desire, they lose their true nature, their belief in truth, benevolence, and endurance. “Li offered me hope,” she says. “I know now that I can achieve a higher level of being when I am still alive. He literally says that you don’t have to be a hermit to achieve enlightenment. I can apply his principles to my everyday life. I can use every conflict to test my moral strength. For example, if I got ripped off in a business deal, normally I would have been very mad and sleepless for many days. Now I take it less seriously. I lose the money but may gain in exchange good karma.” Two years after the Tais started to practice Falun Gong, she says, her blood-pressure problem disappeared, as did her husband’s ulcer.

The Tais have been actively promoting Falun Gong and have helped sponsor several free lectures and seminars. On weekends they and other members practice together in parks and public libraries so they can attract more people. “People are interested, we offer them lessons,” says Tai. “Everything is free. They can come and go as they like–we don’t force them.”

During a regular two-hour session, members do the five exercises, then divide into groups and read Li’s book and share their experiences. It’s a little reminiscent of the 60s and 70s in China, when everyone stopped work in the afternoon to read Chairman Mao’s little red book and share experiences as followers of his words.

Tai and other practitioners quote Li’s book with the same fervor born-again Christians use when citing the Bible. Li claims he can implant a “wheel of energy” in the lower abdomen of practitioners, and during meditation and exercise it turns, drawing in good powers and expelling bad. His book also describes supernormal capabilities that practitioners can achieve, such as levitation and seeing the future. “These ‘mystic elements,’ as many outsiders see it, are not superstitious or unscientific,” says Yang. “The founder of Falun Gong proposes the concept of ‘multidimensions,’ which means human life exists in different spaces and dimensions. Modern science may not be able to prove teacher Li’s theory, but it doesn’t imply they are not there.”

Falun Gong practitioners insist they don’t worship Li, but in his lectures he compares himself with Jesus and Buddha. “We are all teachers who lead people toward similar forms of enlightenment,” he says. Yet leaders in the Chinese Christian community are wary of other statements he’s made about their religion. Reverend Michael Tsang of the Chinese Christian Union Church says Falun Gong’s teachings about truth, benevolence, and endurance are similar to the Christian message of compassion and unconditional love of God, but he was appalled to learn that Li doesn’t believe that Christianity can help people achieve salvation. “It is a very arrogant and dangerous statement,” Tsang says. “It can lead people astray.”

Even more critical is Xiu Hui, leader of the Tian Long Temple, one of two Buddhist temples in Chinatown. “Li puts himself in the position of a savior,” he says, “steals the wheel of Buddhist law as his logo, and uses the concepts and lingo of Buddhism and Taoism to spread the word of superstition.” He points to Li’s theories that the earth will explode and that aliens have invaded people’s minds, then tells the story of a young Chinese woman in Chicago who went insane after she started practicing Falun Gong. He thinks the Chinese government is justified in banning Falun Gong. “Falun Gong,” he says, “is an evil cult.”

“Falun Gong is not a cult,” says Tai. “A cult controls all aspects of their members’ lives, both their minds and bodies. Members give up all their material goods, and they typically live together and sometimes kill themselves. All Falun Gong activities are free and entirely voluntary. We live normal lives–with our own families, holding ordinary jobs of all kinds. We are law-abiding citizens.” She adds, “During last year’s convention we offered to buy teacher Li an airplane ticket, but he insisted on driving from New York to Chicago because it saves money. While he was here he was personable and never asked for any privileges.” Asked about the woman who went insane, Tai says, “From what I have heard, that woman had suffered severe depression before she started to practice Falun Gong. How can people blame Falun Gong for causing her mental illness?”

The crackdown on Falun Gong in China turned Tai and Yang into political activists. They have organized protests in front of the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., as well as the consulate in Chicago. Last month they flew to New York and joined thousands of other Falun Gong members in a silent demonstration in front of the United Nations. While Tai and other members were in Washington, she says, “We went to Capitol Hill and visited several senators and congressmen. We want Congress to keep up the pressure on China. Depriving people’s rights to practice Falun Gong is a violation of human rights.”

But other members worry about the increasing politicization of their sect. “Falun Gong is nonpolitical,” says one member who didn’t want his name used. “We should not get overzealous. We need to be prudent. Too much protest will lead to more severe suppression.” Guo Zhen, an expert on Chinese meditation exercises who is not a member, believes the crackdown in China was a direct result of the many political rallies Falun Gong members staged.

The persecution in China continues, as do sporadic protests. And Falun Gong members in several U.S. cities have reported that their activities here are being watched. In San Francisco and New York a few members who are Chinese nationals recently went to the embassy to have their passports extended and had their request denied.

At the vigil last Tuesday, Carolyn Lu, a Chinese national, was asked if she was afraid of reprisals by the Chinese government when she eventually goes back to China. “Of course a lot of us are worried,” she said. “However, when our practitioners in China are risking their lives for Falun Gong, our sacrifice here is nothing. When a new faith is born, persecution and death are inevitable. The authority always sees the faith as a threat to its rule. I am confident that we will triumph in the end.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Leah Misbach.