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Tuesday, 8 May, 2001, 11:55 GMT 12:55 UK
Who is Li Hongzhi?
Li Hongzhi as he appears on one of the websites
Online near you: One of the many Falun Gong websites
Li Hongzhi, a former trumpet-player from north-east China, is known as "Living Buddha" to his devotees.

The authorities in Beijing also have a few names for Mr Li. They have branded him the leader of an "evil cult" and a dangerous charlatan and have ordered his arrest.

Fulan Gong followers practice their exercises in China
China says practitioners have been brainwashed
Mr Li's crime, as far as Beijing in concerned, is to have founded the Falun Gong spritual sect, which has presented the Communist Party with its most brazen challenge in a decade.

Falun Gong combines slow meditative exercises with Mr Li's homespun philosophy and teachings loosely drawn from Buddhism and Taoism.

It claims to have attracted about 60 million followers in China since emerging eight years ago.

But its phenomenal growth and ability to organise protests has alarmed the Communist Party and prompted a draconian crackdown.

Aliens

Some of Mr Li's pronouncements are certainly unconventional, some would say just plain strange.

He believes aliens walk the Earth and he has reportedly said he can walk through walls and make himself invisible.

Mr Li says that he is a being from from a higher level who has come to help humankind from the destruction it could face as the result of rampant evil.

But while his ideas may be bizarre, his followers claim to uphold high moral standards. Falun Gong's three guiding pronciples are Truthfulness, Benevolence and Forbearance.

Western cult investigators appear uncertain as to whether Mr Li is the benign leader of a quasi-religious martial art or the figurehead of a far more sinister organisation.

But the Chinese authorities, who outlawed the movement in July 1999 have no such doubts.

Arrest of Falun Gong protester
Followers are regularly arrested
They have blamed him for the deaths of thousands of followers, saying he has stopped people seeking medical help. Mr Li says he has never done this.

He has also been accused of embezzling donations, an allegation he hotly denies, and stirring up social unrest.

But despite the crackdown on his followers, it is unlikely Mr Li himself will ever be arrested.

Three years ago, Mr Li moved to the United States and he now lives in New York with his wife and daughter.

Beginnings

Mr Li, a tallish, thickset man, was born in Jilin province, north-east China, but his date of birth is somewhat controversial.

A follower of Falun Gong reads a book of teachings
Widely read: Falun Gong books sell worldwide
The authorities have accused him of backdating it from 7 July 1952 to 13 May 1951 so he could share the birthday of Buddhism's founder, Sakyamuni.

Mr Li says the date was misrecorded in the first place and points out that millions of other people must share the same birthday as Sakyamuni.

"I have never said I am Sakyamuni," he said in one interview. "I am just a very ordinary man."

But in another interview with Time magazine he implied he was anything but ordinary.

Asked if he was a human being from earth, he replied: "I don't wish to talk about myself at a higher level. People wouldn't understand it."

Childhood

The self-styled spiritual leader says he started learning a special form of the Chinese martial art, qigong, at age four from a Buddhist master, and completed his training at eight.

An exercise class from one of the Falun Gong sites
Advice from the master: Classes can be downloaded
Qigong is a martial art which combines meditation and breathing exercises and is believed to tap the practitioner's inner strength.

At 12, Mr Li says he was discovered by a Taoist immortal who taught him Taoist practices.

However, the Chinese media says his childhood was a good deal more mundane.

Teachers and classmates reportedly remember him as an unexceptional student whose only talent was for playing the trumpet.

At 17, the young Li went to work on a People's Liberation Army stud farm, according to state media reports.

Subsequent jobs included a trumpeter in a police band, a guesthouse attendant and a grain store clerk.

Danger

The authorities say he only started studying qigong in 1988 and founded Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, four years later.

But classes and exercise areas rapidly sprang up across the country, and his first book, Zhuan Falun, the Falun Gong bible, became a bestseller when it was published in 1996.

By the following year Beijing considered the movement a significant enough danger to remove it from the official martial arts list. And in 1998, Mr Li left for the US.

But the organisation appears to have continued to grow, thanks in part to a comprehensive network of websites disseminating lectures, videos and handbooks.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Li Hongzhi speaks to the BBC's Newsnight programme
"I have about 100 million followers in China"
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