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Wednesday, 26 April, 2000, 14:08 GMT 15:08 UK
Falun Gong: Living in fear
Falun Gong devotees
Falun Gong devotees are frightened of exercising in public
By the BBC's Adam Brookes in Beijing

The demonstrations in Tiananmen Square are proof of one thing. The biggest challenge to the Chinese Communist Party in a decade comes from a charismatic movement - Falun Gong.

A ferocious state campaign to crush the movement has failed, even after more than 30,000 arrests.

But Falun Gong practitioners no longer make their way to parks in the watery morning sunlight.

They do not publicly do the exercises and meditation they claim brings them spiritual and physical health.
Falun Gong
Mreo Falun Gong members were arrested in Tianamen Square this week

Millions have renounced their beliefs in the face of a propaganda onslaught.

Yet a significant number of Falun Gong followers doggedly continue to believe, practice, and demonstrate against what they say is persecution by the Chinese Communist Party and the state.

In hiding

Those who have not renounced Falun Gong now live in fear.

Some are on the run, flitting between safe houses in China's grey, anonymous cities.

Others are under surveillance. I spoke to a man a few days ago who told me two policeman sit outside his house around the clock.

He had managed to slip his leash, and we met for a few moments in a crowded market.
Li Hongzhi
Leader Li Hongzhi has been keeping a low profile for nine months

He was clearly terrified, but he told me that he would still go to Tiananmen Square to protest if he could.

A 20-year old girl I spoke to told me that practicing Falun Gong had tainted her for ever in the eyes of the government.

"The police have everything on file. And they have told me that getting a job and even getting married will be very difficult for me now", she said.

Support from abroad

These frightened yet strangely determined people are given help and material support from abroad.

Arrest is good for our spiritual level

Falun gong follower

American practitioners of Falun Gong come to China, bringing with them money, advice and encouragement.

The movement's leader, Li Hongzhi, the former trumpet-playing security guard who formulated the practice of Falun Gong in 1992, now lives in the United States, and American practitioners are particularly active.

The internet is speckled with American-run Falun Gong sites.

An assertive public relations operation is run out of New York.

Several American practitioners have come to China expressly to court arrest by protesting in Tiananmen Square.

Martyrdom

"Arrest is good for our spiritual level", said one Chinese follower.

"Showing compassion and forbearance in the face of persecution makes us better people."

Indeed, a little probing frequently reveals a desire for martyrdom.

As for Li Hongzhi, he dropped out of sight in the United States, and the organisation will not reveal where he is.

A photograph published on the web shows him sitting meditating, a mountain vista behind him.

This is the only image of him published in nine months - his absence and remoteness only feed his charisma.

One follower told me recently that when he reappears, the world "will be transformed".

She would not tell me how.

But her dreamy half-smile spoke of a millenarian vision utterly and implacably at odds with the harsh pragmatism of the Chinese Communist Party.

See also:

21 Nov 99 | From Our Own Correspondent
China's perplexing crackdown
19 Sep 99 | Asia-Pacific
China 'detains' sect members
18 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
China escapes UN censure
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