Exercising freedom

Amid the Saturday-morning buzz at the Troy Community Center, a handful of people stand silently, eyes shut, in Room 203. As traditional Chinese music plays on a tape recorder, they perform smooth, linear movements, slowly extending their arms in wide arcs of synchronized grace and calm.

These peaceful exercises are part of the Falun Gong, a Chinese spiritual movement that has met with hundreds of arrests, beatings and even deaths over the last decade.

Banned in China in 1999, Falun Gong (also called Falun Dafa) focuses on meditation and mental and physical well-being, and has become the target of a massive, brutal crackdown by the Chinese government that has even had a personal impact on members of the tranquil Troy group.

In response to the Chinese government’s actions, Falun Gong practitioners around the world have organized to heighten public awareness and peacefully protest such suppression, their networking accomplished largely due to the Internet. The ancient fight for spiritual freedom has taken a new twist in the era of the dot-com.

Falun Gong’s practitioners are of all ages and races, and live in more than 40 nations. The small group in Troy displays a diverse mix of backgrounds: Detroiter Mary Lou Tonin, a first-time practitioner, learned of the group from a PBS special and brought along her niece Sue Lemkuil; Tonin was drawn to the practice to “improve my physical health, and to be a more compassionate person.”

Marge Alpern of Bloomfield Hills had practiced qi gong — another Chinese meditative practice — for five years before she stepped into Falun Gong.

Taiwan native Alex Lin, now of Troy, has practiced for almost three years, while the teenage Yufeng Xie patiently practices alongside his father, David.

The group has a warm, inviting aura; newcomers are welcomed and gently guided by veterans, who later discuss their personal relationship with Falun Gong.

They hardly seem like a threat to the world’s most populous nation.

Falun Gong was founded in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, a former Chinese government grain clerk who fled China in 1998 to take up exile in the United Sates. It consists of five basic exercises, combined with the teachings of Hongzhi which promote truthfulness, compassion, tolerance and nonviolence. The basic exercises are derived from qi gong, the spiritual teachings — loosely — from Taoism and Buddhism.

The practice has spread rapidly, largely through word of mouth. Proponents estimate there are 100 million practitioners, most of them in China. The Chinese government contends this number is vastly inflated.

Followers say it is not a religion, cult or sect, and that it defies traditional media labels, combining spirituality and mental and physical health in an indefinable package. Many practitioners claim Falun Gong has relieved chronic pain and improved their general quality of life.

So why such a vicious backlash? In addition to the public beatings and arrests of practicioners, China’s People’s Daily and other official organs depict Falun Gong as “wicked,” “notorious,” “a cheap tool” of anti-China forces in the West, not to mention “anti-humanity, anti-society and anti-science.”

These extreme reactions are difficult to understand without delving deeply into Chinese culture, government and politics.

The Chinese government, particularly with its aging leadership facing a period of transition, is threatened by any possible challenge — especially a movement that can stage protests inside China and has managed to form an effective global network via the Internet.

In fact, Stephen D. O’Leary of the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication, has written that both the Chinese government and Falun Gong recognize the importance of the Internet in moving outsiders to “either condemn or tolerate this group.”

The official Falun Gong Web site (www.falundafa.org) links to regional sites, information on group practices around the globe, and the teachings of Honghzi. Metro Detroit’s site (www.umich.edu/~falun) lists contact numbers and group practices in cities including Troy, Rochester and Livonia.

In China, however, online Falun Gong information is routinely censored through blocks and filters dubbed “The Great Firewall of China.”

But just as the ancient Great Wall eventually failed to block outsiders, “hacktivists” are sabotaging government Web sites and breaking down content filters.

In response, China is developing two second-generation versions of the Internet, C-Net and the China Multimedia Network. These would supposedly block pornography, but the potential for a complete political blackout is ripe.

Tim Sun, 29, a Chinese native and computer engineer, belongs to the Troy group.

“The Chinese government has used hacking techniques to forge e-mails so it looks like Falun Gong is spamming people, when, in fact, Falun Gong will never advertise or recruit,” Sun says.

“They have programs that will search e-mails for the words ‘Falun Gong.’ If it’s found, the e-mail will be deleted.” Sun has friends in China whose private e-mail has been blocked in this way.

“At the beginning of Master Li’s teachings, the Internet wasn’t common, especially in China,” says Sun. “It’s only become an important part of Falun Gong in the past few years. … When the teachings are put on the Net, it reaches a lot of people.”

Although Internet access is still limited in China, it’s growing rapidly, and Sun worries about cyber censorship. “It’s a very serious issue. Chinese citizens can only view what the government wants them to.”

Practitioner Cheng Wang is a Web master for the official Falun Gong site. In a telephone interview from his home in New York, the 32-year-old network engineer says he has faced many cyber attacks.

“I received an anonymous e-mail from China that said the government had hired some companies to attack my site; the next day our servers went down for two days. On another occasion, I received a phone call from the American Department of Transportation. They said their machines had received numerous attacks from Falun Gong Web sites. Someone had forged the attack so it looked like it was coming from our Web site.”

A news service managed to track down the computer where the attacks originated, and turned up a phone number of the Beijing Public Security Bureau.

“Most Chinese servers are controlled by the government, so it’s easy for them to attack sites,” he said. “The day after Falun Gong was officially banned, 100 percent of the Chinese Falun Gong Web sites were gone. In just one day — all gone. If you post something about Falun Gong on a message board, it won’t last a minute. It will immediately be deleted.”

Wang doesn’t believe in retaliation and disapproves of hacktivists: “I just make sure all my anti-virus software is up-to-date and make backups of the server. I personally believe hacking is wrong … I think it’s better to file an official complaint, but in China if you file a complaint you will be arrested. So it can be difficult to voice your opinion.”

In Troy, practitioner Jennifer Zhou hopes the spread of information will bring more allies to Falun Gong and shed light on stories such as that of her mother, who she said recently came to live with her after being imprisoned and tortured in China for stopping a policeman who was publicly beating a Falun Gong member.

Groups such as Amnesty International, the European Parliament and the U.S. Congress have urged China to cease the persecution of Falun Gong. Locally, Wayne and Oakland counties, the cities of Sterling Heights, Roseville and West Bloomfield, and U.S. Sen. Carl Levin have issued proclamations honoring Falun Gong or Honghzi. Still, the Chinese government shows no signs of easing its crackdown. Falun Gong estimates that more than 100 practitioners have been killed in China, and the government seems to have temporarily succeeded in silencing all pro-Falun Gong discussion in Chinese media.

However, the war over Falun Gong will continue to be waged both online and off. Web sites and forums beyond the reach of China’s censorship will likely play a critical part in the movement’s future.

“I think the whole world is watching, and as more reports come out, more people will stand up and speak out,” says Zhou. “The real situation will be revealed.”

Sarah Klein is a frequent contributor to the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]