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The Gong Show

Falun Gong is the fastest-growing spiritual movement on the planet. With a belief system embracing aliens, levitation, and swirling, cancer-curing swastikas, the bunch of China calls an evil cult is about more than slo-mo exercise. After two years of threats, torture, and death, the Gongers—and their leader, an elusive saffron-robed multimillionaire—are fighting back with broadband.

(Details, August 2001. Photos: Jimmy Shum)

THE COPS PAT DOWN ANYONE WITH A BAG; they rifle the canvas duffel of the pleat-faced grandfather selling plastic kites for a penny; they force the gimpy dowager on a day trip from the provinces—with a greasy sack of apples and dumplings — to turn over her identity papers. It goes on like that all day in Tiananmen Square on the anniversary of the dramatic protest two years ago when 10,000 Falun Gong followers quietly formed a mile long human chain around Community Party headquarters across the street. The People’s Armed Police is on the lookout for Falun Gong cultists – and their evil flyers. Tourists, their cameras pointed at Beijing’s Forbidden City, are oblivious. But around three o’clock, a bearish woman in billowy red pants yanks a yellow cloth from her bag and makes a mad sprint across the vast paved desert. Running toward the mausoleum that houses Mao Zedong’s waxy corpse, she unfurls her banner in the air and yells in Mandarin at a crowd of bewildered Swiss visitors: “Falun Gong is good!” She doesn’t get far, perhaps a few yards. Baby-faced cops in windbreakers gorilla-hug her and hustle her into a unmarked van. It speeds away, another enemy of the sate scoured off the streets. Throughout the day, Falun Gong faithful arrive in groups of two or three, some with children. Those who don’t break out the banners assume the graceful meditative poses of the movement. The plainclothes cops, easy to spot in their baggy pants and ill-fitting shirts, pounce each time, punching and kicking the peaceniks into submission. By sunset, they have arrested some 30 Falun Gong followers, hustled them away without a wrinkle to the throng. Thousands of Chinese gather around a flagpole for the daily lowering of the nation’s flag. Just before the ceremony gets underway, a beefy man rises.

Falun Gong is good!” he bellows.

A dozen cops surge forward and wrestle him to the ground.

Again: “Falun Gong is good!”

He is not submitting. The man’s half-naked child stands on the edge of the writhing pile-up. One cop kicks the man in the head with a terrible thuck. His body goes limp.

A police van knifes through the crowd and the man is peeled off the flagstones and bundled inside. His crying child is held aloft by a woman before both melt into the shoal of people.

The brigade of soldiers in green uniforms solemnly lower the red flag with its hangnail of gold stars, fold it, and march into the Forbidden City, the imposing red gates slowly shuttering behind them.

The pitched battle continues between China’s monolithic Communist Party and the resolute members of Falun Gong, the nine-year-old self-styled “spiritual movement” now claiming 100 million followers worldwide.

Two years ago this June, Beijing outlawed the group, branding Falun Gong an “evil cult.” Western media coverage of the government crackdown fanned a firestorm of Falun Gong sympathy. The movement’s ranks now swell with members from Israel to Denmark to Brazil – know among the press corps who cover their every move as Gongers. The largest numbers, of course, are in the fad-friendly United States, where spores have landed in more than 120 towns and cities. If its membership figures are true )and there’s no way of knowing, as the group purposefully avoids membership rolls), and if Falun Gong ever decided to call itself a religion, it would be the fifth largest on the planet, out-pacing such other New Age start0ups as Scientology, which claims a mere 9 million members.

Falun Gong or Falun Dafa, as it’s sometimes called, insists it’s not a cult – not in the Jonestown-Branch Davidian-Heaven’s Gate sense of the world. There is no army of google-eyed believers eagerly awaiting the apocalypse in their pajamas, no peyote-fueled orgy scheduled to coincide with the annual appearance of a comet. This is not to say that Falun Gong is without its share of unconventional beliefs, handed down from on high by an enigmatic founder. The gospel according to Li Hongzhi, the group’s 50-year-old leader, contains more than a few eyebrow-hoisters. Li has preached that the world’s top scientists are controlled by aliens (it was they who brought us the computer boom, not Bill Gates). He believes there are 3,000 planets in the universe, populated by beings who have “physical bodies” just like ours. He speaks mystically of a 2-billon-year-old nuclear reactor in Gabon, Africa, suggesting it may have been left by aliens or a prehistoric culture. (In fact, scientists say, it is a simple phenomenon: Water that leaked through uranium ore in a Gabon mine created nuclear fission.)

Falun Gong is actually a derivation of qi gong (pronounced “chee gung”), a 6,000 year-old-exercise and meditation regime that claims to route cosmic energy – qi – to various parts of the body. It is the basis for tai chi, acupuncture, and such martial arts as tae kwan do. In China, there are hundreds of schools and many more masters who teach qi gong.

Falun Gong – translation: “wheel of law” – is a potpourri of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Interestingly, Li’s “wheel” happens to be a swastika, an appropriation from Buddhism last seen in the West on the armbands of the Third Reich. He believes swastikas rotate inside his followers’ abdomens (that is, once he has telekinetically planted them there). Spinning clockwise, they “absorb cosmic energy,” he says, offering their hosts salvation. Counter-clockwise, the swastikas release energy. Practitioners claim that they can use Li’s exercises to get their swastikas to change direction.

A GONG TOLLS ominously from the twin speakers of Scott Chinn’s 23-inch Panasonic stereo TV. Seven Gongers are folded into lotuses on the greige carpet in Chinn’s apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

The group is staring at a psychedelic swastika aswirl in flashes of yellows, red, and blues. Tonight’s program: the eighth installment of a nine-day-lecture series recorded when Li visited Guangzhou several years ago.

Some of those present have already viewed this tape a dozen or so times. Some of those present actually nod off. A couple say they’ve actually seen Li up close, popping up unexpectedly as he does at various “experience-sharing conferences” around the world, I was cured! events that up to 1,000 followers have been known to attend. Others admit they’ve never actually seen their leader, a man whose widely circulated photograph captures him in flowing saffron robes perched Yoda-ishly atop a remote mountain.

For a year, Chinn, 31, a clean-cut, six-foot-tall, blue-eyed California transplant with close-cropped brown hair, has been hosting these confabs. (Chinn has no Asian bloodlines; the family name, Chynne, was corrupted when ancestors immigrated from England to the United States in the eighteenth century.)

“It’s because of the lies, the persecution, the deaths that I feel compelled to do this,” Chinn says, maneuvering bowls of sunflower seeds, salted cashew, and a jug of apple juice around the floor. There are dozens of groups like this on in New York City, and still hundreds more in the Northeast alone, with its high concentration of Chinese and Chinese-Americans.

It was Chinn’s Manhattan cell that revamped one of Falun Gong’s elaborate Web sites, transforming it form a chop suey of misspellings and cheesy graphics to a slick, far-ranging resource of global contacts and news stories. The group is also responsible for a glossy brochure circulated in city parks where followers exercise. With its high-grade paper, it could be the annual report of a Fortune 500 company – except for the color photos of bruised bodies, the naked backsides of women who have been abused with electric batons, the ghoulish faces of those killed in labor camps.

Falun Gong may be the first broadband religion – how Christianity might have spread if Jesus had had a modem. What’s striking is just how ordinary Chinn and his friends seem. They have day jobs at computer terminals. They wear Gap khakis. They’re happy to tell you over a cup of coffee why they’re feeling so damned good without knocking down your door to ask whether you’ve let Falun Gong into your life.

There are four software designers here, a young Chinese man and woman and two fortyish single gals from the neighborhood. The beauty of Falun Gong is that it doesn’t take a lifetime of chanting to attain nirvana.

Chinn and his friends were introduced to me by Li’s chief spokeswoman, Gail Rachlin, a one-time New York State beauty-pageant contestant who is now a publicist in her fifties handling small health-care accounts. Rachlin discovered Falun Fong three and a half years ago after devoting several years to Hinduism. Having survived a bout with cancer at 29 – and an operation that left her in a coma for ten days – Rachlin was “primed,” she says, for Falun Gong: “I was on heavy medication – thyroid, antidepressants, hormones, you name it.” After a few months of Falun Gong exercises, she quit the medications and now says she “feels great.”

Chinn, who designs software for blue-chip companies, has a similar story of salvation. “I was making a ton of money, and I kind of hit a brick wall,” he confesses. He golfed in Scotland, snowboarded in Jackson Hole, scuba-dived the Caymans. “I was lacking something higher,” he says plaintively. “I was very depressed and empty and lonely and wondering about the meaning of life.”

Chinn says he got his own, Brazilian-born wife, Eliana, involved in Falun Gong. Not only has he found purpose in life, but he’s also cured his bad back (he notes in passing that his brother is a “hard-core born-again Christian”). Chinn believes, as Li teaches, that all illnesses are a result of “karmic debt,” mistakes in past lives that must be paid off.

But how do aliens fit into the scheme of things?

“There are definitely other beings, gods, things that exist of there,” Chinn offers hazily. “I can’t prove it, but I don’t doubt it.”

Does he levitate?

“I don’t,” he says good-naturedly. “But I believe others do.” He hasn’t yet seen a liftoff.

What about that “yardstick of energy” growing out of his head? Does he believe it’s there?

Of course. But it exists for him “in another dimension.”

It might all seem delightfully Weekly World Newsish except for aspects of Li’s philosophy that border on the fundamentalist. Homosexuality, sexual freedom, rock music, drug use, and “devilish hairstyles” (i.e. mowhawks) have caused the culture to “degenerate,” as has women’s lib. Li is appalled by human cloning, offended by “the madness of demonic nature during soccer games.” He can’t help but note the “death’s-heads” and “images of feces” sold as children’s toys – sure harbingers of civilization’s suicide leap. He hints at thunderbolts from the heavens. “What will happen if it goes on like this?” he asks in Zhuan Falun, a 385-page treatise his followers treat as their bible. “If humankind does not do something about it, Heaven will. Whenever humankind experiences catastrophes, it is always under such conditions.”

But all this is a sidebar to the comparatively innocuous meditative-exercise regime and “don’t sweat the small stuff” palliative that are the mainstay of most congregants’ lives. Gongers aren’t known to empty their bank accounts with the promise of salvation. No on is coerced to join up, and more than the Super Bowl ads make us consume Doritos.

Nevertheless, the Chinese government is alarmed by Li’s eccentricity, his hubris, and perhaps something more. “Li Hongzhi claims to be bigger than Christ, more powerful than Buddha,” says Chen Ligang, the counselor for human rights designated to address these matters at China’s embassy in Washington, D.C. “How is that different from David Koresh saying he’s the lamb of God? Li wants you to believe his is the highest religion in the world. That sounds like a crazy man to me.”

The crackdown that ensued is China’s most brutal attack on its citizenry since the 1989 student democracy uprising, which led to 15,000 arrests that culminated in labor-camp or prison time. Since the troubles began, Falun Gong claims, more than 50,000 people have been detained for protesting of practicing in public. Of those, representatives say, some 10,000 are being held in labor camps – for up to three years without a trial. Followers have been sentenced in court hearing broadcast on the state-controlled TV. Renunciations of Falun Gong have also won airtime. More than 600 believers have been committed to psychiatric institutions. The central government has threatened local police and government officials with fines for each Falun Gong member from their respective cities who is arrested in Beijing. Human-rights groups contend the police have yanked many, many people from their homes, beating them with electric batons, subjecting them to severe torture, raping women; 229 are said to have perished this way.

Some moderate Communist Party members have professed shock at President Jiang Zemin’s tactics. The government likes to say it stepping in because Li was encouraging people to stop taking their medicine (“a ridiculous way of thinking,” Chen says dismissively), causing the deaths of nearly 1,500 people. But others say Jiang was really motivated by fear of the group’s size. At one time, the group actually outnumbered the Communist Party – and there was an unconfirmed ye persistent rumor that Jiang was in a fury when he discovered close relatives had signed up. At its height, Falun Gong included top-ranking members of the military, universities, and government. But many Chinese who first supported the group have turned their backs on it since five alleged followers set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square on January 23.

“At the beginning, Li Hongzhi wished to increase his income through lecture fees and book sales,” says He Zuoxiou, a Beijing physicist who helped design China’s H-bomb in the sixties. He thinks the government shouldn’t be jailing people but should instead be education them so they won’t be seduced by charlatans. Still, it was He who wrote the scathing critique of the group – after one of his students “went crazy” from its practice – that incited the April 25, 1999 protest. “Now Li is telling people to sacrifice themselves for his work,” says He. “Ordinary Chinese people see what he has done. They see people burning themselves, and think he is a very sinister and evil man.”
CHINA ISSUED A WARRANT for Li’s arrest. But that came too late: Li had already fled the country with his wife, Rui, and teenage daughter.

In early 1998, under scrutiny from the Chinese government, Li arrived in the United States, obtaining a permanent visa and moving to Houston before settling down in a Chinese enclave in New York City. He has said he came because his daughter wanted to attend high school in the United States.

China maintains it was Li who ordered the April 25 protest, even though he was already living in the States. Li claims the event took place spontaneously, while he was abroad, but Chinese officials later released documents proving he was in Beijing two days before. Li ultimately admitted he was in the country, but still claimed he spoke to no one.

Today, his whereabouts are a closely guarded secret. The Chinese government has asked Interpol to help reel Li in, but Interpol refused, ruling that the charges against Li aren’t criminal.

Close friend and disciple Zhang Erping, a professional translator, says he hasn’t seen Li since January and won’t say where he saw him then. “Master Li lives a private life,” says Zhang, whose own former residence was once listed as the business address of one of Li’s publishing outfits.

Few doubt that Li is living well. Motor Vehicle records confirm he owns a Toyota Sienna minivan; his wife drives a 1999 Mercedes C230. A $293,500 blond-brick Flushing townhouse was purchased in June 1998 in his wife’s name; it is still owned by her. It sits on a leafy, quiet block, with a white fence around the porch and a second-floor balcony overlooking the street. A Chinese banner on the front door shows symbols for good luck. The woman who answered the bell told me Li had moved a year ago and that she paid rent to a friend of Li’s named John Sun.

Three weeks after the April 25 demonstration, Li’s wife was given a 4,600-square-foot mansion near Princeton University in New Jersey. The $580,000 house was a gift from John Sun, a lampshade manufacturer who lives modestly in Staten Island. Sun has said he have the house, with its swimming pool and satellite dishes, to Li’s family to thank him for the “great health benefit” obtained from Falun Gong. (Sun refused to be interviewed for this article.) but news of the gift in the Wall Street Journal touched a nerve among the Falun Gong faithful. When I pressed Rachlin for details, she warned me about karmic consequences. “For your sake,” she said angrily, “I hope you’re not trying to dig up dirt. Those who have done good reporting on the crackdown have been rewarded from bringing the truth to the world. But if you go against the goodness, it can be very bad for you.”

The normally soft-spoken Zhang railed against publishing this revelation. He explains that Li does not take fees or financial support from his followers and that he didn’t even accept the house. “Master Li had just come from China, and John Sun wanted to do him a favor,” Zhang insists.

In China, it is customary for a wealthy man to offer assistance to religious figures, like tithing to the church. Sun has admitted it was he who finances Li’s first U.S. convention, in February 1998, renting space at Manhattan’s Jacob Javits Center. At the conference, Li’s $12.95 books, $120 lecture videos, $12 exercise video, and $13 meditation music CDs were for sale. Sun also lent his Staten Island address to legal documents when Li needed to register his now-defunct Buddha’s Study Association.

Li’s a pro at covering his tracks. Since he left New York in July 2000 (or so his followers say), it’s been impossible to find him through any official records. He, his wife, and teenage daughter left no trace among such documents as property titles or business registrations. He is gone but not forgotten. “Li is absolutely behind the scenes maneuvering everything,” says Chen Ligang at the Chinese Embassy. “He is the boss.”

THE BOSS PROFESSES confusion about the government’s actions. Before he disappeared, the baby-faced Manchurian was a lot chattier, giving more than 60 interviews to TV, radio, and newspaper reporters as the crackdown tore the country apart. His clothes are a metaphor: Before, he tended to show up to interviews and events dressed in a blue sport coat and a white, open-collared shirt. Now he lives in pictures as Baggy-Saffron-Robe Guy. Lecture videos show him seated before the same bouquet of microphones at a conference table. Speaking in a monotone, he would appear to lack the kind of charisma that attracts droves of Kool-Aid drinkers.

Li Hongzhi was born in the remote city of Gongzhuling in northeast China’s Jilin Province, some 450 miles from Beijing. The son of two doctors, Li has said he grew up amid poverty. Li lore places his birth date on May 13, 1951, the day and the month coinciding with that of the Buddha. (The government claims he was born July 7, 1952.)

Li’s story, as chronicled in Falun Gong literature, reads like a martial-arts-film pitch. As a teenager, he studied diligently with Buddhist monks and eventually attained “the profound mystic law” from masters in the mountains. But it was at age 8, Li says, that he realized he had powers. He found himself bending metal pipes Uri Geller-ishly, passing through walls, ascending to heaven. In fourth grade, Li writes, he left a book bag in school and, returning to find the building locked, floated through the wall to retrieve it.

In 1960, Li moved to Changchun, the capital of Jilin, where he finished middle school. He went off to work at an army stud farm, then played trumpet in a local police band. In 1982, Li landed a government job: He was a clerk in the security section of Changchun Municipal Cereals and Oils, and he and his wife each earned less than $500 a year. It was in the eighties that he originated a new type of qi gong exercise. Qi gong was having a hypnotic effect on the country’s aging pensioners: China banned it during the 1966-to-1976 Cultural Revolution, but it revived in the eighties when the post-Mao government eased restrictions on religion and encouraged private ownership of small companies. Hundreds of qi gong schools flowered overnight.

In 1992, Li quit his job, moved to Beijing, and devoted himself full time to his new career. Most qi gong masters collect small fees for their workshops; Li undercut his qi gong competition by making practice sessions free. Li was among a handful with grander visions: He borrowed money to get his first book, China Falun Gong, published, in 1993. another book, the hefty Zhuan Falun, was published in January 1994. the book’s release followed a national speaking tour between 1992 and 1994, during which Li addressed health expos and police-academy cadets. Beijing Youth Daily named it a top-ten-bestseller. You could go to Tian Tan Park in Beijing and see several thousand people performing the exercise “Golden Monkey Splitting Its Body,” all to the tape-recorded voice of Master Li.

The Chinese government claims Li has earned $5.4 million, offering documents that show a profit of $10,000 from just one 1994 lecture. (His followers insist they’re fakes.) In 1999, the BBC picked up a report from China’s official Xinhua news agency that stated that the police had shut down sixteen publishing houses, confiscating 3.6 million Falun Gong books, 790,000 practice charts, and 5,000 Falun Gong notebooks. A woman who claimed to have worked for Li as an accountant told the state-run media that Li had an income in 1997 of about $1.2 million.

Li would admit to the Wall Street Journal in 1999 only that he made a “comfortable living.” But there are many who feel Li is helming a titanic moneymaker. The industry norm for authors is 5 to 10 percent royalties, and some of Li’s books have sold 10 million copies worldwide. Its impossible to get hard numbers, because this s a private enterprise that has used several different publishers over the years. There is also the question of revenues from a series of publishing companies Li has owned in Hong Kong and the United States. Beginning in June, his books will be published by the Massachusetts company Fairwinds Press; 30,000 books will be cranked out this summer.

The crackdown on Falun Gong and ensuing worldwide media attention have also minted tens of thousands of new followers – and customers. Falun Gong has the ultimate New Economy business model. A spiritual movement – not a church – it is not registered as a nonprofit, as a church might be. It is not incorporated. And sine it claims to hold no assets and doesn’t raise money for charitable causes, it is not required under government guidelines to register with any state or federal office. There are no officers and no membership dues. Believers tend to pitch in video-editing and desktop-publishing services, money from printing materials, and hotel rooms for the group’s experience-sharing conferences. Since members of the flock spend their own time and money maintaining Web sites, printing flyers, and conducting practice sessions t home, Li’s got a virtually free marketing operation in place.

 

LI’S FOLLOWERS, such as Rachlin and Zhang, say Li believes China has sent assassins to kill him. Neither the New York City Police Department nor the U.S. State Department would comment on these claims or say whether they were helping to protect Li.

But self-imposed exile is clearly making Li’s qi boil over. “All the methods employed by the evil political gang of scoundrels in the Chinese government are the most despicable, the most evil, and unknown to history!” he told a crowd of 100 in May at a surprise appearance at a conference in Ottawa. He painted a picture of is disciples (all others are “ordinary humans” in Li-speak) as warriors and martyrs unmatched in the history of human struggle.

In the past few months, Li has written a series of increasingly strident essays circulated by hand and over the Internet, pressing his followers to fight on, regardless of the danger, and denouncing those who repudiated their beliefs on China’s TV news as “depraved.” But many feel the increasingly hot rhetoric could scald the Chinese faithful.

Margaret Singer, a respected “cult-buster” and the author of 1995’s Cults in Our Midst, says she received 75 phone calls from parents whose offspring have entered Falun Gong and now sound programmed. The families, who have steadfastly refused to talk to the media, feat that their loved ones will be encouraged to go to China and get themselves jailed or killed. Several Falun Gong practitioners I spoke with have been sneaking into the country to protest, only to be jailed and deported several times over.

 

THE WOMAN, a 30-year-old ex-government clerk, insists we meet outside a department store. “It’s safer,” she says. “More people, less obvious.” Never mind that we are right in the heart of Beijing’s embassy district and that Chinese soldiers are arrayed at every gate.

After three days of chasing leads in Beijing, I’d finally found my way to one of China’s secretive Falun Gong pods. Mostly comprising the middle-aged, the groups meet in members’ homes, at night, to exercise, discuss Li’s teachings, and distribute flyers at bus stops and on front stoops. Each follower believes his or her mission is to spread Falun Gong to as many people as possible. They never discuss their work in public – though if asked, they are bound by their philosophy to tell the truth and won’t deny they are Falun Gong followers.

My liaison is wanted by the police for distributing flyers. She has been arrested three times. She is anxious. Over the previous six months, at least two practitioners have reportedly been jailed and charged with the vague crime of leaking state secrets after meeting with foreign journalists.

When she arrives, she is wearing a modest, middle-class outfit: black pants, a fuzzy yellow sweater beneath a short brown jacket, and blue shoes with slim gold buckles. She is pretty, and her short black hair is pulled back in a plain headband. We walk to a concrete bench in Ritan Park, a site where sixteenth-century emperors made animal sacrifices to appease the sun god.

“Every morning, we meet on the street and are given packages of flyers and books to hand out,” says Xiang Wan, her hands hooked nervously beneath her knees. “There used to be a hundred of us doing this work. Now there are only ten whom I know. Many still believe, but they are afraid.”

Xiang (not her real name), is one of Master Li’s foot soldiers. She shares a small three-bedroom house with two other followers. Her room contains a single bed, a small TV, and a nightstand. It is bare save for a shrine to Master Li where she likes to place offerings of apples, oranges, and a slice of cake. Her husband, who owns a small nursery, supports her with an allowance. But he’s furious about her involvement in Falun Gong. So is her mother.

“She says it isn’t worth it to sacrifice so much for a religion,” says Xiang, staring out at the stone lions, lavender bushes, and cypress trees. Far below us, a group is practicing tai chi. Three old men are playing mah-jongg as their caged birds make conversation. “She thinks this kind of sacrifice should be done by more important people, not us regular people.”

But Chinese history is rife with political movements that started out as religious sects peopled by commoners and ended with a toppled emperor. In the 1850s, a schoolteacher claiming to be the younger brother of Christ led and insurrection that battered the Manchu dynasty and culminated in the bloody Taiping Rebellion; 20 million people died. A half-century later, the Boxers, a secret society whose name means “fist of righteous harmony,” murdered thousands of Chinese Christians and foreign missionaries.

“Things like Falun Gong are a classic end-of-the-dynasty phenomenon,” says China scholar Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. “They play a deeply symbolic role, breaking the spell of government by being invisible. What a movement like this means is the end is near.”

Xiang’s story is typical of those recounted by more than two dozen victims of the crackdown. Three years ago, she was fighting constantly with her husband about money. Their sex life had deteriorated, and she was suffering from stomach pains and migraine headaches. She also had a gambling habit. She felt “adrift.” Within weeks of practicing Falun Gong’s slo-mo calisthenics, her ailments vanished and she felt spiritually awakened. Today, when she meditates, she says, she often sees into “other dimensions.”

Xiang’s group of ten friends operate in a sort of blind formation: No one is allowed to know too many people in the organization. Xiang says she has no idea who prints the flyers or burns the CD-ROMs she picks up each day in back alleys, behind busy department stores. “This way, if I get caught, I can’t say where I got them,” she tells me.

One Beijing follower, a 30-year-old engineer who took the name Gary when he lived in the United States, helps to disseminate Li’s essays by email and on CD-ROM. He’s hacked through the firewall to post anti-government diatribes on message boards tied to the country’s major Internet service portal. After twenty minutes, they tend to be yanked by censors.

“This so-called reality we live in, this isn’t the real thing,” says Gary, who is married and has children. “It’s like the movie, The Matrix – mostly an illusion. I don’t really care much if it get into trouble.”

CD-ROMs are the latest of the group’s high-tech grenades. The most recent was created in California and quickly dispatched over the Internet to China. It contains footage of the five purported practitioners who set themselves ablaze in Tiananmen Square on January 23, the eve of the Chinese New Year. The Chinese government confiscated a CNN videotape of the burnings and later broadcast its own surveillance footage on the state-run network. But Falun faithful insist the victims, who included a 12-year-old girl and her 36-year-old mother, were not followers at all but had somehow been set up by the government. The group has dissected the Zapruder-style video frame by frame. The resulting CD-ROM shows that the police, suspiciously had fire extinguishers on hand to douse the victims (even if CNNers say such equipment is standard in police vans).

In one frame, a man is captured emerging from the smoke and running away. Sophie Xiao, 34, a utilities analyst in Hong Kong whose mother has been arrested seven times, has frames of the video blow up on poster board in a Hong Kong ferry terminal where a makeshift tutorial has been set up for the public. She points to the man slipping through the smoke. “Why is this man here?” she asks wit ha conspiratorial smile, dismissing the notion that he may have simple been a police officer. “No one can answer that question.”

 

“MIKE WALLACE  has been calling constantly,” Gail Rachlin tell me giddily one day. “But Master Li is not talking to anyone.” Except Asiaweek magazine, which place him at the top of its list of the 50 most powerful people in Asia, ahead of China’s Preside Jiang Zemin. Li answered a handful of innocuous forwarded questions via e-mail.

The Chinese are now claiming, through their embassy Web site, that Li’s followers have committed heinous acts of mutilation. Once eviscerated himself with scissors to look for the “so-called Wheel of Law” inside his abdomen. Another jumped off a building with his son I his arms. A junior-high-school student supposedly killed his parents with a dagger. A husband “chopped his wife to death with a kitchen knife.”

In the past few months, Li has become more visible – through his wrings and appearances at conference – suggesting he suddenly feels more secure. In nearly every venue, he applauds the courage of those in China who stand up to the government. But in one of his recent essays, posted in mid-June on the group’s Web site, his directives sound downright wacky. Li tells is followers their thoughts can be used to battle China’s police force. “For example,” writes Li. “to freeze those evil scoundrels that persecute disciples, the just need to say freeze or stay there and don’t move, or point to the group of scoundrels, and then they definitely can’t move.”

Tragically, in the two weeks that followed, the group reports ten more of his followers died at the hands of police or in forced labor camps.