Spiritual CULTivation

In China, Falun Gong practitioners are beaten and persecuted, so the U.S. is granting them asylum. But is this movement as harmless as it seems?

Meeting Jenny Lian for the first time, Chung Phang was struck by her warm smile and gentle demeanor. The attorney wondered what had compelled his client to flee her home in China, leaving her parents, husband, and 10-year-old daughter behind. Perhaps she was a political dissident -- or maybe she'd been forced to have an abortion. As one of San Francisco's top lawyers specializing in Chinese asylum, Phang had successfully used China's one-child rule in a number of cases involving women before. If he could find a good reason, he'd probably be able to secure Lian's stay in the United States.

But all the 37-year-old mother would talk about were the meditation exercises she had done every morning in her neighborhood park in China, and continued to do in the Oakland jail cell in which the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service had detained her. Lian also spoke of her spiritual master, a man named Li Hongzhi, who had taught her how to properly cultivate her mind and body so she would someday be able to journey far into outer space and live in a higher world. She told Phang the Chinese government disliked Li and what he taught, which was why he'd been forced to come to the U.S. -- and why she must, too. She wanted to be closer to him. It was her destiny.

Phang was perplexed. He had never heard anything so fantastical. He took another look at the papers filled out by the immigration officer who first encountered Lian at San Francisco International Airport when she got off a Northwest Airlines flight from Beijing and petitioned for asylum. "Member of Fa Lung Kung," the form read.

Granted Refuge in the U.S.: Jenny Lian.
Wild Don Lewis
Granted Refuge in the U.S.: Jenny Lian.

"My first reaction was, 'What the hell is that?'" says Phang, who's handled hundreds of Chinese asylum cases over the past decade. "I figured this lady was cooking up a story."

Relying on Lian's broken English, the INS interviewer had phonetically written down Lian's mysterious affiliation. He was probably just as confused by Lian's claim as Phang was. Last June, hardly anyone had heard of Falun Gong.

But during the months in which Lian waited for her asylum hearing, China experienced its biggest government crackdown since the Tiananmen Square demonstrations against Communist Party corruption were squelched in 1989. There were mass arrests of Falun Gong followers who continued to practice their exercises in the parks. Resisters lost their jobs, were sent to labor camps for re-education, or were given long prison terms. Heavy media attention was given to the human rights abuses, including beatings and some deaths. The U.S. government denounced China's refusal to allow its citizens free choice in spiritual pursuits. "It was as if [Lian]'s words were prophetic," Phang says. "She said the government would be closing in on Falun Gong, and sure enough, trouble came in a big way."

But Lian was safe. On Nov. 3 last year, U.S. Immigration Judge Marilyn Teeter approved Lian's asylum request, making her one of the first Falun Gong members to be given refuge in the United States. Days after Lian won her case, Beijing's government-controlled newspaper People's Daily demanded the U.S. "correct this erroneous act" and respect China's "principled stand in handling the Falun Gong problem." The same issue carried the front-page headline: "Totally Expunge Evil, Pursue it to the End." Much to the chagrin of the Chinese government, Phang has since won asylum for six more Falun Gong followers.

To what, though, is the U.S. giving sanctuary? The Chinese government has tried to convince the world that Falun Gong is evil, that it is a dangerous, mind-altering cult masquerading as a popular exercise regimen. It argues it's addressing a public health threat, since Falun Gong's adherents shun medical treatment and the discipline's trancelike meditations can induce psychotic behavior. The government also says members detach from their families and society in order to devote their lives to the bizarre teachings of Falun Gong's founder and leader -- a man who left China and now lives comfortably in New York.

Most of the world has chosen to ignore China's latest propaganda effort, for good historical reasons. But as Falun Gong gains converts in the West, some anthropology, religion, and cult experts are taking a closer look at the allegations.

Whether it is a cult or not, Falun Gong has become China's greatest spiritual movement in a century. It is wildly popular, attracting converts by the millions. Before the crackdown began last summer, polls showed more people had joined Falun Gong than belonged to the entire Communist Party. And that's what has alarmed the Chinese government. A mass spiritual and social movement -- a revolution, really -- could threaten its control. After all, it's happened in China before.

But how menacing can Falun Gong possibly be, when its disciples are content to spend their mornings practicing tai chi- like moves and contemplating the peace- ful mantra "Truth, Compassion, and Tolerance"? Observers are baffled that the Chinese government is so obsessed with an exercise routine when it has much more important matters to worry about -- like its faltering economy. Everyone, including the New York Times, is left asking the obvious question: "Has it come to this: that the Chinese Communist Party is terrified of retirees in tennis shoes who follow a spiritual leader in Queens?"

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