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Falun Gong is especially worrisome to the government because of its broad appeal. Peasants, city dwellers, students, and elite party members alike have been converted by Master Li's teachings. Many high-ranking military and government officials were forced to publicly denounce their participation in Falun Gong, which is why the movement has been treated as a bigger threat than 1989's Tiananmen Square sit-in. "To party leaders, 1989 was just students, just discontented youth they could put in jail and straighten out," Chen says. "But Falun Gong strikes closer to home. Now it's about people like them in government, their peers, their generation."
Meanwhile, economies throughout Asia have floundered, and China is struggling to keep its own afloat. The social despair resulting from an economic collapse only gives people more reason to forsake the government and put their hopes in a movement like Falun Gong. "Right now, all China wants to do is make sure nothing gets in the way of keeping the economy on track," Chen says. "The government is mindful of history, and is taking Falun Gong very seriously."
When Jenny Lian was granted asylum and released from INS detention with a work permit, she left San Francisco for Los Angeles, where a distant cousin lives. Lian found a job pushing a cart in a dim sum restaurant and moved in with her relative. But she didn't stay long. After finding a Falun Gong club at California Technical Institute that serves as the movement's Southern California base, she quickly made friends, started working in a video rental store, and moved in with another Falun Gong member who lives near Caltech's Pasadena campus.
She devotes much of her time to Falun Gong, and last month helped organize a Falun Gong conference at Caltech to mark the one-year anniversary of Master Li's rare public appearance at the university. Though Master Li didn't visit Caltech this year, the Chinese government was upset by the event. In fact, adamant that Falun Gong activity anywhere poses a threat to China's welfare, the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles asked Caltech to cancel the "illegal" gathering. The school refused, politely reminding the consulate that in the United States, the right to free speech supersedes Chinese law. Caltech even ended up sending police officers to protect the Falun Gong conference from any Beijing-orchestrated disruptions. Rumors spread that Communist Party sympathizers would be dispatched to protest the event and spies from the consulate were expected, too.
Lian wasn't intimidated. She believes Master Li protects her, which is why she has found safe haven in the U.S. to continue her Falun Gong cultivation. Her mood was happy and carefree at the conference. She joked with her friends, recounting a story she had just read in one of Master Li's books:
A woman who practices Falun Gong in China was in a serious car accident and the doctor said she would never walk again. But the next day, the doctor found the woman gone from her bed. "Impossible!" the doctor said. So the doctor went to the woman's house to investigate. He asked the son if his mother could walk. "No," the son replied. "Ha! I told you she would never walk!" the doctor exclaimed. "That's right," the son said. "She doesn't walk anymore, because she's running all the time -- in her high heel shoes!"
Everyone laughed loudly. But Lian's joke illustrated Falun Gong's deeply held beliefs. "Master Li tells this story to show how most people won't understand the miracle, because it is difficult to break most people's conventional thinking," Lian says.
Li teaches that his followers will avoid disease and misfortune through earnest self-cultivation. Falun Gong is aimed at stripping away human attachments like greed and sentiment in order to purify the body for its ultimate purpose of traveling back to its true home in a distant universe. In the process, people at advanced levels of cultivation will gain supernatural abilities such as levitation and immunity to sickness. But if someone only practices Falun Gong to acquire those powers, that is considered an attachment, and his or her efforts will certainly fail.
The focus on moral betterment and the letting go of attachments -- cultivating one's xin-xing -- is key to Falun Gong's success, Lian explains. Otherwise, the program would be no different than any other version of qigong exercise that promises healing powers. Ordinary qigong cannot deliver true results because it focuses on the body while ignoring the mind and spirit. Likewise, only practicing Falun Gong's arm and body movements is not enough. Attention to xin-xing and the improvement of one's virtue is essential.
"Master Li helps us remove karma we created in our past life, and remove the disease we have, and the dirty thoughts in our mind, to get our soul purified," Lian says. "Master Li came to our world to let people know what the requirements of the universe are, and he is protecting us on our way back to where we came from. We are so thankful to him."
In Lian's home, pictures of Master Li are everywhere. The middle-aged man's pudgy, baby-faced image hangs on every wall. In Lian's bedroom, a shrine to the master sits on her dresser. In fact, there is little décor other than Falun Gong paraphernalia. There is, however, one small photo of Lian's daughter that peeks out from a bookshelf. Ella has turned 11 since her mother has been away.