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Chen is dubious of Falun Gong's avowed lack of organization and financial obligation to members. "Somehow Master Li managed to get to the U.S. and live here," she says. "The hardest part is following the money because he profits in ways other than monetary donations. You can practice Falun Gong for free, but once you are hooked, you incur a lot of expenses donating time, labor, and material resources to expand the group." A lot of Master Li's earnings are in social capital, Chen says. With Web sites to maintain, books to publish, and numerous Falun Gong conferences to set up around the world, there seems to be a network of free goods and services provided by members.
In recent months, Singer says she has gotten calls from 45 Bay Area families concerned about relatives living in the U.S. who have converted to Falun Gong. "They are very worried, because it is not as if their mother or brother or daughter is only doing simple exercises in the park," Singer says. "There is a feeling of detachment, that attention to family has shifted to Falun Gong and Master Li. And I'm talking about Asian families, which normally keep very close and intense ties. I've listened to sisters weeping over their lost siblings."
The scenes at Falun Gong conferences at which converts are invited onstage to talk about how Master Li's teachings have changed their lives make Singer sigh. One after another, for hours on end, converts take turns telling their personal stories of spiritual renewal and physical healing. "I can feel the little faluns coursing through my body, cleansing me," 26-year-old Gina Sanchez told the crowd of mostly Chinese immigrants at the Caltech conference last month. "My thoughts and heart are being watched, and someone is guiding me. I am grateful Master Li is so merciful to do that for me. It is something I wanted my whole life."
Sanchez and others at Caltech, like 28-year-old Ed Aikens, represent a growing number of non-Chinese converts who have discovered Falun Gong and read the English-language versions of Master Li's books. "I know what Master Li talks about is true. It doesn't matter if others believe it, because I've seen it," Aikens said, as a translator repeated his words in Chinese for the audience. "I don't question we have these powers locked away in our brains. We just have to deprogram ourselves to unlock them."
The INS has had a difficult time classifying Falun Gong, especially when members deny the group is political or even a religion. But since China has clearly targeted and persecuted the group, the INS allows Falun Gong followers to file for asylum under three categories: religion, political opinion, and social group. "Blanket asylum for any Falun Gong member is not done," says INS spokesman Bill Strassberger. "They have to demonstrate persecution, or a well-founded fear, on an individual basis."
Getting asylum isn't easy, for any reason. Of more than 4,000 new Chinese applications filed last year, the INS approved fewer than 1,000. The INS does not keep a specific breakdown of Falun Gong cases, nor does the INS concern itself with what Falun Gong believes. "It doesn't matter so much whether it's a cult or not," Strassberger says. "We grant asylum based on how much a member of a particular group is being persecuted, without passing judgment on the group."
Chung Phang, the San Francisco lawyer who's won asylum for Lian and six other Falun Gong members, says he has mixed feelings about the group. He finds Falun Gong's basic principles of truth, compassion, and tolerance very noble. He also does not dismiss the Eastern idea that a connection between mind and body can relate to health, but says he would not practice Falun Gong cultivation himself.
"The reverence for Master Li could lend some credence to the allegation that Falun Gong is a cult," Phang says. "They revere him, without a doubt, but I don't think they do so uncritically. Depending on one's level of education and sophistication, I think people can and do differentiate between components of what Master Li teaches -- especially when he talks about extraterrestrial beings."
Phang says he knows Falun Gong members who are Silicon Valley software engineers, university professors, research scientists, and Ph.D. candidates. "I'm as suspicious of a cult as anyone," Phang says. "But these are people I respect. They are very intelligent, and hardly fools."
Indeed, the Falun Gong conference at Caltech was attended by many people who hold advanced degrees. Lili Feng, a biologist at Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, spoke about her devotion to Falun Gong. Feng made international news last December when she was arrested by the Chinese government during a trip home. A permanent U.S. resident, but not yet a citizen, Feng had no protection in China. She was jailed for 13 days and forced to make hairbrushes, before Scripps scientists and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein helped orchestrate her release.
At last month's conference, Feng did not talk about her ordeal, but excitedly told the crowd about her plans to scientifically prove Master Li's theory that Falun Gong followers can see through a third eye that protects them. Feng says the brain's mysterious pineal gland serves as this celestial eye, and its production of the hormone melatonin is key. "I want to compare the levels of melatonin in practitioners and regular people," she says. "If the melatonin is more potent in us, and our pineal glands are more active, it might explain why we have better health and how Falun Gong can cure so many diseases."