NorthJersey.com, Jan. 21, 2003
By CATHERINE HOLAHAN
The cold wind whips off the Hudson River, battering the people keeping silent vigil on the sidewalk in full view of the Chinese Consulate.
The hooded jackets they wear to guard against the wind are their only armor. Their only weapons are their slow-moving hand gestures and the occasional bright yellow banner reading in Mandarin and English: “China stop killing Falun Gong.”
By ferry, by bus, by car, and by foot, they arrive at the corner of 42nd Street and 12th Avenue in New York to join the daily fight to end what they maintain is a three-year campaign by the Chinese government to torture, murder, and vilify the millions who share their beliefs.
Nicholas Loh usually comes from his Teaneck home each Saturday to silently demand the Chinese government end arrests and beatings of fellow Falun Gong practitioners.
During daylight hours there are almost always a few protesters, mostly women of Chinese heritage. But last week – after reports by the Falun Dafa Information Center that 22 sect members have been killed by Chinese police since November – the crowd remained at about 40 for several nights, as new protesters relieved those who left the 26-degree weather. Loh came three nights.
“I have a family, and when I look at this – a 27-year-old woman and baby have been tortured to death -my heart is with them,” said Loh, displaying a booklet by the Falun Dafa Information Network detailing abuses against sect members in China.
Pointing to a picture of a man being held to the ground in China’s Tiananmen Square, his head underneath a policeman’s boot, Loh explained why he drove to the corner and braved the cold, sitting on a mat without shoes. He told of a New York woman who claims her mother has been arrested in China for practicing meditation exercises in a park.
“She’s so strong. What would happen if I lived in China? I have two kids, and would I go into it?” said Loh, unable to answer his own question.
Those who gather in New York believe they are in a struggle to protect freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. But they shy away from words like “battle” or even “protest,” calling their silent actions an “appeal” to the communist regime.
A Singapore native who has lived in Teaneck for 24 years, Loh became a Falun Gong practitioner four years ago after seeing other sect members meditating in Leonia’s Overpeck Park.
To hear Loh and other practitioners explain it, Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, is a spiritual movement based on traditional Chinese “qigong” meditation exercises, which focus on harnessing inner energy.
Started in 1992 by Chinese lecturer Li Hongzhi, in part as a response to a lack of medical care in China, the movement focuses on perfecting individual moral character by reflecting on truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance.
Practitioners believe Falun Gong reduces stress and improves general well-being.
When practicing outside the consulate, they sit cross-legged for hours, adjusting the positions of their arms every few minutes. In one position, they hold their arms up, and palms open. Then, sometimes at the prompting of a bell sound on a tape, they adjust their arms so that both hands rest in the lap. Periodically, they rise in unison, stretching their arms before resuming the cross-legged position.
A retiree who worked for decades with computers, Loh said the meditation exercises helped him deal with work-related stress and improved his relationship with his children. He now teaches free Falun Gong classes at senior centers in Westwood and Paramus.
The Chinese government’s characterization of the movement is very different. In official releases, Chinese officials have called the sect an “evil cult.” The Chinese consulate’s Web site calls the founder “sinister” and the practice “dangerous.” Attempts to reach the consulate by telephone were unsuccessful.
The government says the sect causes thousands of preventable deaths each year by encouraging practitioners to meditate rather than seek necessary medical care. Chinese officials also say it breeds a deadly fanaticism which has resulted in members lighting themselves on fire to protest government policies.
In June 1999, the Chinese government outlawed Falun Gong and exiled Li Hongzhi, who now lives in the United States.
Falun Gong organizations say the government has detained 100,000 practitioners and sentenced more than 20,000 to work in labor camps. They claim members are tortured and executed in the camps.
Though it acknowledges arresting practitioners and sending thousands for counseling to break ties with the sect, the government says police brutality is an exception and is not tolerated.
Falun Gong members say their numbers have grown to more than 70 million in China, with millions more in Europe and the United States.
The exercises are also becoming more popular among non-Chinese.
Alan Adler, a Falun Gong practitioner from Tenafly, also practices in front of the consulate each week. A longtime Tai Chi student, Adler began practicing two years ago after his Tai Chi teacher told him about free Falun Gong meditation classes offered in Fort Lee.
“We are regular people with regular jobs and regular families,” said Adler, a principal of a manufacturing company that deals in silk imports from China. “The only thing [Falun Gong] does is teach how to upgrade the moral fiber of society, one by one.”
Adler, who travels to New York by ferry, hopes to draw attention to the treatment of Falun Gong practitioners in China.
“These are not strapping young men that are going to jail,” Adler said. “They are the country’s mothers, old ladies. That’s a sorry state. … What is next? Gas chambers?”
Erin Elliott,a 20-year-old college student from Franklin Lakes who has practiced Falun Gong exercises for two years, sat in front of the Chinese Consulate last Tuesday in the belief that the silent vigil of roughly 40 practitioners could have the same effect as the sit-ins and peaceful protests of the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr.
“There are millions of people who are suffering,” said Elliott, her nose red and wet from the below-freezing temperature. “It is very special that in the United States we have this freedom, and we hope that one day people in China will have the same freedom.”