Meditating on peaceful resolution

Evening News (Scotland), Aug. 20, 2002
http://news.scotsman.com/features.cfm?id=920492002

The Chinese government brands it a dangerous cult, while the followers of Falun Gong claim it’s a peaceful organisation. But why is it becoming so prominent in Edinburgh, asks Liam Rudden?

For two hours every morning Christina Jing Ha sits in the lotus position outside the Chinese Consulate in Edinburgh and meditates.

As she does so, passers-by throw her curious glances. Not just because she appears to be doing yoga in the street, but also because of her bright yellow top – emblazoned with the words Falun Gong in both English and Chinese – and the banner that she, and other members of her group, carry to highlight their protest.

For more than a year now the Chinese authorities have refused to renew Christina’s passport and that decision she believes is a direct result of her refusal to renounce her membership of Falun Gong, a quasi-religious group banned by the Chinese government since 1999.

Christina, who has lived in Edinburgh for six years and has taught the principles of Falun Gong for four, explains: “Last year, when my Chinese passport expired I went to the Chinese Consulate to have it renewed, but when I handed it in they wouldn’t return it to me, or give me any reason why they were holding it. Later they called me and said: ‘We will consider renewing your passport if you relinquish your Falun Gong classes’.”

It was a request the 35-year-old immediately refused, deciding instead to mount the daily protest until her passport was returned. That peaceful protest has now lasted more than a year.

Still determined to see justice done, she recalls: “In the beginning the staff in the Consulate laughed at me. Then they tried to ignore me. Later, when they found out that the media were interested in my case they were angry and called the police complaining that I was protesting too loudly. The police came, checked with the neighbours, who said they had heard nothing, and left me there.”

She continues: “Last week I went back and asked to renew my passport again. This time I also accused them of persecuting me. A new member of staff I had not seen before spoke to me. He treated me very politely, but I felt uncomfortable because it was not natural. He accepted the form I had filled in, returned my invalid passport and told me to wait at home saying: ‘Maybe we will call you.’ But he didn’t give me an exact answer.”

However, the renewal of her passport is now only one of two reasons Christine continues her protest. She also wants to highlight the fact that since the Falun Gong organisation was outlawed in China three years ago, 17,000 people have allegedly been tortured to death for their beliefs. She also claims a further 1000 have been abused in mental hospitals while another 25,000 have been sent to labour camps without trial.

She states: “I want to try my best to help other practitioners of Falun Gong in China because they are being persecuted for their beliefs.”

Recently, members of Falun Gong – which is described by followers as an ancient practice for improving body mind and spirit but by the Chinese government as a dangerous heretical cult – have been raising public awareness of their cause in Edinburgh. Earlier this month they brought a dash of oriental colour to the Festival Cavalcade, and a week later entertained thousands of people who thronged to the Meadows on Fringe Sunday.

It’s a rising profile that has not been welcomed by the Chinese Consul General in Edinburgh, Weng Weiyang. He aired his displeasure at the group’s involvement in both events by writing to the Festival Fringe Society, and the Festival Cavalcade producer and compares Falun Gong with the Aum Shinriky sect which masterminded the 1995 Tokyo Subway nerve gas attack which killed 12 people. So, should we be worried by the apparent growth of Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, in the city? And what exactly is the organisation which claims to have a membership of 70 million in China and 30 million in 40 other countries, mostly in the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe?

Christina insists: “Falun Gong is not a religion. It is a practice that consists of five easy to learn meditative exercises that are used to improve body, mind and spirit. There is no formality, no personal worship, and no donation. Falun Gong and Falun Dafa are beliefs for life that we cultivate ourselves according to the law of the universe.”

Despite this denial of any religious significance, Falun Gong borrows heavily from Buddhist and Taoist teachings and styles itself as a “school of Qigong” (pronounced chee-gong), a traditional Chinese practice, similar to Tai Chi, that uses meditation and martial arts exercises to channel unseen forces and improve health. What makes it different to other Qigongs is its emphasis on moral character.

And as it is led by a charismatic leader Li Hongzhi, who is based in the US and who fosters an ‘us versus them’ mentality, many have labelled it a cult. But Christina says there is no pressure on people to join, those who do are not required to disown their families, and there are no calls to donate large sums of money to the cause.

Christina continues: “I have provided free Falun Gong classes in Edinburgh for four years and there is no hidden agenda. The exercises I teach are for anyone who is interested in learning to meditate. Everyone is welcome to come along and they can stop at any time.”

Pointing out that her classes attract more Westerners than Chinese, she says: “Falun Gong was introduced to the public in 1992 by martial arts expert Master Li Hongzhi. It was banned because it had more members than the Communist party and the government feared the size of the movement.

“At the beginning they thought it would be easy to ban Falun Gong. They have now discovered it is not, so they use beatings and torture instead. China is different from European countries. In China the government control everything – the media, the newspapers, and sometimes they want to control the minds of the people too. That is why they are worried by the principles of Falun Gong.”

Those main principles she says are truth, compassion and tolerance. However, the Chinese authorities accuse practitioners of dishonesty, and of waging a propaganda war against the government.

Although repeated calls to the Chinese Embassy in London, and the Chinese Consulate in Edinburgh, met with no official response, a statement posted on the Chinese Embassy website reads: “The Falun Gong is masterful in manipulating the instincts of ordinary people. By fabricating the ‘terrifying’ stories, the Falun Gong organisation has always sought to cheat the public.

“Iron facts have proved that Falun Gong is an evil cult in nature: anti-humanity, anti-society and anti-science. Li Hongzhi, the leader of Falun Gong cult, fabricated a series of heresies to deify himself and in an attempt to exercise spiritual control on his followers preached the approach of ‘doomsday’ and ‘ascending to Heaven after attaining all-round fulfilment,’ resulting in the deaths of over 1650 Falun Gong practitioners.” These “iron facts” include reports of mass suicide attempts by Falun Gong members, including one last year when five followers deliberately set themselves alight in Tiananmen Square.

Like many practitioners however, Christina believes these reported suicide attempts are orchestrated by the Chinese Government to discredit the Falun Gong movement.

Again, further calls to the Chinese Embassy to elaborate remained unanswered, but perhaps an insight into its possible response can again be gleaned from its website which declares: “The general policy of the Chinese government to the Falun Gong practitioners is to unite, educate and rehabilitate the majority of those who have been deceived into practising Falun Gong. It does not discriminate against ordinary practitioners who were deceived by Falun Gong cult.”

As the propaganda war between the two sides continues, Christina vows: “I protested in front of the Vice President of China when he visited Edinburgh and I could see on his face that he was angry, but I will not give up my protest until my passport is returned and the authorities stop persecuting practitioners of Falun Gong in China.”

History of Falun Gong

Falun Gong was founded by Li Hongzhi in 1992. He is a former government grain clerk now living in the United States. He taught it for two years in China before moving to the US.

The state-owned Xinhua News Agency claims there are many cases of people committing suicide, having psychiatric illnesses, or refusing to see doctors because they believed that Falun Gong can heal serious illness.

The government claims more than 1600 followers have died because Falun Gong encouraged them to eschew modern medical care and deluded them into suicide.

Falun Gong protesters in Hong Kong claim many practitioners in mainland China have died in custody, and on April 25, 1999, 10,000 members besieged the government compound in Zhongnanhai, Beijing. It was the largest mass gathering in the capital for a decade. The incident led to a large-scale crackdown on the group.

The group was outlawed in China on July 22, 1999. The Chinese government accused it of “spreading fallacies, hoodwinking people, inciting and creating disturbances and jeopardising social stability.”

Chinese authorities issued an arrest warrant for founder Li Hongzhi. The Ministry of Public Security said he “spread superstition and malicious fallacies to deceive people, resulting in the deaths of many practitioners”.

In 2000 five followers deliberately set themselves on fire to protest against the government’s stance on Falun Gong. Many people in China are believed to have turned from the sect as a result of the self-immolations, and Li Hongzhi’s claims that those who died were Communists and not Falun Gong members.

In September last year Chinese police admitted two members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement had died in custody.

More recently, the group has taken to interrupting television broadcasts and beaming their own message into the homes of Chinese viewers.

The Chinese government has condemned Falung Gong. In January, three practitioners were sentenced to six years in prison and 20 were arrested in Shandong.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday August 21, 2002.
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