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Going, Going, Gong: San Jose resident Fu-Cheng Fu's wife, Meirong Zhang, was taken into custody by Chinese police while she was visiting her home province in China last year. A practitioner of the religion Falun Gong, she has been imprisoned for more than a year.

Falun Idols

What's wrong with believing in the healing power of meditation, herbal medicine and right living? Well, if you live in modern-day China and try to talk about it publicly, everything.

By Najeeb Hasan

IN APPEARANCE, Fu-Cheng Fu carries a gentle presence. He has a receding hairline and a full, chubby face, and he clasps his hands together primly when he speaks. He performs a polite half-bow during greetings. Because he's been in the United States less than a year, he understands only Mandarin.

He brings a personality--a slowness, a politeness, a serenity--that would be almost forgettable in the fast-paced lifestyle of Northern California. Not that Fu-Cheng would mind a hurried world passing him by one bit under normal circumstances.

But for Fu-Cheng, these aren't normal circumstances.

He never thought it would come to this: marooned in San Jose, an exile from his own country; worse yet, Meirong Zhang, his wife of 30 years, trapped in China, imprisoned in Pi County since February of last year, unable to contact him. In Pi County, after all, he was an influential man. A trained engineer who ran a small but successful manufacturing company, he had been able to use his network of friends and family to solve most of his problems. And anyway, he had thought, the spiritual path he and wife chose to follow would never be one of his problems.

Nevertheless, today, Meirong Zhang represents one statistic among many that have been well documented by both Eastern and Western media in recent years: the seemingly paranoid persecution of Falun Gong practitioners in mainland China. Falun Gong is a religion using both Buddhist and New age tenets that emphasizes the harnessing of divine power through herbs and meditation. And Fu-Cheng himself represents a statistic that's perhaps not so well documented: a rapidly growing legion of Falun Gong practitioners and their supporters combining personal horror stories with Western political savvy to attain relief for those still being persecuted in China. It's an activist strategy that works from the outside in: political pressure in Western countries can help family members and loved ones in China, they are learning.

Losing Their Religion

For Fu-Cheng, now 62, reaching adulthood in China before the Cultural Revolution was a spiritually stark experience. When asked, he recalls the traces of Buddhism during his childhood years; his grandfather, in fact, was a Buddhist committee member in Chengdu City, the capital of Sichuan province. But after he turned about 10, after the Communist government surfaced in China during the middle of the century, Fu-Cheng remembers virtually nothing about faith.

"From 1950 to 1976, it's all blank," he says in Mandarin. "During those years, I don't have any faith. It's not that the Communist Party did not allow religion, but they did not allow people to seek God."

His parents, he says, were not strong enough to hold onto their faith, either publicly or in the privacy of their home. "The whole society was moving that way," he explains. "My father lost his job. He had to do blue-collar work, heavy labor. So, suddenly, there was a lot of psychological pressure, economic pressure. Because of the pressure, he was forced to lose his religion. The society was moving that way under the Communist government."

Starting In 1976, when history books tell us China's Cultural Revolution petered out, Fu-Cheng says that for the next 20 years he began to read books about religion that could be found only with great difficulty before, books that allowed him to explore his Buddhist roots, some Taoism and some Christianity.

"In that search," he says, "I realized that Communism was totally cheating its own people." At the end of his search, his wife, who had retired from a career as a family physician, began practicing Falun Gong. She had not been well, but a year after she began the meditation exercises, Fu-Chung says he witnessed his wife's health dramatically improve. As a result, he took up Falun Gong himself in 1998.

A year later, as the Chinese government began its crackdown on Falun Gong practitioners, the couple's faith turned more political. Meirong Zhang became especially involved. In 1999, she traveled with fellow practitioners (but without Fu-Cheng) to Beijing to protest Falun Gong persecution at Tiananmen Square. There, she had the distinction of becoming the first Falun Gong practitioner who hailed from Pi County arrested by the police. Fu-Cheng (again, an influential man in Pi County) was able to secure her release two weeks later through his connections in the county.

But Meirong was arrested again the next year. Her first arrest had worried Fu-Cheng enough that he insisted the two leave their home in Pi County for a period of time. They stayed with friends and family in other parts of the country. In the latter part of 2000, though, they thought things had settled down enough to return, and in May of 2001, Meirong (still the activist) was arrested while passing out leaflets condemning the persecution of Falun Gong followers.

She was sentenced, without trial, to a year in the Nan-Mu-Si labor camp, but by the end of September, Fu-Cheng was again able to use his connections--and some of his own money--to obtain the release of his wife. "People still have some kind heart," he says about her jailers. "They know what's going on."

Because, he claims, his wife was mistreated at the labor camp, Fu-Cheng requested that she be allowed to stay at home after her second release. As much as he could, he would stay with her and keep an eye on her. Often, he says, the police would park nearby his house, and from time to time officeds would pay visits and ask questions. And just days before the Chinese New Year, while Meirong was in the kitchen cooking dinner, police officers entered Fu-Cheng's home and arrested his wife. Since then, Feb. 2 of last year, Fu-Cheng hasn't seen her.

He was forced to flee the country when police officers came again and confiscated not only his wife's Falun Gong materials (most of which he had alertly hidden after her first arrest) but also his own (which he had failed to hide).

"I was an influential man in Pi County," Fu-Cheng says. "I was a decent person in the community. I had many titles, but I could not even protect my own wife."

New Age Enlightenment

Falun Gong surfaced in China during the early 1990s, when the movement's founder, Li Hongzhi, began traveling from city to city giving public discourses on the core values of the movement. In his book, Li describes Falun Gong as an advanced method of the Buddha school of cultivation.

By cultivating their mind and bodies through meditation exercises and adherence to the core values, Falun Gong practitioners believe they can harness divine energy that gives them serenity and superhuman capabilities, such as the opening of a deeper, more perceptive third eye that allows humans to see into various dimensions of time and space. For some, practitioners say, clairvoyance is achieved.

Critics of the movement have pointed to Falun Gong's emphasis on traditional herbal medicine as opposed to modern medicine, though Li's assertion is scarcely a threat to modern medicine. He maintains that traditional medicinal practice should never be institutionalized. "If applied [to curing diseases] on a large scale, it would interfere with the conditions of ordinary human society, which is not allowed," he writes.

By Western standards, the tenets of Falun Gong are no more unconventional than those many religions have practiced freely, such as Rosicrucianism, Christian Science and a host of so-called New Age religions.

Boldly advertising the potential to reach spiritual states reserved in most other traditions only for gnostics and mystics, Falun Gong spread rapidly through China, its membership quickly exceeding even that of the Communist Party. Today, the movement boasts some 70 to 100 million members; by comparison, the Communist Party's official membership is about 40 million.

Three years ago, the Chinese government banned the movement and intensified a persecution campaign against members of Falun Gong that his been decried by both Western media and human rights organizations, including Amnesty International. Details about the persecution by Chinese authorities include reports of detention, arrest, brainwashing, forced labor, torture and, in some cases, even death.

Western Activism

Currently, in San Jose alone, there are at least four other practitioners who have relatives imprisoned in China, one of them for the last two years. Additionally, more than 20 Bay Area practitioners have been detained and released in China at one time or another.

San Jose resident Stephanie Li's 47-year-old sister, Jianhua Lu, has been in the Tieling City Detention Center for the last six months. "The reason she went back to China," Stephanie says, "was to try to clear the truth. She wanted to go back to clarify the truth. They took her passport away and downloaded her Falun Gong materials from her notebook computer. Then, they arrested her."

Jianhua was released soon after the Friends of Falun Gong, an activist group in the United States, presented her case to the San Jose City Council and other local city councils. Because her passport was taken away, she couldn't return to the United States, and was arrested again and remains in China.

San Jose City Councilmember Chuck Reed has been working with the Falun Gong since the persecution of its practitioners began.

"I first got involved after I was elected," says Reed, who wrote letters to the American ambassador in China. "Some of them were my constituents, and they contacted me. I think [I helped]; they told me that I did."

Reed says that the more detailed the information he can pass along to the U.S. embassy in China, the easier the release process is. "If they don't have good information, the Chinese government says, 'We don't know what you're talking about.'"

Already, in California, the movement has secured governmental recognition of Falun Gong from more than 50 cities. Followers lobby senators and congressional representatives on both state and national levels. They successfully ask county governments to pass resolutions to support them. They honor politicians who support their cause with official letters of commendation. They pass out countless leaflets. They hold touring press conferences.

Their most visible current case is that of Charles Li, an American doctor from Menlo Park, who has been detained in China since Jan. 22 and is accused of sabotaging China's state-run television. After a string of press conferences in the Bay Area, including a staged-for-the-press event where Li's fiancee read a letter demanding his immediate release on the steps of the Chinese consulate in San Francisco, the activists took his case national and held a rally in Washington, D.C., on March 7.

"They're getting good at it," observes Reed, who says he hasn't witnessed such political organization from other persecuted groups. "They've been practicing. The more you do it, the better you get. They're the best organized. They've got the website; They've got the book; They've got the publications. Right now, I'm looking at an appreciation certificate they sent me."

Zhihua Hu, who came to California as a doctoral student in computer science, had two brothers in the Chinese armed forces. Both practiced Falun Gong; both are now detained. As he tells their stories, his friend Nan Su interjects.

"In Chinese there is a proverb about not making everyone your enemy," says Nan, who was detained himself in 1997. "'Kill the chicken and threaten the monkey.' Take one target and use it as an example to threaten everybody else. The reason they picked Falun Gong as a target is that they grew so fast."

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From the March 13-19, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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