Home / Falun Gong / Who is Li Hongzhi

American dream finds Chinese spiritual leader

2007-08-30 Author:By: Craig S. Smith

By Craig S. Smith. Wall Street Journal. (Eastern edition). New York, N.Y. Nov 1, 1999. pg. A.41

Falun Dafa founder Li Hongzhi's wife got her piece of the American Dream in a New Jersey suburb earlier this year, though Mr. Li says it was paid for by a follower as a gift that was later returned.

The imposing 4,600-square-foot manse near Princeton University was purchased in the name of Mr. Li's wife, Li Rui, in May, just three weeks after more than 10,000 of Mr. Li's followers surrounded China's leadership compound to petition for official recognition. That confrontation, which Beijing alleges was organized by Mr. Li, triggered a government campaign to eradicate the movement, also known as Falun Gong. The spiritual regimen combines breathing exercises with elements of Buddhism, Taoism and Chinese mysticism.

The government declared Mr. Li Public Enemy No. 1, issued a warrant for his arrest and asked Interpol for help in returning him to China. On Saturday, the country's legislature passed a law banning groups such as Falun Dafa, which Beijing has officially designated a cult, potentially making its leaders subject to the death penalty. Meanwhile, thousands of Falun Dafa members continue to circulate in the capital, mounting scattered protests.

Mr. Li, who lives in the U.S., said through an intermediary that the New Jersey home was purchased for him without his knowledge by one of his most ardent followers, a lampshade manufacturer named John Sun. And Mr. Sun confirmed that he paid $580,000 for the house out of gratitude for the great health benefit that I have obtained through practicing Falun Gong. He said the purchase was made while Mr. Li was traveling and that he had Mrs. Li sign the paperwork without telling her what it was for.

Nonetheless, the real-estate transaction occurred when Mr. Li was battling an unprecedented national campaign by China to discredit him. While the leader of any group as large as Mr. Li's -- he claims 100 million followers world-wide while China says his following there numbers little more than two million -- would be expected to live well, Mr. Li's claim that he aims to save humanity rather than enrich himself cuts to the core of his belief system, which depends on unquestioning faith in his strange pronouncements. He teaches followers, for example, that practicing Falun Dafa will transform their bodies into high-energy matter at the submolecular level and allow some of them to fly, bodily, to heaven. Asians will fly to one heaven, Caucasians to another.

Both Mr. Li and Mr. Sun said Mr. Li's wife doesn't read or speak English, and she couldn't be reached for comment. The men said Mr. Li refused the gift and has never lived in the house. Mr. Sun said the title was transferred to his name in mid-July, though county records listed Mrs. Li as the owner of the house in August. Mr. Sun said he plans to live in the house, though his wife, reached at the Suns' home in New York City's Staten Island, said she doesn't know of any New Jersey house owned by her husband.

There have been extensive renovations made to the New Jersey house since May. Two satellite television dishes have been installed on the roof and the driveway's macadam has been stamped and painted to look like red paving bricks. Contractors this month put the finishing touches on a $24,000 gunite swimming pool in the backyard. New cars glide in and out of the three-car garage and a teenage girl has been seen playing outside. In August, one of Mr. Li's closest associates was also seen at the home. Neighbors say they know nothing of the people living there. They're the mystery family in this neighborhood, says a housewife who lives nearby.

Mr. Sun has helped Mr. Li before. In February 1998, fellow practitioners say Mr. Sun picked up the $35,000 tab at New York's Jacob Javitz center where Mr. Li's followers held the first U.S. Falun Dafa Convention -- a conference of believers at which Mr. Li's books and video tapes were sold. And Mr. Sun's Staten Island address is the registered address for the Eastern U.S. Buddha's Study (Falun Dafa) Association, a nonprofit organization that followers say isn't active.

China has charged that Mr. Li earned millions of dollars from lecture fees and the sale of his books and videotapes in China. Liu Guirong, who claims to have worked as an accountant for Mr. Li earlier this decade, told China's state media that in 1997 Mr. Li had an income of more than 10 million yuan, or about $1.2 million.

But in interviews earlier this year, Mr. Li said those charges were false. I make a comfortable living off the royalties of my books, he said, but insisted estimates that he has earned hundreds of thousands of dollars are far too high. He also denied receiving any financial support from his followers.

Back in Beijing this weekend, dozens more followers were arrested as the group continued a week-long exercise in civil disobedience. Thousands of practitioners of Falun Dafa have infiltrated the capital despite being told to quit the outlawed group and stay home. The country's police, meanwhile, have grown increasingly violent in their arrests, frustrated by their inability to quash the group.

On Friday, teams of police rounded up scattered groups of Falun Dafa members at Tiananmen Square, twisting the arm of one young man and dragging another by the hair after the men unveiled a petition appealing to Chinese leaders for tolerance. And Sunday, China announced that four key members of the group have been officially arrested and charged with a series of serious crimes under various articles of China's Criminal Law. Among other things, the four, Li Chang, Wang Zhiwen, Ji Liewu and Yao Jie, are charged with organizing the April 25 demonstration. Mr. Ji's wife, Wang Xiaoye, said she hasn't seen her husband since he was taken from his bed by police on July 20.

Mr. Li left China for the U.S. with his wife and teenage daughter in early 1998 after coming under increasing pressure from Beijing because of his growing popularity as a spiritual leader who claimed higher authority than the Communist Party. Mr. Li's teachings promise enlightenment, supernatural powers and salvation from what he sees as a corrupt world. His writings and lectures are laced with such claims as the presence of aliens on Earth or the existence of cities in outer space.

He moved initially to an apartment in New York City's Flushing, Queens, rented for him by a group of followers there. And in June 1998 his wife bought a residence in a quiet Queens neighborhood for $293,500, according to Queens County records. A red Chinese poster signifying good luck is pasted on the door of the blond-brick townhouse. Mr. Li acknowledges that the home is his.

Both Mr. Li and his wife come from poor beginnings -- until Mr. Li left to begin his spiritual teaching in 1992, he and his wife each earned less than $500 a year at a state-owned grain company in northeastern China's Jilin province. By the late 1990s, though, he was drawing huge crowds to his lectures in northern China. Beijing charges that his income rocketed from there; among the documents the government has presented in its efforts to discredit the spiritual leader are handwritten accounts of one 1994 lecture series that list profits of more than $10,000.

Mr. Li and his closest associates say those documents are fabrications and that there was hardly any profit from his China lectures after splitting revenue with the government agency that sponsored them and then paying expenses. And though Beijing alleges that Mr. Li profited even more handsomely off the sale of his books, which followers regard as their bible, he claims most of the books sold in China are pirated editions for which he received no money.

In fact, all of Mr. Li's writings are available for free on the Internet. But few followers go through the trouble of downloading and printing the tomes, followers say. Most purchase Mr. Li's books through his followers, who buy them in bulk from publishers. China banned Mr. Li's writings in the mid-1990s and most of the publishers there have since been shut down.

Outside China, though, followers continue to buy books from Falun Fo Fa Publishing Co., a Hong Kong company set up by Mr. Li. James Pang, who was among Mr. Li's first followers in the U.S. and helped rent the Queens apartment for Mr. Li, describes how he and other followers consolidate orders and make periodic purchases from Falun Fo Fa Publishing, paying with Mr. Pang's personal credit card. When asked how much he pays for each book, Mr. Pang opens a copy of one of Mr. Li's texts and points to the $11.25 listed retail price on the back page. He sells the books to other followers at cost.

The controversy in China will only help Mr. Li financially. Zhang Erping, who acts as one of Mr. Li's chief translators, says there is no shortage of publishers eager to issue Mr. Li's texts. Mr. Li's books are sold out in Japan and other markets around the world, he adds.

Mr. Li has also registered a publishing company in the U.S., Angela Publishing Co., whose address is Mr. Pang and Mr. Zhang's former home. The two men say the publisher isn't operating and so, for the time being, Mr. Li's Falun Fo Fa Publishing has the bulk of the business. Mr. Li declined to comment on the number of books published by the company.

(Wall Street Journal, November 1, 1999)